Addis Ababa Bound

June 25th, 2013 · 0 comments · permalink

I depart soon to spend the better part of July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Along with a group of Ethiopians and Americans, one of the founders of The Northwest School, where I teach, has been involved in starting a high school in Addis Ababa: The International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia, or ILAE (note: as of this writing, the website is slightly out of date; updates are in process). The school’s mission is to become “a world-class school that recruits and develops academically gifted and talented students in Ethiopia, ultimately preparing them for a lifetime of social responsibility and international leadership.” I’ll be teaching a two-week literature and writing summer course there in July (a blitz, I know), joining some NWS colleagues there, including Jeff Blair, who has been there running spring and summer programming since April, and chronicling his experience.

This is an occasion for a lot of thinking and a lot of care, and I’m deeply conscious of the delicate relationship between “developed” and “developing” worlds, so a lot of contemplation has accompanied my preparations. It is, though, wildly exciting and I can’t stand how eager I am to meet the people, both students and teachers, alongside whom I’ll work and learn and live.

I’ve neither been a disciplined nor judicious writer here, but as I’m able, I’ll be posting dispatches from Addis Ababa (which I’ve only recently learned to pronounce correctly: an iamb & a dactyl). I’ve also learned to say thank you. And that Addis sits 8000 feet above sea level. I’m from Iowa (1100 ft) and, more to the point, Seattle (0 ft). There are adjustments to be made.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze and listening to Mulatu Astatke (where’s he been all my life?).

New Clay: A (Very Brief) Meditation on Marriage

May 1st, 2012 · 0 comments · permalink

There are many kinds and many modes—and many moods—of marriage. I hardly need to enumerate them. I am no marriage moralist—get hitched in a configuration that suits you (& your partner[s]), do it in the law, or in the church, or in the woods, or on the farm, or don’t get hitched at all. As you like it. It’s a voluntary, optional, and potentially beautiful thing. It’s a work of art. Only this: know your commitment(s), care for each other. Fundamentally, a society like ours, built (at least nominally) on pluralism, ought to allow for legal marriage commitments of various kinds, ought to affirm human relationships. But that’s all alongside the purpose of my post, here. I mean only to share a poem that has recently meant much to my partner, Alice, and me, in the scarier—and in the fearless—passages of our marriage.

I carry in my bag a little just-the-right-size book of Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poems over the last three millennia—a nice selection published by New Directions called Songs of Love, Moon, & Wind. And this is a good one:

Married Love

You and I
Have so much love
That it
Burns like a fire,
In which we take a lump of clay
Molded into a figure of you
And a figure of me.
Then we take both of them,
And break them into pieces,
And mix the pieces with water,
And mold again a figure of you,
And a figure of me.
I am in your clay.
You are in my clay.
In life we share one single quilt.
In death we will share a coffin.

                  ∼Kuan Tao-sheng

There a thicket, here a road. . .

September 12th, 2011 · 0 comments · permalink

Alice and I have lived in Seattle without owning a car for six years. This is a life-choice I strongly believe in. Sit for ten minutes on any significant street corner in a major city (in a city of any size, really) and count the number of automobiles that pass with a solitary occupant. Take special note of the larger vehicles: the SUVs, the huge, squeaky-clean pickups with no evidence of the hardier use they were built for, the full-size luxury sedans. A ton, often more, of metal and a combustion engine doing all it can to blast our atmosphere—and our global habitat—out of the Holocene and into a new, less accommodating phase, all in order to move that single puny little human body from point A to B (maybe with a stop at A’ and A” in the middle). It’s distressing. It’s depressing. Imagine the full scope of our automotive culture. We seldom take the time and energy to fully conceive of the fact that our civil infrastructure, from the very top to the very bottom, is built around the requirements of the automobile. Even the HOV lane is the “exception”: one lane out of, say, three, four, six, whatever.

Nevertheless, we just bought a car.

When I moved to Seattle seven years ago, I did so in my car—a 1994 Pontiac Grand Prix (with tinted windows, what?!)—with my bike hitched to the back and way too much weight on the rear axle (I blew a tire on I-90 just east of the Big Horn mountains). I drove that car around town quite a bit during my first few months here, and I will say as a transplant from the plains, a car helped me gather in the lay of the land relatively quickly. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I could get along just fine in this city without the encumbrances of an automobile. My mountain bike (stolen, eventually, and replaced with Lizzy, my gorgeous 1974 Viscount road bike, named for Elizabeth Bennet) and transit (though I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my lucky eligibility for the extremely affordable [$44/quarter!] U-PASS [now $100/quarter, still affordable]) proved more than adequate. So, after a year, a timely visit from Alice gave me the opportunity to drive back to Iowa with her and sell my car there, floating through an income-less summer on the revenue. Two and a half years ago, we did buy a 125cc scooter, which we love much. That little creature swallows a good 60-70 miles to the gallon.

Six years carless in Seattle. And all indications—the eight ball included—suggest no more than one year remains for us in the fair city by the sound. The course of life, to be sure, could surprise us, but practical (not so much magical) thinking demands we prepare for that oncoming departure.

We have, therefore, purchased our first ever four-wheel automobile together. A few weeks on craigslist produced a 1994 Saab 900S with fewer than 150,000 miles on it. Its transmission is manual. Its back is hatch. These are both magical things. Less magical: it doesn’t pull off the 30+ miles to the gallon we’d hoped for (we’d hoped for a mid to late ’90s Civic or somesuch Efficiency-Mobile because for the likes of us, buying a car newer than 2000 is more or less a fantasy and turns out people want good money for their Civics). This is a weight on my conscience. But man, there’s a limit over which one’s enjoyment of the road demands some sacrifices. (Dancing, for example, arguably requires the suspension of a certain set of moral principles.) That limit, I think, is much closer to 30+ mpg than the majority contends, but as a professed practitioner of ecological values, I feel pretty good about our new machine. I’d like to be able to offer a clear, precise set of measurable criteria for where that misty limit exists, where the earth, the litho-, tropo-, thermo-, exo-, and atmospheres, the creatures that people them, money, markets, individual choices, individual actions, collective choices, collective actions, governmental regulations, global resources, human dignity, attitude, spirit, and sanity (and a little bit of insanity) all congeal. But I can’t do that.

It’s a magic limit that barely exists. But by god if we’re going to keep searching for it. We hardly have a choice. I’d love to drive a hybrid or electric vehicle, despite skepticisms (some of which I share) about the manufacture and disposal of hybrid car batteries. I’m always deeply suspicious of utopianism unchecked with a healthy cynicism. Almost every solution—especially sweeping environmental ones—tends to create a new unexpected set of problems (consider gasoline: initially a discarded byproduct of oil refinement, how happy a discovery that it could be used!). Certainly contemporary technological advancements have been impressive, but I’ve never been in a lithium mine, never a nickel mine, and I’m not sure the numbers very adequately communicate the full range of “environmental” impacts those extraction processes make.

All this to say, that, whether it’s a capitulation to the corporate, industrial demands of “this life” or a careful leveraging of one set of our desires against another, we might never know for certain. At any rate, here’s our new ride. We’ll work hard to keep it cool. At least now we can get to thicket, time to time.

“Tending to wild”

August 17th, 2011 · 0 comments · permalink

I promise that this thing will get going, eventually. I need to establish a rhythm: what, two posts a week? That seems a fair goal. Too much to say, I suppose, about too many things, with a commitment level to any of them that feels unjust. It’s a challenge to shape a blog purposively: I don’t want a public journal—”today I sat on a chair; today I ate a pumpkin; today I broke a rule”—though I want my experience to inform the posts, to provide some texture & trajectory of my life and work and care. I feel a bit like Eve, in Book IX, growing overthoughtful about the weight of the work of gardening Eden, opening cracks into which the wily serpent will soon drive his wily wedges:

. . . what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild. [IX.209-212]

Oh! That phrase: “Tending to wild”! I’m more than half-tempted to change the title of this blog.

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