Saturday, July 12, 2014



On Watching the World Cup

Last week, sitting in an Ethiopian Café in my Roger’s Park neighborhood, I marveled at the comradery and collective spirit among the Café’s usual regulars from half a dozen capitals of the world.

Glancing about the room at the intent faces fixed on the mounted wide-screen TV, a collage of images came before my mind of past World Cup matches I’ve watched, in places not unlike this café. I recalled the boisterous crowd in Scotland a few years back, relishing with glee the fall of the English; I recalled the faces of my Argentine friends sitting next to me in a Rush Street bar when their countrymen lost; I recalled a man in a Galway pub turning to me as if I were Irish, “Do you think we’ll ever have a team in the finals? Just once?”

But the memory that comes back with most clarity is that first time I stood before a screen amongst fans of the world’s great past time.  

It was 1982 and France was playing Germany as I recall, an historic match, as Germany came back to beat France, winning on penalty kicks. But I can’t remember much of the actual match.  For one, it was a black and white set and not a very big one at that. And, there were a lot of people standing in front of me, scores of heads bobbing and straining to get a glimpse of a static image that rolled almost without stopping throughout the entire match. That was until I stepped up to try to save the day, after all I was there to offer my expertise for projects that benefited the village.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I tried to build latrines, I tried to demonstrate the effectiveness of mud brick stoves for saving firewood, I tried to teach farmers twice my age to grow vegetables during their dry season with temperatures that topped 110 degrees; but I might be best known in my village of Senegalese farmers for my greatest feat: trying to get good reception for the World Cup on a black and white TV by holding the antennae over my head and stretching its cord as far as it would go.

I must admit that initially when I’d learned that the Chief’s brother had decided to rent a TV to watch the World Cup from some relative in the regional capital, I shook my head in disbelief, wondering how they were going to watch a TV in village that had no electricity.

A week later, after returning from seeing my Peace Corps pals, I’d forgotten all about it, until I approached the cluster of huts of the Chief’s compound, and there it was—the familiar bluish light reflecting off the mud brick walls. Give it to the Senegalese, who could get anything to work with a bit of wire and their magical talents with machines. They’d hooked it up to the battery of a truck that I assumed didn’t work because it had not moved an inch since I’d arrived the year before.

I marched on in and went straight to my hut, lit my kerosene lamp, unpacked my bags and refused to be amused despite the crowds of villagers streaming in to take a look—many for the first time—of a broadcast on a TV.   

Blinded, I couldn’t understand what this meant to them, not just the broadcast, but the passion for the game of football.  On the walls of many of the men, there next to their national hero, Leopold Senghor, their first president, and photos of Mecca, were tattered posters of the French National Team. And every day, boys played on the sandy village square before the mosque with a ball made of weeds and rags.

The night of the World Cup, I tried to block out the circus outside my door by reading Solzhenitsyn but an hour before the match an excited voice broke my concentration: “Mustapha, Mustapha, (my Senegalese name) your people, your people, they’re on the TV!”  The Chief’s 10 year-old son, a kid who followed me everywhere and would strangle a poisonous snake to protect me, was heart-broken that I was not only not interested in the World Cup but not even interested in my own people all the way from America on TV.   

I winched and was about to utter some excuse in my broken, baby talk Wolof, when I heard the music.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Not here, I thought, on the other side of the globe, thirty miles from the Gambia River, it couldn’t be them?

But, yes. They were not only my people, they were The Village People, the world’s wonder of the disco age, belting out “YMCA,” with their characteristic exuberance and costumes. 

Looking at the crowds on the TV screen from Brazil and now even in Grant Park, I recognize that same sense of joy I remember seeing on the faces of the Senegalese so many years ago, as they watched a small black and white TV sitting atop two empty barrels, feeling as we do now connected, for a change, to the rest of the world. And that’s indeed worth watching.  


Friday, April 18, 2014

On The Passing of My Father

"Respect the Child.
Wait and see the new product of Nature.
Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions.
Respect the Child.
Be not too much his parent.
Trespass not on his solitude." 
                                                                   Ralph Waldo Emerson
My Mother & Father visit me in Senegal, 1983
A Prayer for My Father
by Robert Bly
                                                                   Your head is still
                                                                     restless, rolling
east and west.
                                                                   That body in you
                                                                   insisting on living
                                                                     is the old hawk
                                                                  for whom the world
                                                                       If I am not
                                                               with you when you die,
                                                                       that is just.

                                                                     It is all right.
                                                             That part of you cleaned
                                                                   my bones more
                                                                   than once. But I
                                                                     will meet you
                                                                  in the young hawk
                                                                      whom I see
                                                                       inside both
                                                                    you and me; he
                                                                        will guide
                                                              you to the Lord of Night,
                                                                  who will give you
                                                                      the tenderness
                                                                   you wanted here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Gardens Around Us

"To live—is that not enough? Let us then live, let us affirm!"  D.T. Suzuki

I think a lot about my mother these days, as she sits in a wheelchair in an Alzheimer’s unit next to I-69 that leads to the town where I was born over a half a century ago.  If she could see distances, she’d see the new Chase Bank, the LA Fitness, the BP Station, and down the street the Super Target, in the ever-expanding and replicating subtopia that spreads over the farms of central Indiana.

When I visit her, I roll her out of her room and the sterile, homey hallways where women like her roam and wait at the locked doors, hoping someone will let them out.  I take her to the back of the facility, behind the parking lot, where there's a gravel pit of sorts left from road construction. It's surrounded by weeds with tall cotton woods and oak on the other side.  We listen to the birds. We shoot the breeze. We absorb what we can.

My mother had a garden, and I walk in it, circling the paths she's made, as I think about my visit with her before I return to my other life. I watch my father from inside it, as he sits in a lawn chair  on the patio with his oxygen tank as he watches his squirrels.  My mother’s garden is what I’m worried about these days. What is going to happen to it when she's gone?

My mother’s garden is like a lot of gardens in America—not the gardens in the magazines or the ones cared for by teams of Guatemalan men with gas-powered leaf-blowers on their backs. Her garden is the type of garden I like to stop and look at when I walk through neighborhoods of Chicago where I live; one that has defied the cookie cutter landscaper's guide and feels as if someone has spent many years adding to, many years loving it. It sits under a canopy of old American hardwoods, planted there years ago for a farmer's woodlot, before suburbia overtook it in the 60's.  Under the stand of smooth, sexy- barked beech, maples, and fingery-leafed oaks, she has spent 38 years adding creeping ground cover, flowering shrubs, and sticking in whatever would work from the half off rack at the nursery. The soil was terrible though she improved it by mulching and watering.  It grew from a plot that stretched four or five feet out from along the drive way to over-take nearly a half an acre, as she cleared out invasive species and made room for wildflowers, her favorites—like trillium and paint brush and the spring beauties that would blanket the yard in the spring.  She also planted daffodils, scores of them, that over the years turned into hundreds as she separated them and spread them out, bulbs from hers and my father’s mother’s gardens.

Over the years it became a refuge for her and for our family, as the two other neighbors had virtually let their woods completely go and thickets grew so dense that the neighbor’s 1948 Dodge truck disappeared from view.  

My mother gardened until we took her to a dementia unit, that week my father was hospitalized a year and a half ago.  She’d made paths by placing fallen limbs to serve as bordering, and in the last weeks before we had to take her, my sisters and I wandered slowly around those paths with her, helping her to pick up twigs, which was what she did every day in her last months at home. My mother’s garden became a kind of lover, a textured world of sensual pleasures, bird song, shadows, light, variegated color. It held her, as she told me once walking on a beach in Florida, "nature holds us." There she could communicate and be understood; there she was not confused by what was happening to her body and to her mind. It was a sensuous thing to see: her fingering the flowers, kneeling for long moments staring into a patch of pale purple phlox.  

How we relate to the land is the most important subject before our world. Our food, shelter, water, and--yes, the energy that powers most everything we use to sustain our way of life. But, we also need the land, like plants do, to flower. This is not a romantic idea. This is how our skin and other sensual organs work.  We are pollinated, one might say, our brains feed on the nectar of what our perceptions absorb from the world around us.

My mother left us this garden and I’m not so sure what will become of it—become of her wooded sanctuary of spring beauties and trillium and periwinkle and vines of poison ivy. 

This past spring, my father told me that the man, who lived across the street, came over and told him that his wife had died, a woman in her late forties, of diabetes.  And then, he added: “You know, the oddest thing happened before she died. I didn't tell you this, did I? This man came up to the door one morning and said he had a favor to ask. ‘My wife is very sick,’ he said, ‘and I’d like to bring her some of your daffodils, would you mind? We always looked at them from our window. She always liked those daffodils. Could I take a few?’ Well, I told him, you just take as many as you want. I was going to tell him, you know, about mom, but I think, I think he knew.”

Friday, October 19, 2012

Surprise! Hiking in Gary's Miller Beach


This is why I love the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and many other hidden remnants of the remarkable natural landscape that once stunned the early French explorers with its wildness and wonder.

I’d heard about Miller Beach for years as a frequent explorer of the Indiana Dunes and the surrounding prairies and marshes. Looking on a map, I’d often wondered just what was adjacent to the humungous US Steel Gary Works. I’d visited the actual beach and the Paul Douglas Environmental Center and walked around the marshes there but never thought to venture further, knowing that the land might be mostly residential or compromised by the years of industrialization. Like many who’ve explored these heavy industrialized areas, I’ve learned not to be surprised at what to expect.

I asked for a map at the resource center, but the ranger said they didn’t have one, but that she’d mark it on my map. This was a good sign, I thought, or was it?

Off I went through the golden leafed black oak savannahs with the familiar sounds of the south shore line rocketing through the little Gary suburb of Miller Beach, preparing me for the usual hiking experience at the Dunes where you’re never far from the realities of this post-industrial landscape. The marshes were browning and choked as usual with the invasive hybrid cattail.

Then, I came to a trail that led off the marked Miller Woods Loop trail. This trail dipped, meandered and then came to what I guess is the west end of the new Marquette Trail. The trail is an old rail bed.  As I looked right and left, the trail became a tunnel of golden leaves with scarlet sumac along the banks. The sun, the warmth of the day, and sudden flood of color jolted me awake. It was fall, wasn’t it? In the city, you recognize that the trees are changing and the days are getting shorter and cooler. But it’s a passing thought as you get on a train or go about your busy life.  In natural settings, however, color sharpens and soothes some quality of perception that we can’t access in the manufactured settings most of us inhabit. I hike for these moments of perceptual shock when natural color bombards the back of my retina and bursts the dull patterns of my mind.

I half thought of walking down this straight path to see where it led. But I wanted to follow this Miller Beach Trail.  

The trail weaves by several marshes, nestled between the old dunes.  Some a few acres, some opening out into shallow ponds surrounded by grasses and cattails, where I startled a couple of blue herons and noticed gold finches and other migrants but I couldn’t ID them. I was still, as usual, too much in a hurry. How many little marshes are out here?  I followed the trail up a small dune and then down, and through the foliage, I caught a glimpse of a rich, ultramarine blue. The Lake? Already? No, it was one of the several lagoons particular to this unique dune and marsh landscape. It’s not small, maybe 10 acres, and completely surrounded by trees.  I stopped and for a moment, I had to remember, that I was at the Dunes and Gary was a few miles to the south and west. I crossed a newly built little wooden foot bridge that protects the wetlands and connects the western lagoon to the eastern one, where I could see some of the homes in Miller Beach.  

I climbed around another dune and there was another shallower pond with a horseshoe set of dunes towering over it. And around its edge, my first industrial sight, marring the landscape: what a mess, trees half chopped down, branches piled up in the water, damming up the water’s natural flow, ah, the old beaver had been hard at work. And there, too, is a flock of ducks, wood ducks with their clean forest green markings.  

 I wasn’t even close to the beach and I’d walked at least a mile. So of course, I climbed the dune, at a pitch that made me have to hold on to tufts of purplish blue stem grasses. Dune hiking is not for the unsteady or the impatient, I always have to remember. So I angled up to make it easier, but I still fell back and nearly tumbled back on my ass into the water.  One thing, though, about dune hiking you can’t ever really get hurt, unless fall into a patch of cockleburs or poison ivy.

On top, I finally got a glimpse of the lake, but I still had another half mile to the beach. To the right is unfortunately the sign of the sad history of the area, an unnatural plateau, bulldozed sand mixed in with the waste of years of steel production. The natural undulation of the dune procession is gone.  I moved on though I’m on my own, as there’s no real trail to follow. Ahead I saw the remains of a fence, buried up to its barbed wire, by the moving dunes of the past ten to twenty years. I push through brush, golden rod, aster, little blue steam, with a few old stunted black oaks sticking out of the sand.  There is something arresting to these old dead trees littering the dunes, charred black against the sallow sand, sand cherries, spreading wild grape and grasses hanging on the slopes.  Death turned into sculptural relics.  I spotted some pink ribbons and followed them.  It’s a surreal landscape, these dunes of Lake Michigan and the multiple environments that survive here. Nowhere else in the world can one find this unique mix of North America’s diverse environments, prairie, wetlands, woodlands, desert, boreal remnants of the ice age.  

I stepped over the fence. One more dip around a hybrid cattail clogged marshy area and I could see the lake and the rolling foredunes before it. The foredunes are young and form a swale that parallels the beach, all filled with grasses and golden rod. The little valley extends at least a mile right and left, and at the western end, there it is the grand mountain of industrial Gary—the chimney stacks and behemoth metal barn that comprises Gary’s integrated steel works. Out into the lake a long spit juts out into lake, and then further west the silhouette of gargantuan Arcelor Mittal and other US Steel plants, British Petroleum’s largest Midwestern refinery and all the rest of it. It’s always dramatic, and unsettling, no matter how many times you hike at the Dunes. You know it’s coming even as you get lost in the surreal dunes, marshes, woodlands, and ponds, there they are—the other half of the Lake Shore. And then, of course, there was Chicago, almost an afterthought, a thin shadow in the distance, a ghost of the great city, that disappeared as I climbed to the last dune ridge lined with youthful sycamore.  And then, I landed on a wide clean empty beach that stretched to the spit and back northeast to Miller Beach, a good mile or more of empty smooth sand.

I stopped to stare and admire the expanse of the lake and its beach. Surveying the lake and the open sky always stuns my mind for a few moments. I don’t know why. I live by the lake, in Rogers Park, there’s rarely a day that doesn’t go by and I don’t find myself on the beach there, walking, swimming, running, stopping and staring out. But when you hike up and over dunes for a couple of hours, there’s always a surprise at how magnificent the lake really is. Why is this? Why do we need to earn it first on foot, moving from the old dunes to new, walking through history as recorded in these changing ecologies?