creative non fiction
A friend, who tends to be overweight, went on a Forty Day Fast recently saying that his dad had done that several times, and he himself had fasted for forty days once before. He explained that he continued all of his ordinary activities as an interpreter during his fast, without any difficulty whatsoever.
Maybe he felt so well, I thought, because normal activity makes more sense for the average mortal person than fasting alone in the wilderness like Jesus, which might awaken dreams and Devils. I had supervised students during a several week anti-Vietnam war fruit juice fast– like those of Caesar Chavez. Yet these were child’s play compared to my friend’s forty day fast.
Being in that magical age when one can be freely irresponsible, I was tempted to submit myself– as subject– in an uncontrolled experiment. But it needed a little thought. I decided on 90 hours because I wasn’t entirely convinced my friend was telling the whole story; and I don’t have enough fat to last long without feeding on my frightened proteins; or worse— a fatty little brain that might still be useful afterward.
I’m generally healthy, given the overburden of foolish years; my numbers and chemistries are ideal. (Whatever that means! Time suggests that today’s sacred truths are often tomorrow’s gross errors.) Yet I have type II diabetes, using only the medication that seems to me most rational and effective – lantus with a regular insulin pen for carb flings. My Hemoglobin A1c- , a reflection of average blood sugar during the prior 90 days, is usually between 5 and 6, not normal, but very satisfactory. I never have a very low blood sugar since I stopped all the oral diabetes treatment pills I had used earlier.
Looking over some of the literature on fasting quite superficially, it appeared to me there was some evidence intermittent fasting may be beneficial for humans. But well constructed human studies on longer fasts seem small, and over controlled to the point of –absurdity. Apparently they are not profitable, and worse, troublesome and costly.
Not so in mice i , where “prolonged periods of fasting – repeated cycles of 2-4 days with no food – over the course of 6 months, seemed to kill off older and damaged immune cells and generate new ones.” Longo and colleagues suggest that such “metabolic changes … as a result of prolonged fasting… for 3 days or longer–drinking only water …reset some components of (the) immune system... the drop in white cell levels trigger(s) a stem-cell based regeneration of new immune cells.” Interesting, especially if you are a mouse. Yet, if my friend could do long fasts why not I?
Day one began at noon on Monday and ended the next noon. I had cut the lantus (insulin) in half that morning and had a light lunch. The rest of the day was inconsequential.
Day two began at noon Tuesday: I had slept well, and had waked comfortably that morning, skipping insulin altogether, making breakfast of black coffee to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches. I was building a fence and had to dig post holes that in the afternoon making sure to drink plenty of water. It was a hot day but the work felt easy, and I felt no hunger at all. The rest of the day I read and wrote, which is my usual thing. I ingested some TV and Netflix.
Day three began at noon Wednesday: Much the same. I stayed with my thrice weekly regimen: light upper body work, about 8500 ft-lb*, and 110 Calories on an elliptical trainer; enough to sweat and get the heart and lungs going. I was not hungry. Not at all. Back to my books to dig up an old copy of Don Quixote, which offered new meaning for me; the aged Don Q set off on his quest after reading too much, and causing his relatives to fret.
*80 lb x 11 per exercise x 6 exercises x 6 sets = 8640 ft lb; that sounds like a lot, but it only takes a boring half hour or so.
Day four began at noon Thursday: I cemented and set five fence posts, being animated and comfortable despite triple digit heat. My GI tract relaxed after it had produced faithfully til day 4. Where did that come from? I read a book just published by Milton, a Peruvian friend. By 10 PM on day three, my fast had already lasted 82 hours; the last 8 hours would be spent asleep. I am an easy sleeper, and that night, like the rest, slept well.
At the 90th hour: I wake. My only memory of the night is being instructed, a bit tersely, to turn over and stop snoring. Did I dream? I did, but don’t recall; if ever I do a long fast again I will make a note about dreams when I wake. I am still not hungry but restart the lantus dutifully; two hours later I breakfast on granola with milk and fruit. I wonder: Doesn’t that make my fast 92 hours? Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the old and new me, except the old one lost 9 lb. During the next 10 days, 7 lb returns. We took no insulin during the entire fast; our blood sugars were constantly between 80 and 100.
Comment: Is there any benefit to a several fast besides transient weight loss? I don’t see much. I don’t recommend it though my little adventure did get me back to Don Quixote for some new and different insights consistent with my age and condition. Frankly, my fast reminds me of what a much admired old friend, Skeet, said years ago when he reached an advanced stage of emphysema and stopped smoking; on the second day of withdrawal he was asked,
“Do you think you’ll live longer now?”
“( Cough, Cough Cough, Gasp) I don’t know. (Cough, cough) But I sure as hell hope not!”
I “Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
She goes most any where she used to go,
with help and planning, going slow,
and can do most things she used to do
but very little that’s really new.
She blindly watches TV ‘breaking news‘,
where talking heads spew tired words and views;
yet walks with help at ninety three,
as lone and lonely as old age can be
who loses loved ones almost every day,
whose loyal foes have even gone away
to that mausoleum in the mind,
invisible, unknown and undefined.
The history she lived- redacted- gone,
her universal truths now considered wrong,
she’s wantonly outlived her life;
and none else recalls its joys or strife.
She searches neuronal tangled time
for some meaning in the paradigm
that she lives on here, on and on
after shared memory is long gone.
She vainly queries her past to find
Why loved ones leave, but leave her behind;
Asks aloud a question no one hears:
“Why do I live so far beyond my years?”
But her old cat curls and purrs, and then
that oral history student comes again
about an Occam’s Razor essay;
Or the Gordian Knot? – she cannot say.
The visit fills her shadowed room with light
like sunrise in the middle of the night;
The young know light’s speed’s so fast
it untangles the future from the past.
*The title refers to tangled neurofibrils sometimes seen in the brain in very advanced age. The poem is about a very old woman in a nursing or rest home affected, perhaps, by such tangles. Occam’s razor refers to a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), It can be stated as Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian King Gordium . It is often used as a metaphor for solving an intractable problem (disentangling an “impossible” knot) by “cutting the Gordian knot”):
“Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
She goes almost any where she used to go,
with help and careful planning, going slow.
And can do many things she used to do
but very little that is really new.
She always watches TV ‘breaking news‘,
where talking heads spew hired words and views.
Still astute and alert at one hundred three,
but lone and lonely as old age might be
that loses loved ones almost every day,
whose cherished enemies too, have gone away,
to a place imagined by the human mind,
invisible, that none can see or find.
The history she lived – redacted, gone;
her universal truths – now considered wrong.
She wantonly outlived her long gone life;
no one else remembers its joy or strife.
She searches through neuronal tangled time,
for some clear meaning in the paradyme
that requires she must live on – on and on
after the life she loved and lived is gone,
vainly unraveling tangles to find
Why they all go but leave her here behind
Why do we cling to life on earth, my dears?
Why must I live so far beyond my years?
But a cat curls and purrs at her side and then
that pesky 10thth grader comes in again
about the same Occam’s Razor* essay;
Or the Gordian Knot** – She cannot say;
Again he fills her shadowed room with light
like sunrise in the middle of the night;
he shares new aps and asks about her past,
and claims her newborn breath’s within her last.
* a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham, (c. 1287–1347). The principle that can be interpreted as Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions is most correct.
** Referring to Phrygian King Gordiam, often used as a metaphor for disentangling a knot by simply cutting it.
I’M HERE, WAITING
IN A SMALL STILL ROOM,
COLD AS A FISH TANK,
IN A THIN PAPER GOWN
WITH NO BACKSIDE;
I AWAIT MY PROVIDER,
ON SHINY WHITE PAPER
FRESH FROM THE ROLL
THAT SLIDES ON VINYL
BUT CLINGS TO MY BUTT.
HEEDLESS MOVING AIR
STIRS THE SULLEN SILENCE;
I FINGER THE SAME FORMS,
FILL IN THE SAME BOXES,
AND WONDER: AGAIN?
A WHITE COAT ENTERS;
ONE I’VE SEEN BEFORE
THAT’S NEVER SEEN ME,
IT QUICKLY GLANCES
AT MY FAKE DRUG SCREEN.
MY PROVIDER KEYBOARDS;
AT THE PIXELATED ME,
WHOSE IMAGE THERE
IS CODING AND TEMPLATE;
ASKING OLD QUESTIONS ALOUD
WHILE SILENTLY RECORDING
THE OLD ANSWERS,
‘HOW, ONE TO TEN’, HE ASKS:
‘ IS YOUR PAIN?
‘ARE YOU SLEEPING?
‘THEN, ‘YOU NEED REFILLS?
I SAY ‘8 AND 8; AND, I DO.
THE VISIT IS OVER.
MY B2B PARTNER LEAVES,
ADDRESSING THE DOOR:
I FILLED YOUR PRESCRIPTIONS;
SEE YOU IN TWO MONTHS.
I RESENT THIS ‘SHOW’
BY TWO B2B PROVIDERS;
BUT IT’S ALL GOOD, MAN.
I PICK UP MY PILLS,
TO BAG THEM FOR SALE.
The End of Power
By Moisés Naím
From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to be..
By Moisés Naím
Perseus Books, 2013
Hardback $35, kindle $9, audio $ 35 ( + tax, & shipping)
Amazon 2015 Editors Pick
This is a book for millennials. It is an extensive and possibly seminal work, not a quick or easy read. There are eleven chapters, each consisting of about ten sections. I found it almost impossible to summarize, so will start with some observations that may put it in context:
We live in a time of world wide societal upheaval, arguably brought about by critical developments in technology. Similar radical change has occurred in the past, as when:
- mobile hunter-gathering was replaced by place-bound agriculture, leading ultimately to cities, tribal warring religions, art, architecture, scientific discovery, and monarchic faith backed nation-states;
- The printing press made information or knowledge, formerly tediously recorded in manuscripts and available only to the monastic and wealthy few, available to the many; this lead to many decades of bloody revolution- the Thirty Year War- culminating in the overthrow of monarchic religious states, and the birth of political and individual religious freedom.
- A perfect storm of scientific developments like the chronograph, compass, telescope, and gunpowder, led to the ‘age of discovery’, brutal conquest, and colonial domination.
- A philosophic and political Enlightenment led to the overthrow of colonial power, continuing until after WWII, and including that imposed on the British Colonies in North America.
Today, here we go again. The limitless internet and its consequences make accepted barriers obsolete; old lines are breached: national borders, commercial, religious and political fiefdoms are violated. The powerful -nations, presidents, governments, CEOs, large multinationals, all seem weak and ineffective, causing public disillusionment, and anger. Nowhere is the old order respected, or trusted.
What are we, Millennials who live at the beginning of this century, to do? It appears the most interesting reaction of millennial young people is to try to adapt continuously, like children of miners, diplomats, or warriors who live in alternating realities, and move over and over to into a new town, country, language, and culture.
to adapt to new people, groups, languages, cultures,
to be astute and adept at knowing and learning about the Other,
to embrace, value, and respect one another above Self
to consider the earth, and even the universe, as home
to be family to every age, race sex or condition.
They find that:
personal liberty requires constant shedding the old and taking on the new;
nations and peoples have their own beauty, and truth, but all are transient;
each person has the right to accept, or to ignore, any religious belief or unbelief
that ‘scientific certainty’ can be useful, but is as always, suspect and transient
that doubt is the primal force of both science and religion
every age, race, sex, or condition can be both confining and liberating
Author Moisés Naím finds that those who hold power try to retain it by erecting barriers to keep challengers at bay; but now multiform insurgent forces from every remote area of the earth dismantle those barriers quickly. He calls dispersed collective power micropower. Example: personal diverse acts of both terror and commercial or scientific innovation collectively challenge civilizations.
Micropower defeats megapower in warfare because of plentiful and diverse microweapons, and the rejection of more chivalrous “rules of war” (Isis, Jihad). Yet power, once grasped, fades fast; the new power quickly becomes vulnerable and loses that edge. Maybe the process could be thought of as constructive or creative destruction.
Naím catalogs the general changes as three revolutions:
1) More: people have more and more means to overwhelm or evade control.
2) Mobility: people are not controlled by governments, borders, distance.
3) Mentality: even the most remote people are now aware of possibilities, options, needs, desires, rights.
He notes that in chaos we tend to listen to “Terrible Simplifiers”: people who offer vague, bombastic simple solutions to complex problems. He summarizes the decay of national politics (parentheses mine):
Empires to States.
Despots to Democrats.
Majorities to minorities (as the U.S.)
Parties to factions.
Capitals to regions (Pinks, Blues, rural, ranch, city )
Governments to lawyers (unjust courts, straitjacket laws/regs) Leaders to laymen (NGOs, Buffet-Slim- Gates-Bono).
Hedge funds to “hactivists” (Assange, Snowden, etc).
Chaos results; maybe the process could be thought of as constructive destruction.
Naím ends with suggestions to reorder the national chaos. This is the most disappointing part of the book for me, because I’d prefer a quick fix; of course. Yet that is, de facto, unlikely. The author’s suggestions are rational, but require great and gradual, likely painful, public re-orientation, and a conscious and conscientious media: No quick fix there either. He suggests:
- Forget about who is first or what country is up or down, who we like or fear.
- Reject the Terrible Simplifiers. (You know them!)
- Restore the power of our institutions (Well,Yeah but…)
- Bring back Trust ( Ditto)
- Strengthen political parties (?!)
- Increase political participation ( but maybe non voters are careless quiet patriots!)
Wow! This book is well worth some time, for at least one rational evaluation of what the next few decades could be about.*
* In 1952 Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein wrote a postscript to his series voluminous writing titled Stories Never Written; they were too dark. Reading those comments 62 years later is sobering considering our in world chaos today.
Rows of red books titled ‘Daily Reminder’ start with 1961. Somewhere they begin to proclaim themselves ‘Standard Diary’ but without any other change. 2007 was attacked by a puppy and lost a corner. One is partly empty because it went AWOL until captured on a train by a thoughtful young woman.There are two that escaped but have never been caught. I still sometimes hope to find those two unrepentant deserters; I remember where one left- when my attention was diverted at the Cattleman’s Restaurant near Dixon, CA. I am reminded of this because today 2015 is missing. It went AWOL on Thursday; this is Saturday so I have been without for three days; fortunately 2015 was apprehended and will be extradited on on Monday.
1961 has a reservation card pasted at Jan 2, for The Chancellor, then a comfortable but modest, nicely located small old San Francisco hotel– still there I believe ; It reads:
Single – $8: 2 persons double bed – $10 : two persons twin beds $12.
That is the sort of thing that is a shock when one looks back so far. But I recall that in my small group GP practice the cost of complete OB care from diagnosis to delivery, including PAP smear and all labs was $75. On credit.1968 reports a discussion and decision to raise that inclusive fee to $95.
At Jan 28, 1961 is brochure for a conference at U C San Francisco School of Medicine titled:
MAN AND CIVILIZATION; CONTROL OF THE MIND
It was one of several Seymore Farber put together, arguably believing Compleat physicians were philosopher scientists; or scientific philosophers; this one was loaded with non physicians and writers.
There is nothing written there to explain what induced me to drive alone to USF Med Center for that particular weekend symposium. A mailing perhaps. I had been practicing in Woodland only two years. I was 29. A fourth child was 8 months old. I knew no physician at UCSF School of Medicine; and to my surprise, when I arrived there a distant uncle and his wife appeared. They were quite beloved, cloistered intellectuals and I had only met them once before; and once since. He had been an intelligence officer in Turkey during WW I and forever after shaved his head, and taught English and Art at Menlo College. I have a little book of his Omar Kayaam style poems. Maybe you can take the man out of Turkey but not Turkey out of the man. The list of speakers suggests why they there. It included:
Martin D’Arcy, S.J.
I will never forget sitting in the front row of that old Medical Science Auditorium’s steep semicircle of seats while those remarkable speakers peered up from the place where dissections, and demonstrations were formerly done. The tuition, including Saturday lunch with address by Huxley: $25.
For more than a half century the diaries have saved the stuff of living for me: names, places, times, driving directions, my children’s creations, ticket stubs, news cuttings, programs, notes, letters, addresses; and the almost-legible cursive fast-scratch of this former med student. Today an e.diary might be preferred by many: more easily search-able, link-able, and reproduction embed-able. But I relish the feel of paper, its simple, frank honesty, the substance of yellowing originals; and for searches, my standard business diary ‘monthly cash account’, at the back of each book becomes an index of topics.
Yet we live in a time when paper is as moribund as typewriters, books, or newspapers; even traditional libraries are musty mausoleums of books and places for the homeless to escape the cold or heat or go on line. My word processor, kindle, and browser make them only curiosities like the reference collections pictured below: Will and Ariel Durant’s 14 volume History; The Britannica Series of Great Books, and a 1908 Britannica First Edition; the Harvard Great Book Series; and a shelf of reference books. .
So I never open my old reference books now, preferring to use this blog- Nwalmanac.wordpress.com – as a living repository for my writing, and editing;and my kindle for reading.
Even so the diaries hold little entries I would never find elsewhere, never otherwise remember. For example, the diary page that is source material for the blog post called Homar and the Alluvial Fan is about an episode where the narrator risks his life. At the top of the page is written ‘Con la muerte en el ano’. That expression, which I had forgotten, is so powerful, so apt, so nuanced that I have to rescued it for use in English, ‘with death in the (his) ass’ … where it becomes startling.
So the diaries, as obsolete as cursive, destined to be recycled into corrugated cardboard, paper cups or TP are still filled with little gems, treasures, quotes, stolen metaphors. For now, i treasure them, refer to them often, and still wantonly hope to catch the two deserter years.
- See The Compleat Angler by Isaak Walton, first published in 1653
There is a laundry list of her murderers: The failed social/ political system that denies mentally and drug sick folk civilized long term easy access to inpatient mental care– we leave that to jails and streets in the ‘village’– where people preach but don’t care to get involved or to pay; Inherited DNA that both gives and takes away– (her family history included violence and homicide); and a violent drug- sick environment. Yet she was hard working and brilliant becoming wealthy until suffering increasingly severe psychotic episodes during the last 35 years of her life.
The list includes physicians who thoughtlessly gave her narcotics and other toxins for headaches; the famous Stanford Neurosurgeon who hacked her temporal lobe, even after all the rest of the neurologists and neurosurgeons proclaimed her deep brain cyst was benign–it would have been prudent to take serial CT scans. He neither mentioned hacking her temporal lobe, nor finished the operation, but took off for SE Asia letting an underling botch the closure that required two further repairs; and the long series of physician killers who prescribed aderal and ritalin, whose effects are almost identical to cocaine but faster and longer acting. The last killer-prescriber declared to the court, despite pleas from her family, that she was not a danger to herself or to others– just hours before she shot herself.
Add to her killer list the men who–while not altogether well or drug free– suckered and sucked her dry and spit her out; and in her last long sad 15 years, those men who moved on her when she was sick, alone and lonely in a little mobile home; the last was named Fenwick, a creation of her psychotic, paranoid, and drugged mind who became real, and shot her with the gun she herself put to her head.
Her first killer, however, was also a physician who, with some exceptions, was an absent father. It was a time when many physicians did not belong to one family, but were priest-scientists, benefactors of humanity, whose family was the world.
I was that physician, blindly devoted to my own grandness, ambitions, and responsibilities. I was ‘called’. In marriage I ran from confrontation; when my resentful wife squandered our money I remained silent, arrogantly self-contained. She always had full day help five days a week, while I put in 14 hour days because I hoped to continue my work with children of migrant farm workers. The ‘because’ was my contribution of course. Always exhausted, and marinated in self importance, I tended to withdraw into myself.
A parent has no idea how parental anger may be interpreted by a child. I had been spanked as a child, but that never troubled me; though my father was an angry man, I was the benefactor of unconditional love from four grandparents with whom I spent at least several months every year. Yet I firmly believe that corporeal punishment of children is wrong; deadly wrong. It also is training in adult violence.
I very clearly recall an episode my daughter left buried in extensive in hand written autobiographical notes. I had spanked her in anger over- nothing; she told, and defended, a lie. What child wouldn’t when facing an angry father? A specific detail not recorded there is one I hate to even think about: Her bedroom was upstairs. After spanking her, I felt terrible, and apologized. But later I went up and found a mason jar with a stool in it. I can see that mason jar even now, and can only think that she was too terrorized to go down to the bathroom.
I was- and am- so shamed that I never spanked a child again. Yet I was her first killer; and there is no cure for either of us.
Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile
Note: These letters are Creative Nonfiction, but accurately coincide with real events. Personal names are invented.
Mar 19, 2015. During 40 years we have visited family in Chile for a month or two at a time; altogether that adds up to about five years. In the first month there, during their Dec- Feb summer– school vacation– I have usually organized a back-pack; or, some say worse- taking along from 4-6 relatives and their friends. These adventures have become epic lore and in retelling become ever more confabulated. I love these kids who are now grown; some I call hijos postisos… artificial children, as in artificial legs. Alex is one. He lived with us in Sacramento for a year, during a difficult time in his young life.
Alex has a real dad who owns a ranch near a lake. They both love mountains, horses, cattle; he visits the ranch often, working on various projects, mainly distillates of dreams.
We meet for lunch only a week before I must leave for Sacramento. While he can’t get away for at least several days, he insists I go on ahead to see what has been done since I was last there 10 years ago; he will join me when he can. He suggests I leave immediately, that evening, by Sleeper Bus which he finds is more practical, more easily booked, and more economical than air travel.
Argentina and Chile are sometimes called the Southern Cone. Bus travel there, as in Brazil, is the predominate form of transportation for the vast majority of people. In Chile there are many competing bus companies, serving virtually every part of the country. Almost every town has a central bus station that, while hardly elegant, is functional and dependable. The buses generally leave and arrive exactly on time. Long haul buses to larger towns often go direct; and there are many several thousand km routes in a so long, North and South. The most comfortable are Leitos or ‘premium sleeper’ buses, the ones Alex suggests. I had heard of them for years but never used one.
Premium Long Distance Night Buses Rock!
Tonight, a Thursday, I take the 10:45 PM sleeper. It’s a two story Brazilian Marco Polo with two seat-beds on one side, and one on the other, separated by a narrow aisle. After the elegant monster is underway, the steward brings snacks, earplugs, stereo ear buds, a sleep mask, booties, and bottle of cold water; a short while later he makes up the beds, called ‘180s’ because they fold flat, 180 degrees. He lays on a blanket, and a pillow… all that is missing is a mother’s good night kiss.
The bus moves at about 100 km/hour- 60 MPH-, rocking the sleeper gently; it is surprisingly quiet by comparison to a jet plane. I am reminded of the adult size cribs Shakers use for old folk; children are put to work rocking the adult cribs. I was rocked and slept more than 10 hours, until the attendant woke me to say “Osorno: Terminal; for all I know it is the first stop. The night was at least as enjoyable as in a good air-conditioned hotel, at U$75 round trip for two nights.
I don’t see the person who is to meet me in Osorno, but it is early; the place is just wakening to a new day. Restaurants are shuttered, in part because the traditional Chilean breakfast is only sweet coffee or tea, and rolls, available from bus station street vendors. I pick up some more substantial breakfast makings at a grocery; my ride appears. It is about a 70 km to the ranch, so on the way I call to thank Alex and his dad for the lesson on long distance Chilean night-bus travel, and the coming visit to the ranch.
The entrance to the farm has been transformed. On the right is a long monitored and gated gravel road is bordered with moss-covered split rail fencing and blooming pink and blue hydrangea.
The farmhouse has been rebuilt completely, but retains its original distribution. The day-to-day entrance is to the rear adjacent to a big kitchen and a space for gear and cleaning up. The ground floor and basement are devoted to laundry, storage, and utilities. Two upper floors still look out spacious windows from every room because a farmer wants not only to enjoy the view but to always be able to look out at the farm and and animals. I take a short afternoon nap, but only because it seems the proper thing to do. I’m not sleepy. I abandon my iPad and break out a real camera.
A small stream has become a series of teacup lakes. Gently down-sloping green pastured and fenced grounds feature an assortment of birds and animals: geese, ducks, turkeys, peacocks, deer, some deer, and Ñandú— a small ostrich, or South American rhea, bandurria ibis, and the noisy queltehue.
Feb 24, 2015. Tomorrow I begin the long journey back to The Sacramento my own Sacred Valley: by car to Osorno; by sleeper bus to Santiago; by plane to Houston and then on to Sacramento. Alex has already returned to work. Thinking of the long journey, I lie down for a short afternoon nap but I’m restless. At 2300, I’m alone in the quiet wi-fied, air conditioned, radiant heated farmhouse. Outside only few faint distant lights are visible.
I turn off all the lights and step out into a rare clear moonless Southern Summer night, stumbling about up and down beneath the Milky Way. Orion-the hunter, Gemini-the twins, and the bright dog Sirius are visible overhead. Southward are the Magellanic Clouds, and the Southern Cross. Four light years away is the triple-star Alpha Centauria, Sun’s closest neighbors. There is no pole star visible where due South sleeps in a dark void; yet there must be one there, somewhere, so far away that we are both blinded by so many light years of Time.
Note: These letters are Creative Nonfiction, but they accurately coincide with real events. Personal names are fictional.
The first two of these letters are about a Methodist VIM project– Volunteers In Mission. I am a Methodist by virtue of family, and inclination, who has participated in several VIM Missions; I find the people who do this sort of thing are unusual and outstanding in the best sense of the words. Our two designated drivers, Frank and Ted, two senior citizens, can serve as examples. They neither speak Brazilian nor have ever been in the country before. Frank is from Oregon, has never been out of the USA. He has spent his life in electronics, and is retired, now trying to develop a practical small hydrogen generator. He has been breaking down water into its gasses, Hydrogen and Oxygen, trying to use only a small amount of energy to do that; and then generating power through the chemical re-fusion of the gasses, recycling recreated water in an endless cycle. To me that seems an impossible perpetual energy machine, but… what do I know? Nada. He has blown up his work-space a couple of times.The other driver- call him Ted- is an executive who made his fortune late in life at a silicon valley start-up. He’s hard working and focused. And, most importantly from my perspective, an alert and oriented, even in this place where he had never been before. He has led several VIM projects; this is one more.
It’s cool now, but the day promises heat and humidity. This is the second big night of Carnaval here in this small Minas Gerais town at about 3000 ft ASL. My companions went last night but I begged off, too much noise and too many people… tonight will be enough for me. I’m writing this in the still of the morning at a friend’s home, a friend, Nana, who has a fast internet connection. She is, I’d say, a self-made woman who began to make and sell clothes, married well, expanded to a store, and gradually accumulated a number of pieces of rental property. At age 90, the madrefamilias of her clan she still is constantly thinking and planning new enterprises, alert but weak; she just had a bypass, diagnosed as diabetic only a few months ago, is on metformin, apparently controls her blood sugar well. To use Nana’s internet today is a great advantage for me because I work on the asilo –– a home for the elderly and handicapped–during most days, and in the evening transportation is a problem.
My flights to Sao Paulo, Brazil– SMF HOU GRU– were uneventful. Houston was under a thick blanket of sea fog, but arrival and departure were on time. Leaving HOU I was in the janela seat- window- so only uprooted the two sleeping Brazileiros twice to walk about. There were only a few people in the’ foreigner’ line at immigration, in the main Sao Paulo airport. My well-traveled checked bag, hadn’t gone to Heathrow like it did in the past; I suppose it was disappointed.
Three people of our group should have already arrived from Chicago. I checked for their flight; it had landed on time. Yet they were not at the place we were to meet, a certain a restaurant. The only other likely nearby place was a Pizza Hut. ‘Informacao’ said there is NO way to page, ‘ nao ha parlantes’ –no speakers? Really? Police don’t have them?Nao. …I looked around for a prepay phone to buy, but found they could only be sold to Brazileiros–9/11 effect? There are many. For example, foreigners wanting to visit the USA can find the experience not only difficult, but sometimes administered by those who are callow and demeaning. After 9/11 the experience became more troublesome, and Brazil responded in kind. Like Argentina they decided to require a ‘reciprocity fee’ just as we do in the USA:—$160 at the time, and an extensive application. Hassle for Hassle. Mordida for Mordida—as well as a convenient way to collect another tax.
I needed to find a way to the town where we were to work– in case my colleagues had failed to make their flight. So I checked out the omnibuses and found they leave from terminal four. Rather than go there immediately, I waited. The last two people in our group were to arrive from LAX at about 1330; and indeed, right on time, our leader appeared, call him Ted. He went directly to a little clutch of chairs nearby and the first 3 were there. But he had news. The other leader, Neli, our native Brazilian organizer, who would guide us, had missed her flight in LA. American Airlines did not wait 10 minutes needed for her and 15 others to arrive. So she would arrive at midnight. We decided to stay the night in a nearby Marriott, a quite plush and comfortable nearby Marriott.
The next morning, Ted immediately sets to work arranging for two vans from Hertz; not a simple task as it turns out: the phone call required about 50 min and the car pick-up another 50 minutes. So after two hours we load up two minivans. My van has a sliding door that won’t open but Hertzians confidently say ‘neve- mind-no-problem’ and we take off planning to follow the lead van onto the nearby freeway. Within a few minutes our van’s door alarm began to sound unceasingly… so we turn to go back to Hertz.
Not so fast. There is the central São Paulo freeway ‘system’ to consider; it allegedly is a system, but almost impossible for a stranger to decipher. One MUST use the freeways to get from one sector of downtown to another. Further, one can never just drive round the block without heading one-way toward some distant unknown place or world. When our van begins its beeping-complaining we are in the midst of at least 15 freeway lanes; the actual count changes due to off and on ramps, merging and sets of parallel lanes separated by cement dividers, off and on ramps, with signs with names we find meaningless; it is a traffic limbo.
Worse, if you find yourself on the set of freeways going in the wrong direction, (as we did twice), to get from that wrong way series of lanes to the right way you must invent your own clover leaf under and around all these lanes. We finally did so, and got back to HertzHell. They give us another van after another 30 minutes and we head out again. Frank is driving the lead car guided by Neli- the native Brazilian; but she is almost as confused about the freeways as any American; she grew up in her small town and for many years has lived in California; in our van no one excepting me speaks any Brazilian, and I speak poorly.
We are immediately separated at the first on ramp. In one of those incredible episodes, after wandering around for half an hour we find a gas station to ask directions: There they are, the lead car! Relief and joy, we’re on our way! But I had a nagging premonition, and ask Neli to write down the sequence of towns we are expecting to drive through.The traffic is heavy and the lead car switches constantly from one side of the stream to the other as we follow. The signs are hard to detect or understand. Guess what! We are once more instantly separated. Despite our in our vast collective ignorance, Ted finds what we think is the ‘actual’ freeway, according to Neli’s ’s instructions. So we simply start the drive North dripping with doubt.
We travel private toll roads; they are new, beautiful, with contractual requirements for maintenance: at the end of a couple of decades they will revert to the State and begin the inevitable process of rising tolls inefficiency and decay. Every half hour or so there is another toll booth, usually about US$ 5 or 6. Every hour or so we pull off the toll road to a gas station to ask the way; happily, as time goes on we start to see the names of places we expect; it becomes clear we were on the right route. At first the very attentive and friendly gas station attendants we ask don’t even recognize our destination, but in time they re the name, and we began to see highway signs that confirm it. Celebration time again. Right?
Wrong. At the next to the last toll Candy, wants to pay the toll and finds she has left her purse in the women’s banhiero, at the last gas-direction station. It contains ALL her documents, credit cards, and money. She is frantic. We turn around, paying tolls again as we go back. Ted, our compulsive leader, goes directly to the right gas station. I explain our problem to the cashier , who says no one had been into the locked ladies room since we left; and he is right! Candy breaks down in tears. We resume our northward way again paying a third toll twice. No credit for recent payment!
At last we arrive, a town of about 14,000. I have been here before on an earlier VIM trip and know generally where to meet our contact at a church on a central rise, that can be seen from afar. That church is the very heart of the local Carnaval celebration. We immediately find our contact, call him Dan, an old-timer from earlier missions here.We are Home free, like in the old childhood game, Hide and Seek: Alli Alli Oxen Free! Right?
Wrong. Dan has more news. The lead Hurts-van broke down at a divider strip in the middle of those parallel freeways. After a frantic 15 minutes with high-speed death passing on either side, Neli apparently decided she would rather die crossing to a nearby hotel than from starvation or humiliation or anger. She crossed 5 freeway lanes, a low cement divider, and 3 more lanes to the hotel. She called Hurtz. They send a tow-truck, which required 40 minutes because afternoon traffic was picking up. The driver agreed to take them to within 50 yards of the hotel. He explained that was as near as he could get in his tow rig, because the entrance is blocked… a big convention.
Our colleagues dragged the luggage from their van across the huge parking lot. ( I am very happy my big blue wheeled bag, the one that likes to go to Heathrow, survived.) Our companions told Hurtz to take a Hike, and got a ride in a taxi to the bus terminal nearby. They boarded an elegant Marco Polo Brazil-made bus and finally reached our town at about 1 AM after a long but easy ride, with one change of bus; the way many normal Brazilians travel.
A week later we have complete the task proposed for the newest section of the asilo. That is the topic of the next letter, but here are some photos:
HurtzHell Carved fruit at Bob’s Hamburgers (!)
I’ll email this now because I’m dreadfully afraid of losing it somehow…. Outside it’s still quiet. I want to take some pictures, and my companions are due back in another hour or so. Nothing will really happen with Carnaval til it is dark, and less hot and humid. That’s why it begins at Midnight and ends at dawn. The celebrants are not stupid. Ted has vowed he is not finished with Hertz. I take him at his word.