Death’s Sting

25 March 2018

[Above photo:  A poster in a mission school, high in the Misuku Hills. Who could handcuff those sweet, kempt little children? Hilarious! Like “Crooked Hillery!”]

Sitting on the front porch in the early morning cool, birds flying and feeding and singing all around me, I sought the correct note. Notes, actually. I started with a Bach Cantata but it was much too complex and lively for me to play as background to writing. A Hayden quartet—-too formal.  A Schubert piano sonata. Ah, a Schubert string quartet. Just as I got it started, there was a calling at the gate. I’d texted Chimwemwe not to come in until 1PM.  I like it without guards when I am here.

Catherine called out, “Daddy”, as she calls me, in an anguished voice. I rushed to open the gate, fearing the worst, that her daughter who had been ill this week had died. Her brother was accompanying her and she fell into my arms sobbing. Her uncle, from a village near Chikwawa, was rushed to Queens early this morning. All she could recount was that he had nasal oxygen cannulae and couldn’t catch his breath. He’d just died. She asked, “Where is Mommy?”, as she does whenever she sees me. Linda is her primary go-to person; I’ll do in a pinch. I got her some money—-about $25 which is 2/3 of a month’s salary—figuring since it wasn’t her child, as with our guard, Cabbage, when his daughter died, she wouldn’t be expected to pay for the funeral costs. She was grateful, sobbing and hugging me, and turned to go to the hospital with her brother. Perhaps the morgue, now. His breath caught and he sobbed once, which is pretty unusual for a Malawian man. At least in front of another man. Anyway, I was tearing up and with all the unconscious grief and empathy flowing around, he likely didn’t have a choice. We are social—herd—critters.

I had opened the NY Times on my computer to follow the reports of the gun-control marches just before Catherine and her brother appeared. It is heartening to see the energy. I hope it isn’t dissipated or distracted with a pre-emptive strike somewhere. Civil Rights, Vietnam, La Huelga of the Farmworkers’ Union, LGBTQ rights, Women’s rights, and so many more extensive displays of peaceful protest have forced change in this country.   As I understand it, the Second Amendment was to allow small groups of justifiably-suspicious farmers to oppose attempts at tyranny by the government of our newly-minted nation.  With its military intelligence, weaponry, and determination, there is no way in hell that armed civilians, even in clandestinely-trained militias, could overthrow a tyrannical government. It would be a one-sided slaughter. Besides, we’ve moved beyond baring our teeth and fangs; we can vote and encourage others to do the same.  As the man said, “Follow the money.”, which means the money the gun manufacturers and lobbyist rake in and the portions of that the politicians demand for their support.  If we want to raise ourselves up out of the dirt or step out of the jungle into the sunshine, we’ll have to stop bareknuckling it as a first response to dis-ease.

After we put my daughter’s (and my—I cared for him for half his life) dog, Oscar, down, I felt a desire to keep walking the familiar route we had taken each night up in the Berkeley hills. But without him—-a gentle but fierce-looking 115 pound OBD (Oakland brown dog)—I felt vulnerable. Predators tend to hunt at night. One evening’s walk I carried my Opinel wooden-handled folding picnic knife in my pocket. I spent the entire time alert to danger, planning how to unfold and lock it open in a hurry without cutting off my fingers. It ruined my walk and made me unnecessarily frightened. So I walked, unarmed, recalling with pleasure all of my nocturnal circuits with Oscar. Sometimes he’d sniff so much—“Who was that? When were they here? Is she single or does she have a friend?”—that I’d get far in front of him. Then I’d sprint off to see how long I could hold the lead.  Once I turned to cross Claremont Avenue, which at 11PM was empty.  He cut the corner short, we tangled legs, and I went down onto the pavement head first, hands jammed in my puffy jacket pockets. My first thought was, “Jeez, I could have had some fun fighting in high school because I clearly don’t knock out all that easily.” I got an excellent black eye out of it, and made good retorts to enquiries: ”You should see the other guy.” Anyway, outgrowing our adolescent aggression is especially important when we have nuclear, not just muscular, arms. Let DT and Kim Jong-Un slug it out. As long as winner doesn’t take all, since I don’t think Mr. Orange Mashed-potato could punch his way out of a soap bubble.

Oh, my god! I have been waiting for the Sunbirds to arrive and just in the middle of this violence-referenced rant, a collared Sunbird appears and is extracting nectar from the lantern-vine flowers 8 feet from me! I like Good Omens, and this is instantly recognizable as one. A gorgeous and tiny creature, iridescent green cap and cape, bright yellow bib, breast and underparts, a tiny band of blue under the neck, and a short, jet-black curved beak.

I’ve been pretty ill for a week. I thought it was a cold from sitting, eating, and sleeping in air-con for 3 days at the conference. Stefan suggests that the Brits from Kings College London brought in a bug. I continue to cough and bring up all sorts of guck, even though I don’t have a fever. Our friend, Sophie, with whom Linda is this weekend, is an acupuncturist and offered to stick me. I thought, what’s to lose? I was curious, as well; years ago I saw the first widely available 8mm film of acupuncture treatment in China, taken by Victor Seidel MD (Mt Sinai Hospital, NY).  In it a woman was being fed some lychee fruit while her gall bladder was being removed. And after brain surgery, another patient got up and walked to his room. Stunning!

I took a taxi out of town to Pa Hruntzi, an old mansion on spacious, overgrown grounds turned into a permaculture training site, an event center, and the location of Sophie’s office. After taking a history, when she put in the 5th needle, I started to pass out. After taking the appropriate measures, we were able to continue. I later realized I’d had 2 cups of tea in 24 hours—period. When I got home, I tucked in the mosquito net in preparing to retire and suddenly was on the floor. I’d had no sensation of dizziness, just that people were battering me with wooden chairs on the way down. The chairs would be Linda’s dressing table which I crashed against as I sank. Anyway, no permanent damage done.  I’m convinced that I have PPLO, Atypical Pneumonia, Mycoplasma pneumonia, or whatever it is called these days and shall start a macrolide antibiotic now.  Pause. First day’s dose is in.

My final take on Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. He’s a fine writer but too pretentious, dropping names and positions. He’s hypocritical, dismissively demeaning of American tourists on camera safaris while he sometimes takes super luxury trains, eats in elegant restaurants and stays at a fancy waterfront hotel in Cape Town, enjoying all. At times he is an admirable adventurer, but then that’s his occupation.  Most people don’t have the time on the ground, or the inclination, to rough it as he does. Why put them down? And to minimize the beneficial impact of foreign currency flowing into an impoverished continent via tourism—for Africa is so beautiful and increasingly suited for the same—is silly. It provides huge incentives to protect species and the environment. He’s a voyeur, just as they are. He simply writes about it and is paid handsomely for it. And always has a plane ticket home.  It seems he’s trying to say, I’m living like a poor African lives, so I really get them.  He can endure dirt, bad food, dangerous circumstances, and major discomfort. But he can never really get the mind set of someone whose lif e circumstances, including future outlook, are so different from his own. No one can. Also, when being critical of Africa, look at our inner cities. And our politicians/political corruption. The last book of his I’ll read, I think, unless he takes time to examine himself and his motives with the same scrutiny he reserves for the subjects in this book. Short-sighted, mean-spirited.

I got another teaser from Fulbright. The East Asian group of scholars will convene in DC for three days in June for a briefing and to meet each other. I’d like to go to it if they will shoulder some of the costs.  I know not to get into political discussions in Myanmar, unlike a friend and colleague’s son who actually made a tape recording of Aung San Suu Kyi when she was on house arrest and then smuggled it out of the country.  Risky to do without significant upside benefit, especially apparent in hindsight. I’ve spent enough time in low-income countries that I know how to exist comfortably. I am excited to teach in SE Asia. If Myanmar isn’t a fit with the US right now (Where is, given our chaotic, disrespectful, and lurching foreign policy?), I’ll try it through another country there.

OK, the real news is that my daughter tried, unsuccessfully, to text me and so sent me an email that she’d like to talk with me. We wrote back and forth a bit last night and I’ll FaceTime her at 3PM Malawi time today.

An account of death and guns and fear and illness and Oscar and a Sunbird and Theroux and the future and, finally, my daughter. It is a lovely day here, about 75 degrees in the shade with a soft breeze blowing and small, but growing, puffs of cotton bobbing in front of the blue, blue sky.  Stefan and Lucy, feeling housebound and with two loaves of bread in her oven, are going out to lunch and asked if I’d like to join them. But, of course!


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