Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Am That I Am


And am I not like smoke?

Turning ever toward the door
in steaming swells I soar

and twist from flimsy sticks
stacked on ash like the past

present and forgotten, soon
to be disposed of because

I have already escaped
this hateful fate, but

from above I smell my burial
waft and wane, aswim in lingering love

for the ground I now surround.

And too the flame?

As flashes lashed to name and form

Atman is already born



ever heeding:
what it is that keeps us warm.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


A sampling.

Final Relaxation

Today I crawled naked through a cave.
I definitely remember dressing my self for sunrise, but then I was resting
flat on my back with arms and legs splayed like a corpse, and was suddenly alone
when the ground began to sway and jiggle as if mixing paint in my brain.
Imperceptibly, the Earth made drastic shifts east and west while also up and down.
The tender dirt wriggled around me, snuggled up my shoulders and over
my stiffening hips in a magical collapsing that consumed me whole in a moment.

And like I said, I found myself naked in a cave.
It seemed my knees should bleed, but against my subtle skin
the friction force of the ancient funk I found growing on the stones below
was akin to a gentle cleansing. Like a fresh sponge, the shallow weight of the
cave walls grated dead cells from my newest form, as I wormed my way past a grave.
I found a headlamp in my frontal lobe, and its low translucent glow flowed
to the fringe of my limbs, illuminating too many paths from which to choose.

Old water wandered unknowingly up my nose, only to be grabbed and dragged
down to get lost in my lungs. The rank air carried scents
of soggy cinnamon, thick with the delicious spice of underground decay;
smells that inspired kind and simple sentiments, for all I had abandoned
above. From this distance it was effortless to love existence as it had been,
and probably still was for some. While wistfully floating in untold time, I felt I had
missed some opportune sign, and so needed to climb back, somehow up toward my mind.

However, I was left entirely bereft of spatial orientation;
up was already abstracted, and
if down could even be found it might be quite far from the original ground. I felt a stab
of panic tickle my temple. This fear immediately manifested as shadows dancing in a
dull neon disco. Leaping, tree-frog green flipped into fleeting beet red and met with an
elderly dash of disappearing blue, all sliced by a bolt of heavy yellow honeycomb goo.
The murky kaleidoscope melted like a smoldering Dali clock in-formed by Play-doh
distorted and forced to appear as people congealed or maybe just your average apparition.

The previously silent colors were suddenly infested with echoes of ephemeral talk.
I watched as strange conversations unfolded before me: a mother told the asking hand of
her toddler about how "The blind dog looks out the window, and barks"; while a young
girl in funereal garb stood behind an inaudible orator, claiming "Kamikaze house flies
plunder her skull for the rot they already ate"; and a healthy gentleman stumbled through
steel streets dragging magnetic legs until a mustachioed Gestapo sentry informed him that
"he had not yet been activated" ...and Lord only knows what all that meant for me.

Thus, the phantom swarm came to supersaturate my shrinking catacomb.
All at once, infinite specters were flocking hither and thither so that I was not aware
of one for more than a moment before I forgot it and soon I simply consented
to their free reign, and would not deign to bless them with attention.
This, of course, forced them all to disappear but the fear did not dissolve,
as the sheer black cavern contorted and morphed to my every move like a boundless
leather wet-suit, strict and expanding on all sides into thick indigenous darkness.

A palpable abyss, so impossible dense in its vacuity that the scattered weight of it bore
down on every pore with the tingly little tug of a trillion tiny elves tap-dancing
with jack-hammers, tormenting me as I attempted to shimmy free from the vast vacancy
of this, the strangest of caves. I was consumed in fussy struggle, squirming to expand my
self and shed the cloak of contradiction, which felt irrevocably wrapped around me
like a cinch belt of fluid iron, specifically built to warp and distort me, and it worked.
With a swirling flourish, I succumbed to a chasm in consciousness.

When once again I arrived near this mind of mine, the party of elves was reduced
to a lingering simmer, as if the tap-dancing had given way to mere mingling,
some calm mixing over cocktails and the sparse, convivial singing of sirens.
The ethereal sound waves warbled on the edge of perception, resting
in ranges of vibration above and below those known by the thin drum
of my invisible ear. Floating, I let my mind free on the shores of periphery,
drifting in search of the elusive sound, ever tempted to wade toward the tempest.

Suddenly feeling the immediate need, I decided to attune to this distant pulse.
Squeezing every orifice and flexing all my fibers, the choral tremor crept closer
to comprehension but was obviously altered for having been forced. Nonetheless invited,
it arrived: and my temples were unprepared for the thunderous godly throb. Spasms
plummeted into crown down to perineum, rebounding there and bouncing back up my
back, causing a deep convulsive shudder as I hastily tried to harmonize with the violent
surge in tempo. Vibrations dashed through their peaks and valleys faster than a thought

and I could only snap my jaw at any oxygen out there, desperate to digest the wet air.
As the frequency reached its peak of fever, I approached an harmonic pace: breathing
into rhythmic beats, the pulsations growing slowly slower, tension leaking from my
tender temples, sinking through my jaw to dissipate, sublimate through my buttery body.
The humble song of timeless silence consumed my sacred form. An ensemble of
seraphim seemed to whisper bliss into the recess of my soul, and with their consecrated
serenade, animated my many neurons with patters for pervasive future peace.

In a state of true release, I surrendered. How long I may have hovered here, I do not
remember, for timelessness tends to be just that (timeless). There were no pearls, and
certainly no gates. I did not meet one, far short of seven people. The pure void treated
dualism like atoms in the Hadron, happily smashing contradictions together to create
microscopic black holes wholly in the name of play. I tiptoed a beam of wispy awareness,
cushioned by the firm light support of concentrated relaxation; free beyond form, I was
content to reinforce the uniformity of whatever eternal space I'd been invited to invade.

Like a popped balloon whose liberated air voluntarily retains its shape, my former
form was but a sensate memory. And this sense too, was only temporary. Somewhere,
between nowhere and now here, I heard a pinky snap. Then the dull pop of a stiff knee.
I realized God was not the one snoring. I tried to retreat to that weightless place; alas,
it was way too late, and I once more, would have to wait. For now, I knew I had not died,
because a limber young lady asked me to come back to my body (wait, should I hide?)
"Namaste" she said, as a white light arose. And I thanked God for my baggy clothes.


I Am Only Four Years Older

Hara had to move the tractor back behind the woodpile
before we could take the trailer to the local recycling center.
So while we waited, Matthew slid up front and bounded out
the driver's side door to seek the oak tree swing and stand up on it,
and was soon grounded again, flopping flat on his back in the happy grass;
I sat, the passenger, reading with my seatbelt buckled.

In town after work, ice cream was Hara's treat:
I got Peanut Butter Brittle with Toffee on top.
Matthew got Cake Batter with Brownies plus Peanut Butter.

I said, O I didn't see that one.
He said, I know, I combined a couple.
I said, O what did you get on top?
He said, Nothing.

I disappeared into the bookstore, but had not brought my wallet.
I could not ask Hara to buy my books, so instead I spent
the ride home answering Matthew's questions about the books I looked at.

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. The Further Inquiry, by Ken Kesey.
The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

He said, O whats that about?



If, like me, you
default to contentment, great danger
lies in bed over long hours.

An awakened mind impatiently asks a body
slackened: What happened to passionate action,
or grand ambitions bold and strange?

Once again I want unclouded access
to the wild divine mind, but torpid forces fight
the inventive flow of light I am here seeking to stream.

I no longer consent to this slow stoning. Today I escape my maze
of flat synaptic paths; trapped at the stale base of cranial cliffs,
I arise to chisel new rivers through the limber bedrock of my brain.

Pause: Release.

The jaded archaic canyons may not welcome water; stained stones
hesitate when faced with the flow of trans formative forces
busy carving the new grooves. Be re minded: rocks always ooze under us

and the definition of a flow is to be never broken.
Springing down out a mountain, divining
the path of least resistance,

the freezing stream tickles brittle stone --
stone teeming with discontent at being embedded
by pitiful clinging, surrounded and alone.

Afraid at first to let loose from land,
does a weak stone surrender? Or does it take the bravest
to embrace the whim of a river and infinitely re form in it as a ripple?

Pause: Dance.

To boogie inevitably begets a more
buoyant energy every time of day;
or night when it's dark dance any way

you can: when no one sees
what difference does it make
if you dance or sleep?

Still, alone, as light
saunters up you sink,
twisting deeper under comforters

to seek easy dreams
again in that dark and dormant
sea where strain and zeal go void.

Pause: Okay? Swim.

The shallow waters through which we wade
are effortlessly made warm by a yawning sun
and just as soon muddied by our vapid splashing.

Floating in a deeper pool keeps bottom sand serene
and feet, kicking-lively, cool (like out from under covers)
where the drowning danger swims in weightlessness.

Wavy shoals waft among me, barely perched upon
a submerged stone smoothed now for my sitting
as I wait to be bathed by the sacred cascades.

Quaking echoes form a faint halo over closing eyes; the soul knows
to leave the body breathing as slow colors open, dance, freely
drifting if not anchored to this heavy sleeping stone.


The Empty Vessel Forgets

Whenever I don't remember I
always assume I was only
so absorbed in some present
moment that nothing was recorded.

Imagine the enthusiasm
I must emit if found
in this fit of overflowing
existential reverie!

Others ought not take offense when
I forget everything that happened
because I was probably participating
just in some other state at the time.

Still I see your concern
at my absence and under-
stand how you must ask
Is that amnesia?

Well life is simple when innocent
of information one ought to know
but momentarily misplaced
in the vault of varied consciousness.


Rant of the Taxed Idealist

or, What's the Golden Rule Again?

My paycheck today paid
twenty-two dollars to Medicare
and two-twenty more to 'Federal'
(that must be The mean old Man?).

If i trusted
what would be done with it
then maybe i wouldn't
mind so much;

make that money
go to things i don't know
need to be done, like
bank ruptures or infrastructures.

A bridge in my city disappeared;
while i was not there,
no less.

Now it's me-against-the-
government, because I'm
watching the economy collapse
like a bridge in front of me
with no choice
but to speed up and leap,
praying the impact
leaves my gas tank intact.

No wonder
stolen identity crises
are not uncommon in
our Untied States.

The internet made it instant,
but since the start, our idea
of identity has been only
in opposition to some Other.

Think: England to begin,
then the West Indies or
Caribbean or whatever
we want to call it, then
of course there's the scary Arabs.
who stole our civil rights?

Seems labeling Others left us
little time to identify our selves,
so we grasp at semantic power
where ever we can because we better
know 'us' if we pinpoint a 'them'.

So these days we wear red, against
blue, and maybe a bit of green,
which I guess connects to yellow,
but as long as you're white
and willing to fight, let's not
talk about the rainbow.

So, where am I
left? Am I not

My hair is red,
but my eyes are blue.
My skin is white, but
the back of my eyes are black
as the big fog from Bei-jing;

and I can't see
any sense in outward
embitterment so I
turn in to investigate
what's collected, realizing,
it doesn't matter
who gets elected when
the golden rule is not respected.


Having Skimmed Blake

The young writer
writes of death, desperately
seeking to be deep; he reaches
for the endless resonance he finds
within binds softly bent, spines doubled back
depicting that which he craves to re create.

Sensing words to be immortal,
this newborn imagines mortality;
wondering what that must be
like, he consoles those elderly
fellows who, waiting to die, know

so much about life
that no longer applies.


Fantastic Astral Disaster

I am a post-apocalyptic action hero
and I always survive.

Sub-consciously created, lucid crusades
leave me fighting crazy raids at
some ceremonial commencement.
First, I save my family, then,

The Girl I've Never Met gets rescued next.
She appears as always,
with placid eyes aglow and locked on

me in long ago instants now known again

in this ethereal -- High cross campus we race
ducking under chairs, blocking bullets
fired by black-clad government gunmen,
aimed exclusively at me and missing all

though actually, there are casualties -- On other nights,
post-atomic Minneapolis Uptown mobs uproarious as
arbitrary fires burn ruins from the blast.

Sprinting I spring through looters and
bound down an embankment only

to encounter a tribe of survivors circling,
enclosing some type of Tom Cruise character
who holds an anonymous hostage. Back against
a cornered wall, his escaping is impossible --

though somehow I slip past, protected by a prophecy
and now I could never die, my mission
far too important to ever fail and

I wonder what happens when I wake:


A Big Glass Seed

I have never seen any one
hit a picnic table with
a cherry pit quite like you;
and from so high up too, shit,
you must have been four for
seven at some point. Except seriously,
I suspect you've practiced: crept
away on off-days alone in a kayak,
portaging to the tower to hone those
stone-hawking skills. Nonetheless, as again
you spit, I become more impressed, and sip a sip.

But now I think you need to
pick bigger more difficult pits.
Avocado comes to mind; atop
the tower I could nibble new guac
while you find, train and
tone fresh tongue muscles,
then choreograph the jaw
to propel this other more significant
stone down, tumbling into darkness
while we await the anticipated 'plunk'
which will signify our success.

You will thrust your victory-clenched
fingers toward the elusive Little Dipper;
I will smile but quickly sit forward
to hide my overflowing mouth with
the back of my hand as I finish
chewing the chips I assume
you brought to go with the guac;
and the wine bottle I brought will wash it
all down, but good you stop me from aiming it
toward that same table because, and I agree:
it's okay to step on seeds, not to spit shattered glass.


With Inverted Vision, Watch Out for Chi

"[When you die], a five-coloured light, which is indicative of the purity of ... the expanse of reality and ... composed of coloured threads of light twisted together, pulsing, shimmering, translucent, radiant, clear, bright and awesome, will emanate...and shine piercingly before you, at the level of your heart with such brilliance that your eyes cannot bear it...Do not turn away!"
-from The Great Liberation by Hearing,
from The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I see, behind my eyes,
sight diving out to engage
the cave of my rib-cage.
Heart fluctuating sighs
slow, dark lungs untangling
the empty upper-body yarns
that twine together and harm
my spine, knotted at angry angles.

Circulating light bellows within,
twisting to my crown as blackened lace.
Fifty-eight uncreated faces
morphing, fight for my attention
then dissemble into throes
of piercing neon spears;
quarks subtly zip and disappear
as fear and calm fade and grow.

This is far as I can see so far
as sight again tangles at the waist;
lost amid a lack of grace,
I sense some karmic scar.
Undone buckle of the body's belt
concedes pristine cognition.
Seeking perfect circulation,
I belly-breathe and melt.



We did not watch you, careening in the winter kitchen

to be sure we had hot dessert despite the frigid innards,

and when you went to get the forgotten candles

our obdurate appetite steeled us from slowing

how quickly we licked the cake pan clean.

Some of South Africa

This section contains some of the writing I did concerning my time in South Africa. It is in chronological order, top to bottom.

(Asset Based Community Development)

Ok. Well. It's about time i update all my faithful readers (Hi Mom!) on my South African activities so far.

So, we (me and 5 American girls, plus two pretty, goofy girls from U of Cape Town and another guy named 'Sir' Elvis Sabelo) have lecture for two hours every morning, except on Fridays when we have a 4 hour "Reflection Session". The lectures rotate between three UCT professors. The first few weeks, we had Tristan George facilitating our discussions. Tristan specializes in Critical Development theory and practice, and used a fabulous combination of interesting texts and excellent question-asking to prod us along and help us work our way through the vast complexity involved in any sort of development practice (which is, in theory and in name, what we're up to when we go out to the townships to teach). Just so you get the right picture, Tristan is about 6'4" and looks a lot like my brother John except for a slimmer jaw and is confined to a wheelchair (something about an accident diving into the ocean a few years back). His laugh is easy as he throws his head back, mouth open in the intense silence of gasping laughter. He's awesome, and has been showing up to lecture this last week even though he is no longer teaching.

This week, class has been passed to Elsa (last name unknown at the moment). She is a tall single-mother of two daughters, with curly dark hair and a passion for sociology, though recently she has become obsessed with early-childhood development and the law (separately, not as they relate, you see). She has been working on the same kinds of issues (to be discussed shortly) that we've been dealing with all along, but coming at it from a sociological standpoint (whatever that means). Anyway, she's been pushing our buttons, playing devil's advocate a bit, just to make sure we don't get too comfortable with our assumptions, which we've found is a very dangerous thing to do when it comes to the realities of the 'developing' world.

Our third professor kind of floats around the other two. Janice McMillan runs our reflection sessions and assigns our papers and is in charge of (one of our) final project(s). She is a sweet middle-aged lady with a thick voice; you can hear the spittle in her mouth as she speaks, but it is soothing as opposed to gross.

These three have guided us through some interesting and extremely relevant readings, and helped us gain some kind of perspective on the work we're doing. I feel that this experience would have been empty in comparison if we had only done the tutoring. The understanding of the complexities of the process and all the considerations that go into it (and why the efforts often fail) has made the tutoring experience much more manageable and enjoyable. Anyway, i'll give a brief summary of the ideas we've been kicking around at another time, it's just too much effort right now, to piece together a coherent, worthwhile collection of ideas. I'll just continue with the overview

We are working with the UCT-based organization known as SHAWCO, which stands for Student Health And Welfare Centres Organization. We are working out at the SHAWCO center in the township of Khayelitsha, which is about 30 km from Cape Town. Samantha Power describes Khayelitsha better than i can in her May 2003 New Yorker article, "The AIDS Rebel":

"Khayelitsha is a sprawling, ramshackle township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Most of the settlement's residents live in huts that have been constructed with corrugated tin and insulated with cardboard, plastic tarps, and sheet metal. More than five hundred thousand people live in the township [recent estimates have the number at around one million]; half are unemployed, and the average monthly wage is less than a hundred dollars. The dominant language is Xhosa [pronounced with a click : "click-Osa"]. Although Khayelitsha resembles a squatter's retreat, it was in fact designed by the apartheid government. In 1983, the white regime decided to purge blacks from settlements close to the heart of Cape Town. The authorities dumped the evicted residents in Khayelitsha, which means "Our New Home." Houses were laid out in a grid pattern to help the police control disgruntled inhabitants. Since then, many families have established roots in Khayelitsha, but the crowded, unsanitary neighborhoods have also become home to viruses and germs. Khayelitsha has long had one of the highest tuberculosis rates in the world, and in recent years it has been decimated by AIDS."

So yea, that's where i've been hanging out, playing with little kids, and teaching some 14-16 year olds how to read and use computers and such. It's really fun, and all the kids are happy and energetic and smart and eager to learn, which makes the tutoring a whole lot easier than i expected it to be.

One of the most important understandings we have developed during our lecture sections, is that the term 'poverty' ought to be pluralized (Max-Neef), so that we speak of poverties (which lead to pathologies). This allows for a re-imagining of the role of development. While these people may be financially poor, they have an incredible sense of community and live miraculously joyous lives within their resource deprived world. It changes our goal as volunteers. We need not feel overwhelmed by all the 'problems' these people face. All we can do, is all we can do, which is, give of ourselves and cultivate positive interactions with all the people we meet. By providing the small support we do, we can broaden horizons and show these kids that there is a larger world out there, but that doesn't necessarily mean their world is bad, or wrong. Before we gave poverty a name and a value-judgment, there were only different people living different lives. As soon as we over-indulged in what Foucault defined as Governmentality, we (in the Eurocentric, 'developed' world) saw the condition of these peoples lives and said oh dear lord we're obligated to fix this. Fixing is not what we need to do. Just help.

This is why our program is focused around 'asset-based community development', as opposed to needs-based. We are looking at what the community already has, and how they can employ those qualities to solve some of their own problems for themselves. This is the only possible avenue for sustainable, meaningful change. But it has to come from them. We can provide the arena and maybe some inspiration, but the changes in attitude and action must be organic, otherwise its just more top-down oppression, and the people in Khayelitsha, and all over South Africa, have had quite enough of that for the next couple thousand lifetimes.

That's all for now, the computer lab is closing. More soon.

Originally posted, July 23rd, 2007

American Complicate Khayelitsha

Preface: This is a short story i wrote as part of our final, group project for SHAWCO and UCT. The idea behind the project was to reflect our impressions of Khayelitsha back to the community; to express to them, in some way, what we experienced in our time with them. The theoretical term is an 'Asset Map'. The finished, physical product took shape as a poster-sized photo collage, with over-sized 'postcards' (choice pictures pasted on cardboard), with little notes home, telling little stories and saying nice things. One of mine featured a joke by Mike Sisson: "What city has the most superheroes? CAPE Town!"
Anyway, the other aspect of the project was this story, clasped in construction paper and adorned with appropriate pictures. It is a simply structured story. The idea was to raise some of the issues, the complexities surrounding our presence in Khayelitsha; to briefly explore some of the situations we encountered. It started out as a children's story, but i'm not sure it's consistent in that pursuit - if only because it became necessary to discuss adult issues.
Our presentation was attended by two of our three professors, our program coordinators, some of the SHAWCO staff, and something like 10 members/leaders in organizations within the Khayelitsha, as well as a big group of the kids we'd tutored. One of the unplanned results of the presentation was a short community meeting between all these active people. Members of other organizations did not know about SHAWCO before, and were very excited to pursue further projects together with SHAWCO. So that was cool.
This version is a tuned up version of the one left in Khayelitsha, as I have since had time to edit.
Some of the names are those of actual people, but their characters have been switched around and combined.

Not too long ago, in a place we all know well, a pair of Americans came to visit. They came to Khayelitsha, and they wanted to help. But they soon found out that they would need a lot more than good intentions.

Andy and Emma look out the window in awe as their plane drifts slowly down over Cape Town.

"I can't believe we're finally here," says Emma, who had been looking forward to this trip for almost a year.
"Yea, I’m excited," replies Andy. "Do you want to go out tonight? My friend gave me a whole list of places to go..."
"Tonight? Tonight I plan to get some rest. We start our work in Khayelitsha tomorrow, remember? Working with those kids is the only reason I came, not for selfish entertainment out on the town. I'm here for them, not for me."
"Whatever you say," says Andy skeptically.

The next morning, Andy and Emma wake up early for orientation. They learn all about the history of the SHAWCO organization, how it has delivered services to thousands (maybe millions) of people over its 60-plus year history.
Leonard, the lecturer, tells them a story about his work as a driver for SHAWCO. He says, "In the middle of riots, we would drive through the townships, and everyone would put down their weapons and stop throwing rocks, just to let us through. No service vehicle, no police or anything could ever get through, but they let us pass in peace because they knew SHAWCO, they knew us, and they appreciated our presence."

"Wow," Emma thinks, "my friends back home will never believe I worked with such an important organization."

Leonard then speaks about how SHAWCO is a student-run organization, and introduces Jane, the student coordinator who will be working with Emma and Andy at the K2 center in Khayelitsha.

An enthusiastic Jane tells the two Americans what they can expect:
"These kids are going to be SO excited to have you there. They look forward to seeing you every day, so please be sure to get enough rest and try not to miss a single session --

(Emma nudges Andy with her elbow. Andy shrugs and raises his eyebrows with an innocent smile.)

Jane continues, "--We serve lunch to the learners, but there are always lots of kids at the center who are not involved in the program, and we just do not have enough food for all of them. So please do not give out food, or money for that matter, to those kids. I know, it sounds harsh, but we are not a charity organization. If you give them a bit of food, or a couple rand one day, then they're going to expect it from you again the next day, and that isn't fair to you or the kids."

Andy nods. He thinks, "That makes sense, you can't just give food away. If word got out that there was free food at the SHAWCO center, there would be a hundred new kids at the center every day."

When orientation ends, the group mingles about for a few minutes. Jane approaches Emma and Andy.

"How are you two feeling today?" Jane asks.

"I'm a little tired from the long plane ride," replies Emma, "but so excited to get out and start making a difference in these kids' lives."

Andy adds, "Yea, I think this is going to be a lot of fun! I love hanging out with little kids."

"Well good, I'm glad you're so enthusiastic," Jane says with a smile. "But I'll warn you now, it's not all fun and games, the K2 center tends to get quite hectic at times."

"Well sure," says Emma quickly, "any time you have a large group of kids in a confined space, things can get crazy."

"Yes, that's part of it..." Jane says, but before she can finish she is cut off by Leonard calling out:

"Ok everybody, time to get going!"

On the bus, Emma is glued to the window as they pass other townships on the way.

"Oh my! Look at all those shacks! They stretch as far as I can see! Oh, it's so sad!"

"Hey look, there's a soccer game going on!" Andy says, ignoring Emma's distress.

As they pull into the K2 center, small children swarm the sides of the bus, jumping and yelling, excitedly reaching up for a high-five. Emma reprimands Andy's attempt to reach back, slapping his shoulder and insisting that, "One of them will get run over trying to touch your hand!"

The first half hour at K2 is play time. Emma meanders, meeting the girls she'll be teaching, and picking up cute little kids who are fascinated by her wispy blond hair. Andy finds the soccer ball and starts playing keep-away - a game that soon dissolves into him getting chased and playfully mobbed.

Soon enough it's time to start class. Happy and sweating just a little, Andy leaves his marauders outside, promising to come back and play later.

The learners are attentive and diligent in their work, and before they know it, it's almost time for lunch. Andy and Emma leave the learners with a short activity, and go downstairs to speak with Jane.

"How's it?" Jane asks.

"Really good! The kids are so smart!" Emma almost yells.

"Yea, and it's nice that we can all laugh and enjoy ourselves while still getting stuff done," says Andy.

"Oh good! It is always easier to teach kids who come by choice. It's amazing, these kids spend all day at school and then walk all the way here," Jane explains. "When I was in grade school I would have never done that!
“Well, it's about time for a snack, so Emma, come with me, we'll carry the food upstairs. Andy, will you shut the gate and just hold it closed?"

Andy is a bit confused by this request. "Um, sure. But why?"

"Well, once we start serving food, all the little ones outside are going to want to come in and be fed. And like I told you before, there isn't enough food for all of them," says Jane as she climbs the stairs.

So Andy walks over to the entrance. As he slowly closes the gate, five little boys appear out of nowhere and crowd the doorway. They use all their strength, piling on top of one another to push the gate back open. But even with the force of their combined effort, Andy is able to squeeze the gate closed and leave the boys standing on the outside, peering in through the iron bars. By this time, a larger crowd has gathered at the door and Andy is alone on the inside, staring out at no less than 10 kids, hungry boys and girls who know that it's lunch time.

"Let me in! I'm hungry!" says one boy.

"My sister needs a drink!" says one girl, who also claims to be a part of SHAWCO.

"But I haven't seen you all morning..." says Andy. The girl looks away.

The kids continue to push, squishing smaller children on the bottom of the pile. Physically, it is easy for Andy to hold the kids back. Mentally, emotionally, he is not so sure.

They ask him, "Why won't you let us in?"
He responds, "Because I'm not supposed to. I'm sorry, it's not up to me."

Then, from somewhere in the young horde, a voice says, "It's because you're white!"

This is a shocking statement to Andy. He had never considered the fact that he could be seen as an oppressive white person. He had read all about the (recent) atrocities in South Africa's history, and felt no connection (except for skin color) whatsoever with those people. He had assumed that his progressive ideas on humanity would allow him to transcend the race barrier, and cultivate organic relationships with the people of Khayelitsha, based on human experience, not hampered by antiquated ideologies.

But there it was - a small child accusing him of refusing food based on skin color. Is that why he held the gate so tight? (No. He would have treated any rambunctious group of children the same.) How could he respond appropriately? (He couldn't.)
Andy locks the gate and runs off to find Jane.

When Jane and Andy return, there is no one at the gate. But soon, two small children run up. Jane unlocks the gate and lets them in, instructing them to sit quietly and read, which they do happily. Soon after, another couple kids come to the door, and Jane motions for Andy to let them through as well.

Seeing this, three more little ones come to the gate and give Andy their best innocent face, using their eyes to beg for entrance. When Andy is still hesitant, they point to their friends already inside, and point out how unfair that is. Unsure about the entrance policy, and with Jane now nowhere to be found, Andy agrees it’s unfair, and opens the gate.

Just then, Jane comes back and says, "Oh no! You ought not have let those three in!"

But it’s too late. Distracted by Jane's reappearance, Andy had neglected to hold the gate closed, and several opportunistic kids scamper in. Meanwhile, the first three trespassers have snuck around back and opened the other door, allowing a miniature, guerilla army of small children to infiltrate the main room, sneaking past book stacks, running upstairs and hiding under tables. Chaos quickly engulfs the K2 center.

Each and every tutor is needed in the effort to clear the building of minions. There is chasing and shouting, pointing and falling and more chasing. A tutor drags one boy on his back towards the door while others run circles, around him laughing.
A wonderful game for the young ones is a stressful scene in a bad dream for anyone trying to maintain authority, much less teach.

After what like hours (it had only been minutes), Ernest, the center manager, emerges from his office to see about all the hubbub. A native Xhosa speaker and Khayelitsha resident, his big, commanding presence and powerful voice brings everything to a halt. A kid standing on the table freezes. Another boy is too stunned to move as he sits on top of one of his friends. In eloquent Xhosa, Ernest easily clears the room (Andy locks the gate) and returns to his office.

In a daze, Andy boards the bus to go home. Jane sits next to him.

"How am I supposed to know who to let in, and who to keep out?" asks Andy.

"By their faces," Jane responds simply.

"But," Andy stutters, "but if I judge by their faces...I'll have to let them all in."

Jane gazes silently back.

"I can tell from their faces how unfair they think it is...and I'm not sure I disagree..." Andy elaborates. "I know we can't feed them all, but how do we choose? Who are we to decide who eats and who doesn't? Where do we draw that line?"

"It's not fun, is it?" Jane finally responds.

"No. No fun at all," Andy says quietly to himself, and spends the rest of the ride staring at the window.

A week goes by, and things get better. The craziness of that first day is not repeated; Andy learns the kids faces and asserts some authority, and the kids begin to find the limits of this new umlungu's patience.
Andy gets comfortable. Emma is getting confused.

After a week of tutoring, and with less than a week left, Emma's initial enthusiasm has deteriorated into a sense of profound helplessness. She claims a quiet moment one afternoon and vents her frustration to Ernest.

"You know, I feel like I've developed relationships with these kids, but I'm not sure it's doing them any good. Take yesterday for example. I was trying to teach them about budgeting their money, which is important stuff! But they kept interrupting me and speaking to each other in Xhosa. They see me as a friend, so they forget that I'm in charge. And then, even when I yell, they still won't pay attention.”

"Well Emma, they are children. Getting angry will not help, they will just ignore your screaming. They know when you have lost control, and will continue taking advantage of that until you find a way to get it back," wise Ernest observes.

"But, on the first day, we had them come up with a list of rules they thought everybody should follow. And even when I reminded them of that, they got quiet just long enough for me to calm down and begin the lesson, AND THEN THEY STARTED TALKING AGAIN!" Emma blurts, near tears.

"Perhaps you should try silence. Or even, walking away. They want you there, Emma, but they are young, and are going to test your limits."

"I know, I guess, I just feel betrayed. Like, I'll have a really nice conversation with one of them, and then at lunchtime, that same kid will lie to me and say he didn't get any food. I try so hard, and want to help them get a better life so bad, and I just feel like it's not making any difference," Emma sniffles, as a solitary tear drops off her nose.

"Emma," Ernest can't help but chuckle kindly, "you are here for two weeks. You cannot expect to save any lives in such short time. Also, who says they need to be saved? If you ask them, I am sure they will tell you they are happy, and they would be sad to leave from friends and family in Khayelitsha, even for something you might consider to be 'better’ for them. Yes, there are things that can be better, but this is true in America also, and around the world. But still you are proud of from where you come, so please, do not assume that we are not also proud of where we live."

"I'm sorry," Emma says, staring at the ground. "I didn't mean..."

"Sorry?" Ernest stops her, "No no no, not to be sorry. We are happy to have you here. Our children, and us too, we learn very much from meeting Americans. But also, we hope that you have much to learn from us as well. See that, we are different in interesting ways and also very much the same. So you see, you do not need to 'save' any children. Being here, giving them you, is all anyone can ask. And they will do the same in return. And all of you will learn, grow. This is good for every body."

With this, Emma picks her head up and swipes her eyes clear. "Thanks Ernest, you're right. Okay. You've given me some serious thinking to do about why I'm here."

"Okay sisi, you are here for the right reasons, I am sure."

All of a sudden it's the last day of class.
The day is festive, yet sad. All the little kids who gave Andy so much stress before, now play soccer in a circle and take turns taking pictures with his fancy camera. The angry faces he confronted that first day are nowhere to be found. Emma gets her hair braided, and exchanges endless hugs with all the girls she has grown so close to.

Andy, Emma, Jane and Ernest all stand in front of the class. They call out each learner's name one by one, and hand them a certificate of participation. The learners cannot hide their pride, and the tutors smile big and wide. Group photo's flash and capture a moment none of them will forget anytime soon.

"I can't believe it's time to go home already," says Andy.

"Ah! Don't talk about it!" cries Emma. "I don't want to think about it, I don't want to go home!"

"To think, two short weeks ago we were strangers in this place, to these people, and now..."

"And now I want to take all of them home with me."

"But do you really?" Andy inquires.

"In my heart, yes. But in reality, no. No, I am honored to have interacted with these children, and with Ernest, and Jane, and to have learned so much from all of them."

"Yea I agree. We can only hope that we gave enough of ourselves to balance the scales."

“It’s complicated, you know. There are many larger forces influencing our interactions, and it can be difficult. But at least we’re all getting to have the experience; at least we get to hang out and become friends.”
“And what else could any of us hope to get out of it?”

Originally Posted, July 28, 2007

Stray Descriptions

When you go to South Africa, you should read a lot of books about it; before you go and while you’re there. I left Cape Town two weeks ago and I read “Cry, The Beloved Country” by Alan Paton, just this afternoon. Antjie Krog’s account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings, “Country Of My Skull” added depth to the already intense cultural criss-crossing we excitedly plunged into in Khayelitsha.

One cannot help but be constantly struck with awe at the natural beauty of the land and sky in South Africa. Table Mountain is the dominant physical feature of Cape Town. It sits above, cuddling the city in its roots, providing a constant compass. If you ever get lost, just look to the mountain, and re-orient yourself.
Someone I trust told me that Table Mountain was once called, in translation, “mountain that erodes out of the sea’, and if you scale out your vision, it is easy to sense that you are indeed on a grand downslope into the ocean. On top of Table Mountain, you can see that it once was the shallow shoreline shelf, and the multiple coves and bays that constitute Cape Town were carved by the plunging depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
The clouds are huge and dramatic, and the winter sunsets are spectacular. I’m told it’s even nicer in the summer and I believe it.
I wish we'd had a whole day at Kirstenbosch. Ideally I'd bring wine and a snack in the cool evening hours of a hot day and see a show, some live music on an open stage. Again, we went in winter and it was all still wondrous, the wet green botanicals tucked right up against the base of the mountain, like you could just step out, right up on top of it in a single stride. Obviously enough, some the more popular climbing paths begin and end in the Gardens (‘there is no difference in terminals’).

There is lots of shopping to be done, as one discovers quickly when traveling with 5 young women.
The Waterfront is wide and diverse in terms of entertainment and consumer opportunities.
Green Market downtown is an interesting atmosphere. Everybody is very friendly of course, and welcoming to Americans and other fair, (-ly), rich people. For me Green Market proved to be the best bet for finding gifts for friends and family, but you’ve got to be tough, willing to walk away when you know you should.
Be stiff about bargaining and you’ll get a good deal.

Like I said, everybody is very friendly. In my six weeks working with SHAWCO, I had an extra-ordinary number of genuinely pleasant encounters with all different kinds of people. Everyone, from the people of Khayelitsha, to the UCT students and SHAWCO volunteers, to random locals at the bars, and everyone in between, was excited to see us, interested in what we were doing, and damn-well-glad-to-meetcha, happy-to-see-ya. Except they didn’t say it like that.

The Capetonian English accent is a subtle and refined animal, the quiet cousin of a smooth Kiwi, son of an elderly British dame and bastard son of an ex-patriated Canadian bartending in the Nether-lands. That’s how it sounds anyhow.
There are 11 different official languages in South Africa. To get what we would consider to be a living wage in Cape Town, you need mastery in at least two languages: English and Afrikaans. Afrikaans is based on Dutch and German heavily mixed with Malaysian. The Soweto Student Uprisings of 1975 were in protest to being taught in Afrikaans at school. It was (and still can be) seen as the language of oppression, imposed by the European vacationers.

The SHAWCO center is a big garage/warehouse style structure. There is an old wood playground structure in front of a large covered garage space where most of the playing is done, and which is now adorned with a few lovingly painted murals. On one side of the garage is a large computer-filled classroom, where we taught about 25 adults how to use Microsoft Word and Powerpoint.
The back wall of the garage contains a gathering room that is alternately used for tutoring, eating and dancing. This multi-purpose room adjoins to the main library, a huge room with four long and tall rows of bookshelves, a child-sized table, a welcoming desk protecting offices, and a loud loft, where we did our tutoring of the 8th and 9th graders.

Among the books I found "The Postman, or, Other People's Mail". I read it and laughed, remembering how much I always liked that book, and realizing how all the rhymes are out of rhythm. All the letters were gone. That didn't surprise me much.

Originally Posted, July 28, 2007


An interesting thing happened to me today(7/5/07). I went outside to fill the water bucket for the huge jug of juice we make every afternoon. One of the kids who has consistently tried to trick his way into food walked next to me the whole trip, pestering me about finding him some food when the time came. I did my best to explain why he couldn't be inside and why he might not get fed, but he just kept at it, telling me he's hungry and all that. After a while I started to ignore him, or tell him that it's not up to me, and he eventually came back with, "It's because you're white." This made me stop. I turned around and looked him right in the eye and told him that has nothing to do with it. He insisted that the difference in our skin color was the reason I refused to feed him. I pointed out that all the other kids we feed are black like him, and apologized again, but there was nothing I could do to convince him so I walked away. It was a rather shocking thing to have a young kid, I'd guess he was about 10, play the race card. And the thing is, I can understand where he gets that impression. A lot of the time I look around at the Khayelitsha center, and am put off by the power structure operating. All these little black children being told what to do and scolded by the group of white outsiders. Unavoidably we are put in an impossible situation, where we are there to help, but we end up being forced to become disciplinarians when the kids misbehave. Our skin color is an obvious distinction, and while there are black and colored tutors there, Emma and Talisa are more or less in control, and I work the door, so the big bad bosses have pale complexion. The fact that I would treat a huge group of crazy white kids just the same is irrelevant. We can't just let these children run wild, that would be chaos and no one would get anything done. But when we become authority figures and impose punishment, we are all of a sudden oppressive.
The problem is, that although I may understand the theoretical underpinnings of my presence
there and consciously mold my role into that of a benevolent helper-outer with the communities best interest at heart, I am inevitably seen as a rich umlungu and therefore expected to give them some of my supposedly vast wealth. One kid asks me for 5 rand everyday. And I am always being asked for food. And it's hard to deal with kids banging on the door, kept out by a steel cage, while I am relaxing with my PB&J, reading a book and chatting with my friends. If I'm honest about it, I eat right before and after I go out to Khayelitsha. I don't need that sandwich, so why won't I just give it to the kids? We've talked about this before, how we aren't there for charity and we don't want to create a sense of dependence, but not giving them what they ask for doesn't seem to make them any less dependent, it only serves to turn us into the bad guys, the selfish haves denying the righteous have-nots. And the thing is, even if I did help that kid out and sneak him some food, there is no doubt in my mind that he would eat it quickly or hide it and try to trick another tutor or crawl back in and get more. That isn't pessimism, it's the reality I've experienced over the last two weeks and I can't tell you how disheartening it is. Something that you thought was generous and kind getting thrown right back in your face like that is enough to discourage the most charitable of instincts.

Originally Posted, July 29, 2007

I’m sitting in my comfy (dirty) new (old) house back at school here in Washington D.C. I left Cape Town 11 days ago, and only now have had the time to sit and say something rational, about my time in South Africa.
The best conversation I’ve had about it was with my brother (John, 22) and his girlfriend, Anna. They were actually interested and asked good questions. Most people would like to be truly interested but just aren’t, and you can’t blame them.
It’s better that way. What I have to say about all this takes way too long to explain and contextualize anyway. That’s why I’m writing all these papers.
It has been discussed and agreed upon that South Africa is becoming a trend, a “hot-spot” if you will, among American Study Abroad Students. That’s a good thing. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been there has had the most wonderful time. Everybody comes back with pictures of them petting wildlife.

We saw elephants up close from a car. Incredible.

You’re missing half the story if you stay in the classroom the whole time; missing out on critical elements of the experience if you volunteer out of context. To get to know Cape Town, you must go to a shabeen and a posh Longstreet bar, metaphorically speaking.
Arcadia organized our lecturers. The 6 of us shared 3 most excellent UCT professors, Tristan Gorgens, Janice McMillan and Elsa ______, who carefully guided our understanding of the situations surrounding us. We worked our way up through the bones of community development, and turned our gaze inwards in an endless barrage of self-reflexivity; the ultimate crash course in postmodern self-awareness.

SHAWCO stands for Student Health And Welfare Centres Organisation. It is a 60 year old, student-led operation out of the University of Cape Town; an operation well respected for its ability to transcend political and racial boundaries in the name of humanity, so to speak. As a result of this collaboration between SHAWCO and Arcadia, we well-intentioned individuals are given access to communities, like Khayelitsha, that goes far beyond a one-day driving tour.

We figured out quickly that we would have to work very hard in order to keep the scales balanced between us and the community. Making sure it was mutually beneficial. Symbiotic. We gain so much from our experience ‘in the community’. We get valuable school credit, we get to meet a bunch of nice new people, we get the same delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they all get at lunch everyday - but we also get to go home at the end of the day. We get this fabulous, protected experience into a different realm of existence, and then go home and write long self-indulgent analytical papers about what we think. In return, the community gets access to resources that, while they may be miniscule in the grandbig scheme of things, have the potential to create important, positive change.

This program facilitated vast opportunity for positive interactions between smart people with interesting ideas and different and connecting paths. The relationships we developed, the friends we made, the changes we took with us, and the impressions we left behind are impossible without SHAWCO facilitating our presence.

Originally Posted, August 20, 2007

Preface: This is my final paper for the SHAWCO/Arcadia Holiday Program at UCT. It was written way too quickly and without my own computer, thus without all the nice notes and pithy paragraphs i had written previously. Still, it says a few interesting things, with some classic cheesy material mixed in. Enjoy?


Big and Slow, Let it Flow

As wealthy, white Americans in South Africa, the situations we encounter are endlessly complex. Enormous forces, often beyond the scale of our awareness (and therefore as invisible as they are influential) shape our every interaction. The issues I wish to focus on are, considering the long (and recent) history of racial oppression, and given how that history shapes the power structure as it operates today, how then, do we well-intentioned American visitors fit into the context of Khayelitsha?

Firstly, it is important to establish our intentions as service-learning students coming to Africa. From there, I will discuss how these intentions and pre-conceived ideas, combined with our work in the classroom, translate into practices in the township, leading to some speculation on how those practices act to reinforce or breakdown the existing power structure, with positive or negative results.

As we discussed many times over, our group’s motivations for traveling to Cape Town this summer were all very similar. Everybody was interested in broadening their horizons, seeing a new city/country/continent, getting some school credit - and we all wanted to hang out and play with little kids. Somewhere in there we mentioned ‘making a difference’, although that goal seemed to be rather assumed, almost too obvious, as if, of course that’s why we’re here.

With this as our base, we dove deep into self-reflexivity as we broke down the development process. The assumption that we were the only ones providing a service fell apart almost immediately, and we proceeded with the assumption that we would have to work our butts off to balance the scales of giving (I’ll come back to this later, but it occurs to me now that we – or I as it may have been – got a little carried away with short-changing ourselves as impact-ful actors). The misguided idealism of ‘saving’ these kids (in as many words), was replaced, in my mind, by goals for positive interaction and personal growth. Realistically, we only worked with the 8th and 9th graders for 10 days - we only saw the IT learners for 6 – and there is only so much impact one can have in such a tiny time span. There is a quote, I forget from who, but to paraphrase, it says, ‘People may not remember exactly what you said, and they may not remember what you were wearing, but what they will remember is the way they felt around you, and that emotional memory is what will stick with them more than anything you said or did.’ That seems to summarize what I was trying to accomplish in Khayelitsha. Beyond helping them with math or English (which I think I did also), I wanted to imprint positive memories of how they felt hanging out with us. The only way to break down racism is through interactions that do not reinforce the racist construct. I imagine that the kids of Khayelitsha don’t pass many mlungu’s on the street everyday, and so their conception of white people is based primarily on abstractions seen on TV, heard from their parents or taught in school – something along the lines of, ‘White people did this and were like this. White people think this about us and act like this towards us’ (‘this’ assumedly representing something mostly negative). Providing a safe, fun atmosphere for the kids became more important to me than following the lesson plan.

Max-Neef’s wheel of human needs speaks to this attitude quite directly, and his idea’s provided some justification that we were helping in the best way possible. If we did it right, we had the opportunity at K2 to fulfill almost every single one of Max-Neef’s delineated needs, including Participation, Creation, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Identity, Idleness and of course the all-powerful Subsistence. Some of these needs are satisfied more obviously than others, like Participation or Subsistence, and some will be manifested more sub-consciously, such as the illusive development of Identity. Nonetheless, all of these aspects of human development are present at the SHAWCO center, and not just for the kids. It seems that our role, as responsible, almost-authority figures, was to cultivate a happy atmosphere and lead everyone along into this great gorging of personal growth.

So then the question becomes, from where do we derive our power? Why is it that we can walk into K2, having never lived there a day in our life, and gain instant credibility and demand unquestioned respect, expecting to enlighten and lead the minions?

Part of our power is derived from our arrival in a SHAWCO bus. SHAWCO’s storied reputation and consistent presence in the townships creates a level of trust in the people associated with the organization. It seems that there is a certain type of person that typically steps out of that SHAWCO vehicle. That is not to say we are all similar, our volunteer group was wonderfully diverse, but there is a certain heart, a level of genuine giving spirit inherent in any person who would sign up to spend their summer volunteering in a township. This is not to say that SHAWCO volunteers are all just interchangeable parts, but it means that there is consistency in the kind of person the people of Khayelitsha expect to come from SHAWCO, and that leads to an initial, given, trust that is necessary in order for a program as short as ours to succeed.

That, however, is the easy answer. The answers get only touchier and more complex after that. For starters, we are Americans. This means different things to different countries and people around the world (as well it should), but in any case, it is an undeniably powerful thing to be from the United States. We are revered militarily, envied economically, and ridiculously replicated socially. Part of the reason there are so few good jobs for the uneducated poor in Cape Town is because the city is split between the educated upper-class, racing to keep up with the (very much US-driven) international economy, and those left behind, with no school, no job and few options. And still, it is in the townships where we find American culture most closely followed. The striving after big cars and wide TV’s, the obsession with celebrity, especially in music and more specifically, American rap, the huge cult followings of obscure American television series like ‘Prison Break’ and ‘Heroes’, all seem to be symptomatic of a conscious emulation of the modern Americana, reaching so deep that one of the most powerful gangs is actually called, The Americans.

Being that our ‘culture’ floats so pervasively overhead, it is no surprise that the kids are so happy to see us, and that locals from all walks of life are curious to talk to us. In my experiences out on the town, there were always strangers who would catch my accent and want to hear about who I was and why I was there, and they were always all-too-pleased to see me. Part of being an American in a foreign country is that, even though you may be a little bit despised, it is mostly because, for better or worse, most of the world wants to be like us – because the connection people make is that America equals money, and everyone wants to be rich.

In terms of Khayelitsha, a person wanting to be like us Americans does not concern me so much as the possible motivation for wanting to be like us. I would be perfectly comfortable, honored even, if after my work at K2, one of those kids keeps me in their head as a role model. But I wonder if it is more likely that they would only want to be like me in respect to the fact that I am perceived to be (and, relatively, actually am) quite wealthy? In which case, what does that do to the power dynamics in the social-learning context of K2?

At this point it is appropriate to discuss Hester Parr’s article, “Feeling, Reading, and Making Bodies In Space”. Whether or not we are aware of it, our body language, our dress, our speech and our facial expressions provide other people with an incredible amount of information, whether or not they are even aware of it. For this reason, it can be crucial in the development context to at least be aware of the signals you are sending.

For me, it was important not to seem too privileged. If I appeared to be ultra-rich, then I think the kids would have become more focused on that, as opposed to talking to me about other things, or just playing. So I did subtle things. I avoided wearing my glasses, and wore contacts instead, as glasses signify a certain level of affluence (note: none of the K2 learners had glasses, though I can only assume some of them probably needed them). I intentionally wore the same set of clothes several days in a row, just like most of the kids did (this is also a laundry-load saving strategy). Another thing I tried to do was speak at full-speed in English, not dumb it down for them. Of course, if they didn’t understand I would re-phrase or speak a bit slower, but to learn a language, you need to hear it spoken naturally, without artificial pauses and inflection. This was also an act of copycatting, because lots of the kids spoke to me in full-speed Xhosa, so I threw my English right back at them. I noticed at least one of our group members specifically who made me cringe with the way she spoke to both the adult IT learners and the 8th and 9th graders. She carried a tone that was meant to be kind, but was so condescending that the intended kindness only served to exacerbate the sense that she was trying so hard just to help them understand, those poor things, but they just couldn’t comprehend how to cut-and-paste, how sad, but she’s still being nice about it because that’s the right thing to do. So yea, I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

I think that in these types of situations, it is important to be self-aware, to know what kinds of messages you’re sending, both verbally and physically, but also to avoid becoming self-conscious, that is, unnaturally nervous and self-observant, so as to do and say things you would not do normally. Self-consciousness in that sense would only serve to project the sense that you are uncomfortable in your surroundings, and that will only make others uncomfortable, which is counteractive to everything we are trying to accomplish in Khayelitsha.

Of course, that is a very difficult balance to strike. I found that my most uncomfortable moments were when I became entirely too aware of myself in the grand scheme of things. For example, if I had to discipline a kid, or as I’ve discussed a lot before, when I was the doorman, shoving kids out and slamming the gate in their hungry little faces. That kind of thing, though never easy, would certainly have been less painful if I hadn’t been so conscious of the oppressive power structure so recently abolished (and its ominously lingering effects). Here I thought I was working to transcend the whole race thing, but then there I am, in practice, merely perpetuating it. And it only gets more complicated. The fact that I’m white has nothing to do with the fact that SHAWCO can’t feed everybody that shows up to the center, and somebody needs to hold the door in order to prevent chaos anytime an authorized person goes in or out, so what is so racist about that? The rational and the perceived are in contrast here, because no matter my reasons, the kids still see my pale face standing between them and the food. Further, it occurs to me that the kids I kept out were not exactly as needy as they made themselves out to be. It was a situation where they felt that I had something they wanted, and were trying to get it from me, because there must be more for me where that came from, so it would only be fair for me to pass it on to them. This brings to mind the danger of creating dependency in development practice. The old ‘give a man a fish’ versus ‘teach a man to fish’ scenario in action. I was there, in theory, trying to teach those kids how to fish, but they (the kids outside at least) were hungry and had no patience for what I might teach - they just wanted my fish (which of course was not my fish to give in the first place). Eventually, it became a game, where the only reason they wanted in was because I was trying to keep them out. At that point, they are simply children. Every child from any country and every economic class understands that game and revels in it. It is basic attention-getting rebellion.

I still don’t have a very good solution to this issue. It is complex on too many levels to have any real solution I think. With that in mind, I feel like I acted in the best manner possible, which was to treat the kids exactly the same way I would any other kids. What else could anybody do? This goes back to self-awareness and acting natural.

The existing power structure in South Africa still operates heavily on the remnants of Apartheid. Society was set up in a certain way, and was like that for a long time, and it will take generations before real, dramatic changes become reality for the people exiled to townships. But the process has started, and it is our job, as conscientious visitors, to do our part in building momentum.

The question is, How? How does one go about altering this enormous, fleeting entity called ‘culture’?

It seems to me, that culture is created by millions of individuals making small choices that collect and combine to form our socially defined ‘norms’. These individuals are understood to be ‘agents’, operating within the ‘structure’ of society, being the government, schools, NGO’s, CBO’s etc. The structure is constituted by agents. In this way, culture is constantly either challenged or reinforced by an agent in each and every decision they make. An easy example of this would be slavery in the United States. What was once an accepted practice, slowly found some dissidents saying, ‘This is wrong,’ and slowly, surely, more and more people began to think differently about slavery. When you think differently on a subject, you’re bound to speak differently on it, and once you’re speaking differently, you’re bound to act differently. And when that process happens enough times, in enough minds, then it becomes a new ‘norm’. Culture is changed. These days it is entirely taboo to be in favor of slavery. (I am aware that there is probably evidence that the linear, Thought > Speech > Action process is actually flawed logic and practically ineffective, but in my experience, observing myself most closely, I have found it to be profoundly true. So, without any concrete evidence to the contrary, I’ll continue under the assumption that what is true for me is true for everyone.)

So culture is fleeting - an amorphous, invisible blob of thought, word and action - thank goodness. That means that we actually do have the power to change it, however so slightly. That means, in theory, that my friendly presence in Khayelitsha planted some seeds suggesting that mlungu is people too; that not all white folks are rich, the same way not all black folks are poor; that I too like to dance when I’m happy, and be silly sometimes and serious at others. This is my hope. That the mere interaction, the joking and laughing and learning and playing that went on at K2 is a nudge or a tug in the right direction. The concrete things we accomplished in our 4 weeks in Khayelitsha are, in fact, very nice: the mural, the collage, the storybook, the slide show. But equally, if not more important, are the feelings we left behind and took with us. That is what I’ll remember – what it felt like to be surrounded with playing children, loud and eager, (hopefully) oblivious to any sort of social status, completely consumed by the desire to be picked up and swung in high, fast circles.

Throughout the program I was panicked by the thought that we were trapped in an inevitably one-way relationship, that I would get all the benefit and then leave, leaving Khayelitsha unchanged, no different from my having been there. But now I’m thinking differently. Remembering the reactions we got the day we presented our ‘asset-map’, remembering the tear-jerking, heart-felt good-bye’s, I realize that there is no way this was a one-way relationship. Yes, I took a lot away from this experience. I am still realizing lessons I learned, and making all kinds of connections as the experiential and academic knowledge condense and combine in my mind. But I gave something of myself as well. I gave my time, my energy, my creativity, my love and my joy to Khayelitsha. So I realize, I gave everything I had to give. I held nothing back. And that, I think, is part of why this was such a powerful experience for everyone involved. Everyone was willing to open up and let it ride and see what happens, and it was amazing. I have to ask, what else could have been expected? If nothing else, we beat a path to SHAWCO for future study abroad students. By achieving even moderate success (and not getting kidnapped or anything), we created room for more of the same positive interactions from which we gained so much.

So that is what I learned. I learned that I can influence any situation with little more than the power of my presence; that people are essentially the same wherever you go, with the same Max-Neef needs; and that big change happens slowly, and never without discomfort, but that is no excuse not to try.

Frank Zappa, "Them or Us" album review

Frank Zappa's 1984 release, Them Or Us, is a perfectly diverse and flowing compilation of Zappa and The Mothers of Invention's very own genre of mock-rock. With an academic and adventurous state of mind, this seamless album flows in and out and in between genres from start to finish, leaving lines blurred and heads melted.

The first track, "The Closer You Are" is simple and brilliant in its satire of every corny rock' n ' love ballad you've ever heard. Both the musical structure (it's in 6, it seems to me) of the song and the corny, cliché-ridden lyrics serve as evidence of Zappa's vastly superior compositional skills, as compared to most anyone else making new music in 1984.

The second track, "In France", is a funky number built from some filthy bass blues. Zappa's southern-twanged guitar riff fills the mid-section of this song, while a heavy tenor sax and flashing harmonica color in the top. This perfectly produced track is a response to the opening antics in "Closer You Are". "In France" displays The Mothers mastery of the Blues; a song so fully-composed and intricately layered and still so simple and groovy. As the title suggests, the lyrics are no less satirical and even slightly more overt in their sarcasm. Quick hint, the final line of the song is, "Ne-ver try-to get-your pee-nis su-ucked in FrAnce!"

By this time, we (the listener(s)) have settled in and are comfortably eager to hear whatever kind of crazy shit is coming next. "Ya Hozna" keeps pushing deeper as we slip quickly into this six-and-a-half minute, incoherent, background rock epic. A driving guitar riff and a steady, bouncing bass beat keep this track rolling under a heavy-toned chant. You can zone out, just nod your head, get all lost in thought while the pulse moves and subtly grooves your subconscious.

Falling back to reality, you splash-down in the pool of pleasantly veiled sarcasm that is "Sharleena". This is another comic love tune about a stalker, excellent of course, but the fifth track demands that i skip quickly over the fourth.

Somebody playing a late-night set somewhere needs to cover "Sinister Footwear II" soon (MMW comes to mind, but they would need help...Cyro Baptista, Kimock or Scofield, and the Antibalas horns, is all they'd need). This track runs so damn deep; just achingly ambitious in exploring its every dark corner of potential. Around the 2:30 mark, the song slips into another world. Led by the glockenspiel slash xylophone, the space-y and subtly thundering middle section will warp your mind (in a good way) if you're care-full. The crazy glockenspiel riff continues throughout most of the rest of the almost 9 minute track, expanded upon with Zappa's searing guitar solo stylings. This is by far the most impressive track on the album in terms of both musicality (composition) and performance (immaculate, as expected).

"Truck Driver Divorce, [is] very saa-ad," and transitions neatly out of "Sinister Footwear". It is also about 9 minutes, the fat back end of which is possessed by virtuosic improvisation from the whole band. I suppose it could be rehearsed and written, it doesn't really matter. Gnarly, is a good word for Zappa's style of effects-pedal funkified, fuck-show air-sculpture soloing techniques.

"Stevie's Spanking" is possibly the most pleasing, head-banging rock and/or roll song i've ever heard. Oh, it's all so simple, but something about the way they manipulate the layers of rhythm around the basic 4/4 drum-beat just makes you want to jump and convulse and wish that your amps went all the way to '11'. The expertly placed guitar fills in amongst the endlessly appealing bass line, that is, until it's time once again for Zappa to stop complimenting and fly off into his own world, dragging you along by his boot-lace. But not to worry, he always brings us back safely, landing right back in the thick, awesome muck where we started.

"Baby, Take Your Teeth Out..." is about old people and oral sex. "...there ain't nothin' left to talk about."

"Marqueson's Chicken" is more exploratory, instrumental rock. Amidst all the silliness on this album, the originality of Zappa's composing is always plain to see (or hear, i guess), as is the cohesive brilliance of his band.

"Planet Of My Dreams" is a brief, Broadway-inspired, almost Vaudeville piano number about how the Earth is "rotting at the seams". This is just another seemingly effortless and successful foray into yet another different genre for Zappa, complete with politically sadistic, yet somehow accurate poetry supporting the clever tune.

"Be In My Video" is a staple in the long line of The Mothers sarcastic songs about women. "Valley Girl", "Dirty Love" and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" are all classic Zappa tracks that mercilessly tease silly girls and all their situations in need of teasing. This particular track is obviously a comment on the burgeoning music video market in the 80's (which Zappa participated in, in his own way) and all the resulting ridiculousness (i.e. purple spandex, hip-exposing one-pieces, whorish and impossibly awkward dancing from women with big perms or little, stringy mullets). This song is still funny ('cuz it's still true) more than 20 years later, (except that pop-rap videos seem to have lost any sense of humor about the whole thing. I find a palpable sense of violence inherent in the half-naked women on (m)TV today).

The second to last track on the album is called "Frogs with Dirty Little Lips." This is suspiciously congruent to the second track, "In France", especially in it's blues-oriented, supremely funky disposition. The bass line is all you need to hear in order to enjoy this song. At this point there is little left to say, all you can do is smile and shake your head, and turn it up.

The fin-alley is a most excellent cover of the Allman Bros. classic, "Whipping Post". Naturally, Zappa's interpretation is cut-throat, exposing the innards of a song that could have almost been written by him in the first place. The precise percussion stands out, filling the song with the swinging rage contained in its natural state. The singing (not Zappa this time, the black bass player, if i'm not mistaken) is soul-fully on point as well.

One of the things this album shows me, is just how much Zappa influenced Phish. Zappa's songwriting sensibilities, expansive soloing and adventurous spontaneity obviously left a heavy impression on all four members of Phish. A quirky sense of humor combined with an obsessive passion for perfection in the music are defining traits of both groups of artists. After close listening of any Zappa, he can be instantly discovered in most Trey solo's (Trey Anastasio, lead guitar, Phish). And to this i say, Good for Trey for being a smart enough musician to emulate this wizard.

But Trey wasn't the only one, as Zappa's compositions have been interpreted by indie, emo, jam and every kind of rock bands, all alike, not to mention important symphony orchestra's and a cappella groups, who easily translate his complete-ly composed music.

Another short example of Zappa's style of mind, in 1982, he released the three-disc, all instrumental box set called, "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar." The idea behind it being that, by taking immediate advantage of recent evolutions in recording technology, Zappa had spliced guitar solo's captured from live performances and isolated them on the track. From there, he composed entirely new music around the existing guitar line. So the resulting three (3!) albums feature completely out-of-context guitar work, except that you'd never know it because the music is still so cool and coherent.

Turning back to "Them Or Us", the album is an excellent representative of the prescient, anti-establishment parody present in most all Zappa art. His thematic tracks show the sharp-witted versatility of a smart-aleck stand-up comedian, often provoking out-loud laughter, even if you only catch half his verse. This sense of humor emanates out of all Zappa's work. More than 60 studio and live album releases in addition to various other multi-media endeavors (books, feature-length movies, music video's, etc) beg exploration, because love it or hate it, it's at the very least interesting, and always some thing different. I will be forced to paraphrase this quote because i left my copy in a box in D.C., but in the middle of The Phish Book, there is a full spread about Zappa, and somewhere at the end of that short biography, the point is made that Zappa's work was so vast, so far-reaching and diverse, that the only person who could properly comprehend and appreciate the full measure of it was Zappa himself.

Zappa was one of the most creative men in a generation (or two). And he never took drugs, believe it or not. He was just a naturally prolific music man with a bigfancy mustache.

The last issue I would like to address here is a grammatical matter. My friend Riemer once pondered aloud, "Is 'Them Or Us' correct grammar?" The answer is yes. Most commonly, we hear it in reverse, as in, "It's us or them bub, what'll it be...etc", but there is in fact nothing grammatically wrong with flipping and reversing it. It's clever, see? see what he did there? Shift your paradigm, ma-aan.
Anyway, listen carefully. If you don't immediately need to hear it again after hearing it once, maybe you should listen again anyway, just in case you missed something the first time.

For the record, Frank Zappa was born December 21st, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. After about age 12 grew up in southern California. His first release was he and The Mothers 1966, "Freak Out!", a double-disc set (considered the second-ever such release in rock music history, only narrowly pre-empted by Bob Dylan's, "Blonde on Blonde", released earlier that same year). He died December 4, 1993 at the age of 52, from prostate cancer.

Album Recommendations (so much to choose from, where to start?)

Freak Out! (try it, buy it)
Joe's Garage (any/every Act)
Hot Rats
Them Or Us (obviously)
Jazz From Hell

One last thing. As accompaniment to "Them Or Us", Zappa published a short book of the same name. This is the Foreword to that book, taken from Zappa's official website (link below).


This cheesy little home-made book was prepared for the amusement of people who already enjoy Zappa music. It is not for intellectuals or other dead people. It is designed to answer one of the more troubling questions related to conceptual continuity: 'How do all of these things that don't have anything to do with each other fit together, forming a larger absurdity?' Your enjoyment of the contents could be enhanced by hearing some of the music described in the text. The albums shown on the back cover contain some of these songs. Other songs derive from 'Joe's Garage' and "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch'. This is a story book. It is not a rock & roll biography. This is the only REAL & OFFICIAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK. All other books attempting to trade on my name are unauthorized and full of misinformation. This book is dedicated to all of the fans who have made the last 20 years of large-scale absurdities possible. This book used to be called 'Christmas In New Jersey'."

EOTO (End Of Time Observatory) review

Originally posted June 21, 2007

* * * *

EOTO (End Of Time Observatory) is the new side project from String Cheese drummers Michael Travis and Jason Hann. The two of them have been touring in support of their album Elephants Only Talk Occasionally, and i caught them at the ever comfortable Cabooze in Minneapolis on that historic night when LeBron James dropped 48 on the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The most recent member of SCI, Jason Hann was brought on board two winters ago to play percussion, complimenting Travis in the rhythm section. In this new outfit, Hann takes his seat with the kit and shows his versatility as a drummer.

Travis on the other hand, stands amidst a veritable playhouse of music-making machines. He has a keyboard and some bongos, bass and electric guitars and a variety of creative-noise makers, not to mention the two Apple laptops he uses to sync and loop all the sounds together.

As a two-man gig, the looping is key, as Travis controls the recording to create layers of sounds that build and build and breakdown and blow up and drop back in, right on time. The show at the Cabooze was 2+ hours of non-stop electro-funk. My shirt was well soaked with sweat after less than an hour and i was drenched head-to-toe by the time they made us leave.

But listen, this shit is funky. Travis laid it down on the bass and picked out clever licks on the piano, laying down a tonal base over Jason's original rhythms. But most surprising was Travis' skills on the guitar. His sound was reminiscent of Kang's (Michael Kang, SCI guitar/mando) high-pitched twang, but Travis kept his discipline and avoided the at-times-pointless noodling Kang gets caught up in. His riffs were generally rather simple, but well-timed and on point, adding to the hysteria of the improvised party beats.

Oh right, it will be important to mention that everything EOTO does is improvised. You would never know it just by listening, but apparently they don't write a thing, and just make it up as they go along. We had a chance to talk to Jason after the show, and Tom was conscious enough to ask him how they communicate, and he explained a series of simple hand signals he and Travis exchange: a thumb up or down for a jump in key, some head movements indicating a change in tempo, and a lot of eye contact and careful listening.

Though most of the show was high-energy, the two musicians are intelligent enough to manage a show and provide some variety. I'm thinking specifically of the encore, though there were other slower paced moments throughout the evening. The encore, which lasted no less than 15 minutes, grew smoothly into some slow-rolling funk; low-down throbbing and blues-y cadences, so deep and slow you could barely move but had to.

Although it's sad that the stinky Cheese will be the cause of no more Incidents, it's exciting to see how easily this side project has sprung up. This combo pumped out a rockin' dance party and appeared to be having (almost) as much fun as we were. If this is the only consequence of String Cheese leaving, then i think we're all gonna get by fine, just fine.

"Once" review

Originally posted June 2, 2007

My mother insisted that we see this movie. She said it was about music and Dublin, and that was all the coaxing i needed to stumble out of bed on this heavy wet Saturday.

"Once" is a simple film, filled with the organic romantic folk-rock of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The two musicians, who also happen to portray the two main characters in the movie, collaborate to create soul-full songs with love-struck lyrics while director John Carney employs them perfectly in a heart-felt tale that even managed to avoid the traditional, painfully self-aware, corny sensationalism inherent in most musicals.
In the press packet .pdf, Carney describes Hansard's songwriting style, saying he is "a good lyricist because his songs are never literal...They're quite vague, in a very good way that good songs are...very open to interpretation, they're like a good poem, which is meaningless one day and then suddenly has real meaning when you've been there, or when you've had that experience."
The songs provide the vague framework for the various love situations strewn between "the guy" and "the girl" (names are never mentioned). Hansard, "the guy", has rather recently lost his girlfriend to other temptations she found in London. Markéta, "the girl", is a Czech immigrant living in Dublin with her non-English speaking mother and young daughter, having left her husband behind in the Republic. With that in mind, the two artists orbit around and towards each other, drawn ever closer by their musical center of gravity.
Hansard plays the guitar and sings with pleasing versatility. His original songs tend to start soft, building in intensity until a tingling plateau explodes in honest emotion, complete with slammed strumming and tonal yells. I'm thinking specifically of the song, "When Your Mind's Made Up" in this case.
Ms. Markéta, who is still only 18 years old, adds crucial depth with instinctive piano playing, and her smooth vocal range beautifully complements Hansard's gritty nature. Her voice is somehow soft and lovely and loud and powerful all at once. She is usually singing the harmony in support of Hansard, but her subtle grace is impossible to miss. This was her first foray into acting, and her inexperience is more than compensated for by her natural energy.
The film is shot from a grainy, camcorder-style perspective. The low-budget feel creates an intimacy, a low-key atmosphere in which the music takes over much of the story-telling duties.
Discussing how the film took shape, Carney says, "I'd write a scene, or come up with a character note based on a song. Then, occasionally, it would be the opposite situation where I would ask Glen (Hansard) to write, not a tailor-made song, but I would give him some ideas about a scene and he would come back to me with a song. A lot of the material that Glen brought in, he had already written. They're not tailor-made songs for the film. Nor is the film tailor-made around a bunch of songs; but they meet somewhere in the middle, and I like that idea."
In the end, "Once" succeeds as a modern-day musical love story. The characters are real and likeable and the music soars throughout. The aural and visual beauty of bare-bones artistry is brought to life in this simple and pleasing film.

Glen Hansard was born in Dublin in 1970. He is the lead singer, guitarist and founding member of the Irish rock group The Frames. Their latest album is 2006's, "The Cost", and they are currently touring Europe and the US. Hansard recently released his first solo album (with Markéta Irglová), "The Swell Season".

Markéta Irglová was born in Monravia in 1988, and currently resides in Prague in the Czech Republic. She is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who began playing music at the age of 7. "The Swell Season" is her first release.

Director John Carney (On The Edge, Bachelors Walk) was the original bass player in Hansard's group, The Frames.