Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mays, Who Live in Windsor

My 44th birthday, the day of strange portents – a bible in the road; a fallen tree; a sleeping bat – landed on a Tuesday, a school day. Which meant both kids, now that Ursula is in pre-school, would be in school. Which meant Tahra and I would be free for several hours to do Anything We Wanted. Savoring our rare alone time, we walked  slowly from the kids' bus stop through the grey Berkshires morning toward our crooked old farmhouse. On either side of the long gravelly drive, smoke lingered over black, leaf-choked pools as we passed beneath stands of pine, maple, oak and ash, with clusters of bending, slender birches dangling thin sheaves of bark. The smell of wet rock and earth, moss and decaying leaves and pine needles, and rotted, lichen-covered fallen trees, damp humus; milkweed and ferns; the beginning of Fall.
We left the road and stepped into the muffled woods to explore an unmarked trail we'd been eyeing for the past few days. As always, bears were on our minds. We find large piles of black bear scat all over our rented, 25-acre property; in the road, on the narrow deer paths that lead from the lower meadow to the wild blueberry bushes below. We poke into the pie-shaped piles for clues to what the bears have been eating; pine nuts and seeds and dried berry remnants are often visible. Tahra scared off a bear at our compost heap one morning.  Armed only with a bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, she heard the crack and pop of deadwood snapping and saw a big black bear butt receding through the tall burdock and into the thickets nearby, and ran back to the house to tell us. The kids have seen bears in or near one of the three wizened apple trees on our property, twice, from the safety of the big picture window in our kitchen.  On the second occasion, in September, Tahra and the girls watched as two black bear cubs no bigger than raccoons clambered up and down one of the apple trees, and the mother bear sauntered across the view, too, before disappearing into the brambles. Yes, we are in bear country, and this ain't the Berenstains this time - these bears are real, and wild, and it's exciting and a little scary, too, to know they are so  near us.

On this morning, my birthday morning, Tahra and I hiked up the trail, one of many tended quiet paths that twist amongst the acres and acres of murky forest abutting the property we’re renting, on land owned by our neighbor, a retired world explorer named Norm who is rarely at home, and who has given us leave to tromp around his hilly trails. We stop to inspect tiny blue mushrooms, clumps of white mushrooms that grow in clusters of crystalline bonsai, and neon orange mushrooms popping out of fallen tree trunks. We see trees that clearly have been raked by sharp, five-fingered claws, but no bears. Soon we spot a light-filled, open area off to the left and blaze over to it. Someone had made a fairly good-sized clearing there with a chainsaw, and left jumbled piles of cut wood around. Tahra noticed a thick dead pine tree, still upright with giant shards of sturdy brown bark peeling off its base, and asked if I’d be willing to pry off a piece or two to help enclose a fort she’s been building up for the kids in the back yard.
I pulled off a chunk of bark almost as tall me, and there, stuck to the naked trunk underneath was a tiny, fuzzy, roosting bat. It stayed stuck to the tree for a moment and then fell off near my feet, unmoving, probably asleep. From what I’ve read about bats in Massachusetts, which isn’t much, I think this was a young, male “little brown bat,’’ or Myotis lucifugus, one of the most common species in the state. Males like to roost alone in the daytime in quiet spots, including underneath tree bark. These flying mammals wake up at night and wing around using echolocation to snarf down as many as 600 insects per hour. Without bats, there would be a lot more mosquitoes to plague us. Tahra and other La Leche Leaguers will be pleased to know that infant little brown bats cling to their mothers’ undersides, attached to the nipple even during their mothers' nighttime bug-eating missions, nursing away during the hunt. Earlier, while walking the kids to the bus stop, we found a lost bible in the middle of the road near our carport. Now, a sleeping bat falls out of a tree at my feet. What next? 
We covered up our sleeping insectivore and marched home. An hour or two later, a wild rain and windstorm kicked up, and the power and phones went out. Because we can’t get a good cell signal from the house, I set off in the Volvo for the top of the road, where I know the cells work. I didn’t get far, though, because at the exact same spot in the road where we found the bible earlier that morning, half of a giant, old-growth maple tree had split apart and come down across the drive, blocking me in, and bringing down the phone and electric lines with it.
As I parked and hiked up the road to call the power company, I remembered something interesting about this maple, one of the oldest trees on the property. The last time I was home on leave, Tahra was in the bathroom at dusk when she came rushing out to tell the girls and I that a large owl,  (probably a barred owl, we later learned), had just swooped out of the trees and landed in the grass in the middle of the yard, in plain sight of the bathroom window. We rushed outside quietly, just in time to see it fly into the upper meadow. All four of us tiptoed up the hill and peered into the dim treeline, and then we spotted it, a dark shadow as big as a fire hydrant, perched on a bare branch on the same side of the same tree that split apart and fell across the road on my birthday.
Hard to see, but that's a very small bear cub hanging onto the side of our apple tree.
Two May cubs trekking up our road to their bus stop.
Wonder tomato grown by Tahra in our garden in Windsor. Elephant salt shaker for scale.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Happy Number: Strange Signs

I turned 44 a week ago during a short trip home to Massachusetts, and a string of puzzling, seemingly disparate events happened on my birthday, involving a mysterious bible, a tiny sleeping bat, and a giant old-growth maple that split asunder during a wild storm and fell across our dead-end road, cutting us off from civilization (we lost internet) and knocking out the power while Tahra tried to bake my chocolate birthday cake. Unusual omens, considered individually -- did I mention the tornado warning -- but what if there was a connection? I made enquiries; here are my preliminary findings.

Firstly, 44. It’s a rather interesting number. In recreational mathematics, 44 is known as a “happy number’’ – meaning that if you replace it by the sum of the squares of its digits, and keep repeating the process, eventually you will arrive at a number equal to one, and can’t go any further. (I actually tried this, and it worked.) Forty-four is a palindromic number, too, meaning that the number is the same if the digits are reversed. The term is derived from the word palindrome, which refers to any word (such as rotor or racecar) whose spelling is unchanged when its letters are reversed. Strangely, I recently read a lengthy article about obsessive palindromists in a hip literary magazine called The Believer, to which our friend Jed Berry, a lecturer at UMass Amherst, introduced us about a year ago. Here’s another strange fact: the current edition of The Believer happens to contain an article about Jed’s excellent and critically-acclaimed first novel, The Manual of Detection. Happy Numbers. Palindromes. Jedediah Berry and The Believer. Interesting thread....coincidence?

Another fact about 44: it is the retired shirt number of baseball great Hank Aaron, breaker of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Before learning this piece of basic hardball lore, I had had occasion to read a bit about Hank Aaron’s amazing life, in a newspaper article I glanced over while on the way from Nairobi to the States. There was a short item about the legendary Aaron endorsing Barack Obama for President. Barack is also a 44 – the 44th President of the United States. Whilst pondering 44s, another one unburied itself from my memory banks. A chunky hardworking bruiser of a Washington Redskins running back named John Riggins, MVP of Superbowl XVII, was one of my mother’s favorite all-time football players, along with the dashing former Skins’ quarterback Joe Theisman, whom she once met. Riggins was number 44, and mom and I used to sit on our couch of a Sunday and watch him blow through 300-pound defensive linemen like they were dandelions gone to seed. Forty-four: Me. Hank. Barack. Riggo. And my mom’s first name is Victoria and there is a cough suppressant called Vicks Formula 44.

About this bible. It was bound in black and looked fresh from a Day’s Inn nightstand. Face-down in the wet with its thin white pages open to Deuteronomy 16-17.Tahra and the kids and I stumbled on it in the chill air shortly after my birthday dawned, at 7:15 a.m. as we walked the girls up our dead-end dirt lane to their bus stop. Another poser: what was a motel bible doing in the middle of our no-traffic road near our dilapidated double carport? Have we moved into a Stephen King novel?

I thought the answer might lie in Old Deuteronomy itself, so I looked, and what I found did verily induceth woe in me. It turns out that Old Deuteronomy, in addition to being the main character in T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which is the basis for the mega-hit Broadway musical Cats, contains a terrifying manifesto of do's and dont's, to say nothing of the 'ths, with many detailed instructions about when, where, and why various categories of people should get stoned. (To death.)

Up next: the little brown bat and the big sugar maple.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Secret Annexe

Outside of Amsterdam Centraal Train Station at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, I stepped alone into one of the Old World’s most beautiful and famous cities, a place honeycombed by placid dark canals lined with snug wooden houseboats, quiet brick streets fronted by not-yet-open cheese shops, bakeries, bars and boutiques on the ground-floors of handsome antique row houses featuring interesting carven doors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Every so often, a graceful steeple or belfry poked incongruously from the roofline, topping off cavernous and ancient-looking halls of worship. But what impressed me more than the grand architecture and serene canals was the city’s cycle-centric nervous system. Immediately outside the train station there is a three-tiered concrete parking garage, the kind you see full of Avalanches, Excursions and Rangers outside Metro stations in Virginia. THIS concrete parking garage, however, was full of bicycles – conservatively, I would say two or three thousand bicycles. Parked at a train station. By people who then took trains to ride somewhere else. I’ve heard that Copenhagen, in Denmark, the birthplace of the iconic Christiania cargo bike company, is even crazier for cycling. Amsterdam, though, must be Copenhagen's near rival. As the city awoke, I found myself inside a hive of bikes whizzing by in different directions, pedaled by healthy-looking bipeds. Is this what national health care, legalized prostitution and locally acceptable marijuana sales leads to? Bicycle riding and massive use of mass transit? Eco-coolness?

Anyway. Back to my mission. I only had three hours before I needed to get back to Schiphol. Within that time, if possible, I planned to have breakfast and walk through the secret entrance, hidden behind a swiveling bookcase, into the pectin warehouse where a fellow compulsive diarist, Anne Frank, survived for a miraculous two years with her family during World War II before someone betrayed her to the Gestapo, causing her to be sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. She and her sister died there, a month before the Allies liberated it. In all, seven of the eight people who hid in the house were killed in the camps. Her father survived Auschwitz, found her diary after the war, and recognized its power and significance as he turned its pages for the first time.

I made it to the Anne Frank Huis on the Prinsengracht Canal by 9 a.m. The Prinsengracht, or “Prince’s Canal,’’ is one of three main canals dug in the 17th Century during the Dutch Golden Age that form concentric circles around downtown Amsterdam. There are more than 1,500 awe-inspiring, monumental buildings inside this tri-canal area. The district was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status two years ago. At the Anne Frank Huis, all of the guided tours for the entire day were booked up long in advance, but I could still get in to do a self-guided exploration. I was surprised by the number of young women, including many teenaged girls of various nationalities, queued outside well before the museum’s opening. Stunningly, Anne Frank was only 14 years old when she wrote the bulk of her diary. The depth of feeling, the self-awareness and intellect of this young human screams from the pages. Hers was a hungry, hyper-kinetic mind, and she seemed to feel that the maniacal evils being perpetrated across Europe by the Nazis – though in every sense immediate, real and horrific -- were an aberration, and that humankind would correct and heal itself. Did she really believe that?

We went in and proceeded at a snail’s pace through the three-story building. The place is empty, dim, unfurnished, full of echoes and the ponderous shoe-scuffling of visitors. In this tomb-like house, not a word is spoken above a whisper. We duck through the hidden bookcase entrance into what Anne Frank called the Secret Annexe. We look out the window in the attic where Anne Frank gazed at the topmost leaves of a chestnut tree and dreamed of being able to go outside again, where she longed for her friends and planned what to study in school when the nasty mess was over. We stand in the room she shared with a cantankerous old dentist, taken in by the Franks. We see where she sat and listened to the bells of the church next door, the Westerkirk, which first opened its doors to believers in 1631.

We trudge back downstairs and contemplate madness and murder. We remember Cambodia. Bosnia. Rwanda. Sudan.

When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?’’ – Anne Frank

Eleven million people were killed during the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary has sold more than 30 million copies. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest books written in the 20th century. She was 14 when she signed her name on the final page.

Monday, August 13, 2012


The 10-year-old boy in front of me at Passport Control in Amsterdam is preparing to puke. Fortunately I had some warning. He had jerked suddenly and suspiciously 180-degrees away from the crew-cut Dutch guy sitting behind glass in the passport booth, lowered his head and scrunched up his scapulae like a waterbird settling its wings while getting ready to spear a fish. Instinctively, his parents both stepped sideways a step or two, and I stopped in my tracks, a good three meters back. Then he let go, with a sound like glass marbles pouring onto the cold concrete floor. No moaning or sniveling, just the sudden and surprisingly voluminous waterfall of liquified toast, eggs, Cap’n Crunch and whatever else spilling onto the floor. And then, a coda – and another half-cup’s worth comes out. Mom waits a respectful beat, and then approaches to cautiously pat his back. I step three queues to the left and watch the expressions of the Dutch immigration squad behind their partitions. They seem only slightly bemused, and I can tell they are happy their jobs do not involve mops or buckets, but only scanning passport pages and asking people what their business entails, inside the nation of the Netherlands on this day.

Is this a portent? A sign that I should not, in fact, embark upon my audacious and time-sensitive mission outside Schiphol Airport during a seven-hour layover en route to Detroit? Everything to this point had gone so smoothly. Underwear and socks change in private toilet stall in KLM Crown Lounge? Check. Free café au lait and turkey/cheese roll breakfast inside Crown Lounge? Check. Figure out complicated credit card and infrared-scanning lockers system so I could store my laptop and carry-on backpack inside the departures terminal whilst touring Amsterdam in the morning? Check. But here, my first hurdle – over a boy’s puddle of vomit, and I’m not even outside the airport yet. I held my breath, and got through.

In the bowels of Schiphol, there is a train terminal. Somewhere, you would think a giant neon arrow would point ingénues like me toward the ticket counter. But instead, there seems only to be two-dozen ambiguously labeled cavities in the earth, into which mechanized walkways are taking people in different directions to various points around Europe. If I went down the wrong hole, I might end up in Vladivostok, Istanbul, Yerevan, or Athens, when all I wanted to do was ride 15 minutes down the rails to downtown Amsterdam. I asked a KLM stewardess, staring up at something on the ceiling, if she knew where I could buy a ticket. Without making eye contact, she lifted her arm and pointed sideways, at a giant neon sign that said TICKETS, about 20 yards away. I purchased a round-trip ticket and miraculously found my way onto a train heading into downtown Amsterdam, also known as "Hamsterdam" to my 7-year-old daughter. I believe she thinks the town was named for hamsters.

What I found there when I exited the glorious old train station at 7 a.m. on a Saturday made me gasp, and grab for my camera.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Above: black-crowned cranes on newly greened savannah near the River Lal, Warrap.

The rain is here. Every day now in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, grey-white clouds parade across the horizon, driven by gusty drafts. Thunder rumbles and people look up expectantly from their black clay fields, where for the past month they have spent the majority of their time kneeling, chipping at the earth with short-handled maloudas to prepare for the land for planting.

This sub-Saharan country is mostly brittle, brown and dust-plagued for much of the year, but for about five months beginning in May, a carpet of rich green rolls out unstoppably, and a part of the world better known for famine is transformed into a land of plenty. In another month, tall maize and sorghum stalks will reach the pointy thatched roofs of farmers’ tukuls, the cylindrical mud-and-wood houses traditionally built by South Sudanese. Peanuts, sweet potatoes, melons and squash will extrude from the dirt; papayas, guavas and bananas will erupt.

On Monday this week, July the 9th, South Sudan celebrated its first anniversary of independence. This proud but poor nation of nine million people has endured a rocky infancy. A bloody border dispute with its northern neighbor, Sudan, brought the two countries to the brink of a third war a few months ago and prompted South Sudan to close its oil fields, killing the economic engine of both nations. The South Sudanese Pound has weakened dramatically against the dollar, prices for everything from sugar to rice and fuel have skyrocketed. But farming and livestock -- cows in particular -- matter more than oil to most citizens in this pastoralist society, still unspoiled by industrial agriculture. Cattle keep their horns here, and eat only grass. The Nile and its tributaries keep pastures fertile even during the dry season, and are a source of fish throughout the year. (I'm served wild Nile tilapia heads once a week for dinner or lunch. I've learned to tear the bones and breaded scales apart and eat the fish with my fingers, like a good East African.)

Despite everything on the wires about South Sudan's economic collapse, failed nationhood and impending humanitarian catastrophe on the northern border, here in Juba, there is an undercurrent of optimism. Construction has not slowed; if anything, buildings, including expensive hotels, are going up faster than ever. A Grammy winning producer who has worked with Wilco, Green Day and Fugazi is coming here next week to scout for unique South Sudanese voices. The Chinese are everywhere, opening businesses.

At my window in the morning, I listen to the children who walk briskly down my street in neat pastel uniforms and white knee socks, on their way to school. They sing and speak in Dinka or Arabic, neither of which I understand. I hear laughter. They move quickly, looking forward to the coming day.

Above: incredible sprawling tree near the River Lal, Warrap. I saw monkeys (colobus?) near here, too.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 6 - Hawthorne Valley

Heathsville (VA) - Chatham/Spencertown (NY) - Windsor (MA)

We've made it from the southernmost point in the U.S. to the Hudson Valley in New York. The loose plan was this: crash for a few months in Joel and Ellen’s woodsy summer house in Spencertown and hope Gryffyn would be accepted into the Hawthorne Valley School – a Waldorf school on a 400-acre working farm a few hills over in a wide hollow with big fields, forests and a clear, cold stream running through it. We weren’t sure she would get in, but Gryffyn and Ursula spent summer in a camp there, and Gryffyn really wanted to go back, for school.

Tahra went to HVS for a few years and enjoyed it. Kids get to be kids there – going outside in all weather, exploring the farm and hills around it, walking, growing and making things, studying animals, music, art, languages like German and Spanish, movement, handwork and myth are all part of it. The farm sustainably produces good food that is consumed locally, and there's an inviting farm market in the middle of it, the kind of place you could spend an hour just admiring the cheeses. Our friend Rachel Collins works in Hawthorne Valley’s visiting students program – kids from all over the U.S. and the world apparently come to see how this school-inside-a-farm works, and spend time there learning and exploring.

After a two-day classroom tryout and a nerve-wracking parental interview, during which I sat paralyzed while Tahra coolly fielded questions about pedagogy and child development intended to determine whether we were Waldorfian fiber, Gryffyn got in. (It’s probably good I never got to ask any of my prepared questions, including: “Are the sports teams any good?’’ and "Is it cool if I text Gryffyn once in a while?’’)

With school squared away, we switched our focus to Massachusetts, where, after the school year ends, we’ll move full time into a 150-year-old farm house on 25 forested acres high in the hills in Berkshire County, just across the NY state line. It’s a big old house with a wood stove, a loft, a couple of barns and enough open space to do some growing, located on a dead-end dirt road with old fieldstone walls criss-crossing the property, and I was excited to see it. Our friends from the Keys, Stephanie and Tony and their boys, have a house and land nearby, and turned us onto this place, with warnings that we'd see bears in the yard on quiet early mornings. I hoped to see one before heading back to Juba, but didn't. I think we're going to like this place.

Above: Windsor house.

Above: view out the kitchen window, Windsor.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 5 - The Northern Neck

We have arrived in the Northern Neck of the Chesapeake Bay, a place you could see easily from space, since the Bay is so huge and distinctive, surrounded on three sides by jagged rips of land inter-stitched by rivers that look like freon-filled capillaries and arteries in all the satellite pictures. The Northern Neck is one of those big rips on the west side of the Bay, and my parents’ house is perched on the edge of one of those blue capillaries – the Great Wicomico River. It’s a stunning natural environment, and the house is sited and designed to help you bask in it. There are so many windows in the place that it heats up almost instantly when the sunrays begin blasting and bouncing in off the surface of the picture-perfect cove below. Ice House Cove, overlooked by the house, is an intertidal work of art, meandering back into a grassy saltmarsh, separated by a slender spit of reed grasses from the thick river beyond.

“Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.” So wrote Capt. John Smith, the English explorer of the Bay, in his journal, sometime around 1607 to 1609, and you might agree after a stay at Mont May, as my parents have playfully named their estuarine Xanadu.

It takes me about fifteen speechless minutes of staring out windows at the river and cove and trees to adjust to the peaceful beauty of this place, whenever I arrive. Which works out fine because the girls usually instantly cleave themselves unto grandma and grandpa with the kind of grateful desperation that should evoke self-doubt in me, but doesn’t. I wander around and look at the various ways and means that my parents have enhanced their retirement castle since previous visits. Over here, for instance, there’s an entirely new wall of Frank Lloyd Wright-ish stone pieces, framing a new stainless steel hearth in front of the fireplace. Upstairs, dad installed radiant heat flooring in the bathroom along with a magnificent new tile shower in which my entire nuclear family could comfortably stand, complete with auxiliary jets that squirt water horizontally from the wall. Outside, there is now a lovely screened porch with mechanized screens that go up and down at the touch of a button. I have no idea how he and my mom are able to repeatedly pull off these incredible feats of do-it-yourself craftsmanship, each more impressive than the last, but there seems to be no mountain of improvement they cannot scale.

Time slows down for me at Mont May. Returned to the protective loving bosom of my parents, who always think of everything, I tend to lose my socks, my keys, my ball cap. I have trouble making simple decisions, possibly because more experienced adults who once completely and successfully ran my life for me are so nearby. A sort of pubescent dumbness strikes me, exacerbated by good wine. Which made it all the more gratifying when I beat Tahra at Scrabble there one night, for the first time in five years. I fully acknowledge that her loss had more to do with the powerful doses of six different meds she is currently taking than anything else, as well as the fact that she let me make a word that probably wasn't, but I happily savored the victory nevertheless. One doesn’t win at Scrabble with Tahra very often, in sickness or in health.

Other Heathsville highlights: dad taught me how to use a chainsaw without dismembering myself or others and shared with me the results of his ongoing arboreal research project, in which he is gradually identifying more and more different species of trees living on the property (he only chainsaws the fallen or dead ones). I think he’s got eight or ten different species of oak trees, alone, nailed down, among a couple dozen others. And during a long walk with mom and Tahra, we all saw an osprey locked in aerial combat with an eagle, apparently in a dispute over a fish. In the end, the fish fell to earth and the raptors flew empty-taloned back to the river.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 4 - Do Not Hump

Key West – Miami – Sanford – Lorton

Leaving the Florida Keys for destinations north, we stopped at Baby’s Coffee for cafes con leche, at Curry Hammock State Park for our customary nature trail leg stretch, and at Denny’s Latin Café in Key Largo for another con leche and lunch. Goodbye, Cuban coffee, rice and beans. You served us well.

We took Card Sound Road out of the islands, as we always do, and at the zenith of the bridge, with all the Keys behind us – the osprey, ibis, egrets and pelicans and spoonbills, the incredible family snorkeling and kayaking expeditions, our friends and all the little things we love about the Keys – the White Street Pier, Blue Heaven, Sandy’s and Salute, El Siboney, Bahia Honda, Fort Zach and our house, our garden – to the south, I thought about the character from that Carl Hiaasen book who strapped himself to the top of this bridge as a hurricane bore down, to experience the full force of it. We took some storms in the face, too. Hurricane Wilma destroyed our Pathfinder, pushed saltwater over the top of our three-foot-high porch and into the house, made the walls buck and blew water through the window seams, even with the shutters down. That vulnerability, that way-out edginess combined with extreme weather, contributes to the vitality of the islands, I think. I know Tahra will miss the big tropical storms, too.

On to Miami, to the home of Josh, Karla and Xavier, for one night. Josh is related to Tahra through Tahra’s mom’s mom. We discovered this several years ago, and have been having fun with this amazing family ever since. Josh spent time in Mali with the Peace Corps after UVA, where my brother went to school, Karla -- who wrote a book about the Maroons in Jamaica -- went to Yale, and their son, Xavier, is brilliant and sweet, a champion chess player who can also do perfect flips on the trampoline. We got in a little late but enjoyed a spaghetti and meatballs dinner cooked by Josh, with really good tomato sauce made by a Saudi college exchange student staying at the house. We’ve met college kids from all over the world during our visits to Josh and Karla, who seem somehow involved in everything good going on in Miami. We also have Josh and Karla to thank for introducing us a few years ago to sustainability idol Mario Yanez, founder of Earth Learning and The Farm at Verde Gardens down in Homestead. Mario introduced me to Florida-made avocado wine, which surprisingly, isn't as bad as it sounds.

From Miami we drove up toward Orlando, where we excitedly boarded the Amtrak Auto-Train in Sanford, pre-Trayvon Martin. The Auto-Train is THE longest passenger train in the world and was a thrill for all of us; we splurged for our own deluxe sleeping cabin, with four fold-out bunk beds, little fold-out tables, and windows looking out from both sides of our narrow t-shaped cabin. The Volvo would ride in style behind us somewhere on the double-decker train with approximately 250 other vehicles stacked inside enclosed car carriers. This may have been the only day in history that Gryffyn and Ursula actually looked forward to bed time. After climbing a short ladder and tucking themselves into individual, tray-like bunks suspended from the ceiling, the girls looked like weary but happy rock climbers hanging from bivy sacks on the edge of vibrating cliffs. The only down side to riding the Auto-Train: there are some puzzling policies, including one well-posted rule that forbids humping. (See photo, below.) Possibly to prevent derailment, or maybe because Amtrak gets federal subsidies, I surmised.

Seventeen hours, 900 miles and four states later, the train deposited us in Lorton, Virginia. When I stepped outside into near-freezing blustery weather, I had my first second thoughts about our planned move north, and flashed back to the day when I was a kid waiting for the school bus on a frigid day in Springfield, and suddenly realized my nose hairs had frozen together.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 3 - Bury My Wounded Heart at Blue Heaven

My turn to get into a hospital gurney. Time for knee surgery. My doctor is a top-class orthopedic surgeon who has patched up many pro football players, soccer players, and other athletes. He has described my knee problem as a “pretty good’’ lateral meniscus tear. I could let it go, but it would haunt me. Better to let him use his tiny video-camera-on-a-stick and buzzing alligator-jaw implement to remove it. “Your meniscus is like an o-ring,’’ he said. “Take the bad piece off and the rest of it still works.’’ Manfully, I pretended to understand what an o-ring was, imagining it has something to do with car engines. The doctor and I have had a few chats about Africa, because he volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not repairing bones in the Keys. He has been to Haiti already three times since the earthquake. He has been to Africa before, and they are sending him to Somalia, next.

The girls and Uncle Brent, who arrived safely for his visit in Key West from Phoenix last night, all stayed home when I went to the hospital. Who cares about a middle-aged guy getting elective arthroscopic knee surgery for a soccer injury, even though I could have died?

But I didn’t. In fact I was home a few hours later and felt well enough to hobble around without crutches, even though my left knee had three small, sutured holes in it and my leg was swaddled in white muslin from ankle to thigh. Now it was time to finish packing up the house. With a bad knee, two over-excited children and a still-recuperating Tahra.

Uncle Brent to the rescue! This guy -- this sensitive hunky deep-thinking adrenaline-junky doctor-of-physics Grand Canyon hiking landscape photographing Ultimate Frisbee all-star uncle, who parachutes out of planes every weekend and plays kickass guitar licks, who once starred in a band called The Revolvers who opened a Tucson show for The MONKS OF DOOM (Camper van Beethoven, anyone?), who drives a fast BMW and makes a lot of money doing something complicated on computers, who once took a U-haul filled with all of MY old junk from our parents’ basement in Virginia all the way to Key West, by himself – had come down to help us out with moving stuff once again, and to see the girls and see us off. The reasons this man is still single are as hard to fathom as the elusive Fifth Quark*. Girls: he won’t last another year. Book your tickets to Scottsdale, quickly, but walk softly when you get there. Hunters have had more luck snaring snow leopards in the Himalayas, though outdoorsy supermodels from Stanford might fare ok.

Anyway, last week in Key West. Tahra and I packed up the house, with much assistance from Brent, who knows I don’t get much time with Tahra and tried hard not to be in the way while simultaneously maximizing his helpfulness. The girls helped, too, by thoroughly taping shut completely empty boxes, making fully-furnished houses (for themselves) out of large boxes while we were trying to pack them, decorating boxes and the floor with Sharpies, popping costly bubblewrap and thwarting us in the midst of trying to give away a small fraction of some their never-used toys.

Five days and a lot of packed boxes later, we reluctantly said goodbye to Brent, put him on a plane back to Phoenix and hired our fantastic babysitter, Kelsey, from down the block to watch the kids for a few hours so we could go out to dinner on our last night in Key West. Kelsey showed up for the job with her live pet duck, Prissy, in a stroller. Is it any wonder the kids love her?

Fitting that our last dinner out in Key West should be at Blue Heaven, site of my first dinner out in Key West, more than ten years ago, when I was a lonely wounded man incapable of experiencing love -- until I met Tahra at the restaurant a week or two later. On this, our final night in town, we sat under the boughs of the great Spanish lime tree and enjoyed the company of friends Liv, Will, Hanrow and Ashley with lobster, snapper and scallops, hand-picked bottles of excellent wine and a lot of funny stories. Richard and Suanne, our good-hearted friends and owners of this famous, iconic and for us – intimately historic – restaurant, showed up at the end of our meal, stole the bill and gave us hugs, and wished us luck. “You’re off on a new adventure!” said Suanne.

* Editor's Note: For anyone interested, I believe the Fifth Quark is/was something important that may or may not be real, and which after great effort by Nobel Prize winners was actually discovered at Fermilab, a giant underground particle accelerator where Brent once worked as a research physicist trying to discover how the universe was created. Brent can (and will) correct me if I'm wrong.

* New Editor's Note: Brent May clarifies that it was actually the SIXTH Quark, also known as the Top Quark, that was such a big deal. It was "postulated and then observed'' at Fermilab (DOE lab outside Chicago.) Kinda scary that he knows what this means.

Above: Ursula meets Prissy on our front porch steps in Key West

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 2 - Minor Procedures

Key West–Miami–Key West

Friday -- At Key West Airport I’m smothered by my children, who always look a little disbelieving that it’s really me, really there again, with them. For my part, each time I arrive I’m surprised, too, by these little energy pockets whose arms and legs are longer each time I see them, in eight week increments. It’s not enough. Tahra is usually quiet but shiny-eyed when I arrive, letting the girls get their fill. For the kids, the excitement of me wears off as soon as the baggage belt lurches to life, however, and I’m struck by Gryffyn’s urgent motherly protectiveness of Ursula. When the conveyor belt’s flashing light comes on, she clamps an arm firmly around Ursula’s shoulder and pulls her near, every time. These three girls look out for each other.

Saturday -- I’m up early. I have to go to Key West hospital for a blood test and EKG in advance of my knee surgery, scheduled for Wednesday, the day after Ursula’s oral surgery in Miami. (I tore my meniscus playing soccer in Juba just before Christmas, couldn't walk much for about a week.) At home later, in between playing with the girls, Tahra and I work on getting the house ready for our move, scheduled for the week after next. And Uncle Brent is flying in, from Phoenix, on Wednesday night -- the same night we come back from Miami after Ursula’s surgery. It’s a crazy mess of a schedule, during which I also have to visit a urologist to make sure my vasectomy is still working. Long story, but everything is ok in that department.

Tuesday – Tahra has an appointment with a rheumatologist in Miami in the afternoon, who refers her immediately and unexpectedly to an allergist a few miles away for a biopsy of some mysterious and disturbing new spots on her lower legs. Turns out it's vasculitis, not a good sign considering the powerful meds she is on. More to worry about. Ursula’s surgery is on Wednesday morning at Miami Children’s Hospital, so we decide to stay overnight in Miami at one of our favorite places, The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. We like this historic old place, which has giant bird cages in the ornate, wood-paneled reception hall, along with what is reportedly the largest outdoor swimming pool on the East Coast. We’ve stayed here three or four times during trips through Miami, and always enjoy it. There’s really good sushi nearby and a little Moroccan restaurant we like just off the Miracle Mile, and the girls are crazy about the huge, L-shaped pool. Seemed like a good idea to rest in luxury after a long day of driving and before what was certain to be a traumatic and stressful medical event tomorrow – Ursula’s surgery, which would entail full anesthesia for several hours and much painful work inside her little mouth. Also, the Biltmore is right around the corner from Miami Children’s, where we were scheduled to check in the next day at 7 a.m.

Wednesday – Oral surgery day is here. We have given minimal information to Ursula up to this point, but now we casually let her know that the dentist is going to see her today to fix her cavity and give her teeth a good cleaning. Never-had-a-cavity Gryffyn is in on it – she knows it’s a bit more serious than that and she has done a good job keeping quiet so as not to terrify her sister, who doesn’t do too well with dentists or doctors.

Ten minute drive to the hospital from the Biltmore, still dark out, and we’re all quiet in the car. I’m nervous, Tahra’s nervous, and the kids are still sleepy. At the hospital, we are checked in quickly by a no-fuss receptionist and the girls set about puttering around the kid-friendly, art-filled waiting room, occupied by other grim-faced parents and wary-looking children. Upstairs in the ‘’minor procedures’’ area, numerous friendly people check on us, ask us lots of questions, flip through paperwork, and finally, the dentist arrives. Ursula mercifully takes a little liquid medicine to make her sleepy, which is great because by now she has figured out something big is going on, what with the hospital bed, hanging wires, beeping machines and other small children walking and rolling around in pastel gowns, not to mention ladies with clipboards and stethoscopes whisking our curtain back and forth.

“Ok Ursula, can you come up here on the bed now?” one of the nurses perkily asks, when the surgeon is ready.

“Cool! A rolling bed, wanna get in a bed with WHEELS on it?!” I croak.

No. Even a half-drugged Ursula will not get willingly into a hospital gurney, no matter how much fun her lying daddy says it will be, and she clings heavy-lidded and moaning to her mother’s neck, and stays stuck on as Tahra walks through the big double-doors into the OR, after which, Tahra later told me, she succumbed to the pharmaceuticals and was laid out, noodle-like, on the bed with a gas mask strapped onto her cherubic Ursula face.

Three hours, seven cavities, two crowns and one root canal later, I would see her again, and she was not happy. By late afternoon, however, we were back in the Volvo heading for Key West, with Uncle Brent somewhere in the skies above due to meet us in a few hours, and Ursula mowing through bananas in the back seat while watching Angelina Ballerina.

Friday, March 30, 2012

East Coast Ramble - Part 1

Juba-Nairobi-Johannesburg-Atlanta-Key West

I’m going home again but this time, it’s not for rest and relaxation. There are frightening things in the near future including discovering for myself the true ramifications of Tahra’s recently diagnosed illnesses. An ominous appointment with an oral surgeon involving full anesthesia for our cavity-riddled four-year-old at Miami Children’s Hospital. Arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn left lateral meniscus, for me. And after that, but before my 36-hour return trip to Juba, many sad goodbyes to be said in Key West prior to a scheduled interstate family expedition involving a trucking company, the Amtrak auto-train, and a long haul in the Volvo through Virginia and up to New York and Massachusetts, where we’d be moving into TWO different houses – one in each state. To get it all done I cobbled together four weeks off using comp days, my regularly-scheduled post rotation R/R, and both sick and annual leave.

Logistics couldn’t get me a flight out of Juba on the morning I needed to leave, so by happy circumstance, I’m bumped up a day and departed in the afternoon on the hour-and-twenty-minute flight to Nairobi. In Kenya on the way to my hotel, I spotted a giraffe and zebra herd off the highway. I looked over at the driver to see if he saw them too, but he was concentrating on the road. I got in early enough for a light workout in the small gym at the Ole-Sereni Hotel, then treated myself to a long hot shower – much appreciated, since the running water at my house in Juba had been contaminated with diesel oil for a while. Then, a good dinner – my first decent meal in two months, a spicy tandoori platter with naan and most of a bottle of South African red. No one to talk to at dinner so I dug into a Philip Roth novel on my Kindle and found myself reading a saga involving glove-making factories in Newark. America’s greatest living novelist (whose middle name is Milton, by the way) lives in and writes about NEW JERSEY, it turns out.

Next morning I’m up early to finish some briefing papers for a diplomat who is potentially visiting some of our work sites in South Sudan. Big breakfast of eggs and sausage, Kenyan baked beans and potatoes, good coffee and a tall cold glass of fresh-squeezed passion fruit juice. Filled out my time sheets, emailed some reports and spreadsheets to my colleagues to tide them over while I’m gone, and then it was time to head to the Nairobi airport. On this trip I’d be flying through Johannesburg, a much shorter first flight than my usual jaunt to Amsterdam, but it involved a tight connection and would leave me with a whopping 14 hours in the air from Jo-burg to Atlanta, so I was a little anxious, though relieved not to have to fly through Lagos, Nigeria, as I did during my previous trip home. The airport in Lagos has a horrible reputation. I’ve read that airport guards on the tarmac have shoot-on-sight orders due to problems with thieves who’ve stolen luggage by breaking into the baggage holds of planes as they are getting ready for take-off. My suitcase and I made it through ok, though, last time.

Uneventful flight to South Africa. While walking through the airport in Jo-burg to find my connection, though, I strolled by a place I thought I’d never in a million years see again – a little shop where Tahra and I bought a few last-minute things at the end of our big African safari adventure nearly a decade ago. We visited Cape Town and went on a once-in-a-lifetime camping trip in Namibia, where, atop a giant sand dune on the edge of the Namib Desert, overwhelmed by her beauty, intelligence and spirit, I spontaneously pulled her close and asked her to marry me, whereupon she wrinkled her nose and told me I smelled like a Cape Fur seal. I knew I still stunk from our visit to the seal colony that morning, where we incredulously watched jackals leisurely stalking seal pups on the beach, but I really wanted her to marry me and couldn’t wait any longer to ask, and she said yes.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"It bites you, and you fall asleep"

I have been in a dusty state capital called Bor, in Jonglei State, for the past few days. We are rolling out a new 12-month work plan and presenting it to our Jonglei team in the field, all of whom are currently grounded in Bor due to deadly cattle raiding between enemy tribes in other parts of the state. The fighting has caused massive displacement and claimed nearly 1,000 South Sudanese lives since December. Our Jonglei staff, a team of about 11 young educated South Sudanese men working in governance, financial management, planning and budgeting and in the education sector, are working and living out of a hotel built on the banks of the Bahr el Jebel, a fast-moving tributary of the Nile. The hotel has spotty electric generators and internet service, and there is no air conditioning, so we have the windows open in the office we are renting here. About 50 yards outside our window there is a borehole with a hand pump where area residents fill yellow jerry cans with fresh water, seemingly round the clock. The empty cans are piled high around the hole as people wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for their turn to pump and fill. The work of obtaining fresh drinking water here is hard and never-ending, and children as small as two and three are enlisted to carry little buckets and containers from the wells.

During a Powerpoint presentation on the work plan yesterday, the team leader raised his hand and pointed at a large brown fly that had entered through the window. All 15 of us in the room silently watched the fly zip around for a minute or so. If it buzzed anyone, the person would duck and swat with wide-eyed alarm. I seemed to be the only person in the room who did not know why this particular fly was cause for such concern.

When it went back out, we closed the windows to prevent if from flying in again, even though it was sweltering in the room (temps are now higher than 100 degrees during the afternoons.) Everyone seemed greatly relieved, and we got back to our business. Later I asked a colleague what would have happened if that dread-inspiring fly had bitten me.

You would be sleeping, she said.

The fly makes you sleep?

Yes. It bites you, and you fall asleep.

Turns out I had just had my first known encounter with a tsetse fly, whose bite carries a disease called Human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness. The disease is endemic in 37 sub-Saharan countries and killed 48,000 people in 2008, according to Wikipedia. This insect, which only lives a few weeks, injects a parasite into its victims that invades the central nervous system, causing confusion, reduced coordination, fatigue, mania, insomnia and progressive mental deterioration leading to coma and death. I now understand why the bug was so deserving of our attention. It is an airborne serial killer.

I kept my eyes peeled for large brown flies when a colleague and I walked down to the river's edge after work. About 100 yards away, on the other side of the water, a cluster of a few hundred Dinka cattle herding families were encamped, with their animals. They were just shadows in a haze of dung fires lit to keep down the mosquitos, but we could hear laughter and the clinks of pots, and make out lines of tents and stick-built huts built on the very edge of the river. We could also occasionally see sets of huge, magnificently arcing cattle horns poking through the smoke, and hear the lowing of the cows, which sounded startlingly close, rolling across the river top. We watched a wiry man hard-paddling a canoe hand-carved from a neem tree and patched with sheets of tin, from our side of the river to the camp, and back.

I want to go across and see them, one of my colleagues said a little wistfully.

I will do it soon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


I am back in South Sudan after spending a wonderful holiday at home in Key West, marred at the end by some very troubling Tahra health developments: auto-immune disease and kidney problems. After 40-plus years of fantastic health, she was diagnosed just as I returned to South Sudan – practically while I was on the plane. My parents, TJ and Victoria, immediately flew to her rescue from Virginia to help take care of the kids as she recovered from a blood transfusion after a biopsy. Still there nearly a month later, they have been lifesavers, and have become surrogate parents to the girls, who can’t ever get enough of them. Our Key West friends, many of whom helped with the kids and in other ways too numerous to mention, carried us through the last few painful and frightening weeks, too. Tahra is now feeling a little better though some adverse reactions to new, heavy-duty meds have complicated matters. Fortunately she is working with a very concerned and capable nephrologist, and we are starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.

Before Christmas, after much thought and discussion with Tahra, I agreed to accept an extension of my contract in South Sudan for a period of time yet to be determined. Originally I had planned only to do this for eight months, until December 2011. Over the past few months there have been negotiations between my company and its funder, over the scope and length of our proposed continued project, and finally things were resolved when my company settled on a contract extension out here through 2013. My company wants me to stay, though final terms for me are still to be negotiated and Tahra’s new health condition has given us much to think about. In the meantime, next time I’m home, in early March, we are relocating up to western Massachusetts, to occupy a rustic, 150-year-old farmhouse on 25 acres in Berkshire County, enabling Tahra and the girls to be much closer to family while I’m in and out of the country. We are keeping the apartment in Key West, with our close friend Hanrow Hartley installed as house sitter.

The big news in Juba these days is all about South Sudan’s recent decision to shut down its oil wells in protest over the north’s theft of millions of barrels of oil from the south-to-north oil pipeline. The south owns the oil but the north owns the pipeline, refinery, and port where the oil is picked up by tankers. Since the south’s independence in July, the two sides have been dickering over the price-per-barrel for export over the pipeline. Since no agreement on the fees could be reached, the north allegedly decided to steal millions of dollars worth of oil from the line, and in retaliation, last week the south shut down its wells. This action will hit both nations hard in the pocketbook, but here in Juba, citizens are applauding the move. The government says it has enough funds in reserve to get by without oil revenues for a while, and has even signed a contract to build its own pipeline from its oil fields through Kenya (to the south), which will take anywhere from 1-3 years to complete.

Meanwhile, there is renewed inter-ethnic combat in the north part of South Sudan, with a pair of tribes called the Murle and the Nuer going at each other in cattle and people-stealing raids that have left an estimated 600-700 people dead, and hundreds of women and children abducted, prompting apocalyptic front-page headlines in both the New York Times and the Washington Post recently describing the “descent into chaos’’ of the world’s newest country. There is no widespread chaos in the capital, Juba, though Landcruiser-jackings involving expats have been on the rise, prompting my company to bump up our curfew and make some other security modifications.

The other big change since my return: it is now HOT – up over 100 degrees on some days. Arizona desert hot, as in, even your eyelids feel hot when you walk outside. And we are in the dry season now, with no rain for months, and none expected until May or so. Dust and wind are kicking up. When I play football now, sometimes we lose the ball in clouds of dust. Two weekends ago as I stared out of my bedroom window at the empty lot across the way, a mini-tornado blew through, picking up all the trash and flinging it 500 feet high into a giant, swirling vortex of plastic bags and bottles and papers. It was strangely beautiful.