Tuesday, November 6, 2007


He could still be down on the board. Garry Kasparov, the Azerbaijan-born and Russian-raised grandmaster could still be living out his life on the chessboard, where he was better than anyone, ever. He could lose the long hours of a Moscow winter to slashing bishops and sliding castles.

Or he could be in Manhattan, drinking imported anything and chatting away nights with the smart and stylish and elite, occasionally popping his head up to toss an Op-Ed hand grenade at the Kremlin in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

Kasparov, 44, rich and brilliant beyond our imagination, could live the rest of his days in the fantasy life of chess of the real-life fantasy of the idle rich. Or he could, like most Russians, just close his eyes and shut his damn mouth.

Instead Garry Kasparov, a man who did not take losing well and lost rarely, a man who always thought he could make that one move to swing the game in his favor, is going to run for president of Russia. And he's going to lose.

. . .

Seven in 10, or so it's said. Polls say that 70 per cent of Russians are in support of their current president, Vladimir Putin, whose term is due to end in March of 2008. It is likely that those same seven in 10 would support Putin to stay in office another four years, if not forty.

My introduction to Putin, the first story I'd heard of him after he was elected president, is a funny one. Bob Kraft, owner of the NFL's New England Patriots, was meeting with Putin. At a photo op, Putin asked to look at Kraft's Super Bowl ring. Kraft slid it off his finger and handed it to Putin, who admired it for a few moments, smiling. In full view of the camera, Putin dropped Craft's ring into his pocket.

The media ate it up, and Kraft later tried to stamp out any controversy by insisting that the ring was "a gift." With what I now know about Putin, perhaps he offered Craft a gift in exchange: I keep the ring, you keep your finger.

Putin, an ex-K.G.B. agent who had been Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, was pitched as a stoic pragmatist on his way into office. On his way out he should be cast as a power-hungry thug.

Under his rule Russians have lost the right to elect their regional governors, and Moscow and St. Petersburg no longer get to elect their mayors. Both of those duties are now carried out by the Kremlin. In the December elections for the Duma-–Russia's parliament–-citizens will now have to vote for parties and not individuals. Putin's party, United Russia, will undoubtedly crush all others and assume a near-unanimity, with a few token liberals thrown in just to satisfy some silly little document called the Russian Constitution. And in case they don't win, Putin is now handcuffing the efforts of an international election oversight group. I think the next step here is Putin counting the votes himself and announcing the winners. And what better place to announce them than his own media outlets: the Kremlin now controls the major newspapers and television stations.

Russian billionaires who've mistakenly thought they were powerful enough to criticize Putin have been forced to sell their companies, and some have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. As one former staffer spins it, "Putin is no enemy of free speech--he simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly."

So, too, do his cops. They have a habit of pulling over motorists for no particular reason, and allowing them to go when they offer a bribe. Kirill Formanchuck decided to start filming his interactions with police. For his trouble, he was thrown in jail, where he says a few men, unprovoked, beat him. He believes he was beaten by policemen; true or not, supervising cops were in no hurry to help. Now Formanchuk is in a hospital with a swollen face and injuries to his brain and skull. He got off easy.

Since 2000, more than a dozen journalists and Putin critics have been murdered in the most professional of manners. Notable among the dead are Anna Politkovskaya, the subversive and talented reporter who was about to publish another article in her series about Russian brutality in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was murdered in cold blood, three in the chest and one in the head, last October.

A month later, Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-K.G.B. man living in London, was poisoned with the rare and highly toxic substance polonium. Litvinenko was a critic and conspiracy theorist to the extreme, accusing Putin of everything from hired killings to pedophilia. On his deathbed, he dictated a note that referred to his killer as "You" until the second to last line. "You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

Justice in these matters has been slow and uninspired. In Politkovskaya's case, 10 men were arrested in July of this year, among them a former officer in the F.S.B., the modern K.G.B. The Kremlin asserted that it had nothing to do with the killing, and that it had in fact been carried out by its enemies just to hurt Russia’s reputation. And if you believe that explanation, I have a distant relative in Nigeria who needs your help. Meanwhile, Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovi, British investigators' prime suspect in the Litvinenko killing.

Of course I would never accuse Putin of being involved in these cases. Not to his face. But the president's brutality has not just come in the form of gloved hands and silenced pistols. Chechnya, the fingernail-sized region in the southwest corner of Russia, declared its independence in 1991. It was punished by a Russian invasion. The Chechens fought bravely, and finally in 1996 Russia withdrew. Left to their own devices Chechnya's new leaders did little to help the public, but, thoughtfully, allowed a radical and militant brand of Islam to prosper.

As prime minister, Putin was the driving force in Russia's re-invasion, which began in 1999 and didn’t last long. The Russian military’s actions were either sloppy or criminal: civilian houses were obliterated, entire villages wiped out. In 2000, the newly-elected president Putin decided that tens or hundreds of thousands of dead Chechens--depending who you ask--was enough, and declared "victory." The legacy of Chechnya was an occupying force of Russian soldiers, a puppet government with Putin holding the strings and a bunch of angry and armed insurgents. (See: IRAQ, U.S. INVASION OF.)

The Russian soldiers are still in Chechnya, some of them accused of atrocities against civilians; the Kremlin-friendly president was assassinated in 2004; the surviving Chechen militants have pursued a ruthless brand of terrorism in Russia. Putin's security forces have not helped.

In 2002 a Chechen group held hundreds of Russians hostage in a Moscow theater. Putin's elite soldiers, his best and his brightest, killed 129 hostages when they decided to fill the theater with poison gas. Then 2004 Chechen terrorists held about 1,100 Russians hostage in a school, many of them women and children. First Russian officials lied that only 354 hostages were in the school. With hostages still inside--indeed, being held up to windows as human shields--a Russian tank fired mortar shells into the school. (Go ahead, read that one again.) In total, 331 hostages died, 186 children among them, and an unknown number of terrorists escaped.

Putin counts among his friends Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denier and lunatic-about-town who calls the shots in Iran. Putin seems to be on the short list of people who want Ahmadinejad to go nuclear.

When the U.S. was fiddling around with its useless missile defense system, Putin pulled out of a treaty that would limit the number of troops Russia can pool at its European border. (To which I would say, "I wonder what you’re going to do with those troops, Mr. Putin.") He also floated the idea of aiming a new group of missiles at various European targets. (To which I would say, "My, what big teeth you have grandma.") We're not in another Cold War, but I believe we've just dipped below room temperature.

Bogus elections, state-owned media, critics imprisoned and murdered, bad cops, bad soldiers, dangerous friends and a certain enthusiasm for starting World War III. Will the three in 10 Russians that don't like Putin please mention something to the seven that do?

You wanna' know how great it is in Russia? The country has a negative population growth. You know, like North Dakota. For Christ's sake, Botswana is growing.

One of the two things that Putin's got going for him are his predecessors. Mikhail Gorbachev's crowning achievement was allowing people to say "glasnost" and "perestroika" without going directly to a Siberian prison, and letting a wall be torn down in Berlin. (Which, honestly, he couldn't even see from his office.) Other than that, he was about as progressive as his birthmark was attractive.

Then came Boris "Don't light a match near my drink" Yeltsin. Putin's unwavering eyes and unflushed cheeks suggest a certain--how do I phrase this?--sobering lucidity that just may not have been there with Yeltsin.

Putin's other great advantage is that Russia has oil. A lot of it. For years, the country's best-known exports were vodka, sexpot blonde tennis players and furry hats. Now, Russia produces nine million barrels of oil a day, many of which are then scattered across Europe, sold at a high price.

And in terms of price, oil is now approaching the black truffle range. But I'm not sure that any president should get much credit for oil. Putin had nothing to do with the deaths of wooly mammoths that expired in Siberia a million years ago and now go for $96-a-barrel. (Although, I'm sure he could have made a few calls.)

The one thing even I must give him credit for is, unlike Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, Putin is saving and not spending the money. Russia has piled up $413 billion in the last few years. If you're an economist or a foreign investor, this kind of piggybank for a rainy day thinking comforts you. But if you're like me, and you consider Putin to be unfriendly-to-hostile depending which day you catch him, you might begin to imagine the worst that someone could do with $413 billion.

Unless he rewrites the constitution, which he might, or invokes some obscure loophole--which he might--officially, Putin's regime ends next March. Realistically, he has no desire to give up the centralized Russian government. He built it up, and he still wants to use it. The purpose of power is power.

He'll probably hand-pick a successor from his inner circle, and that guy will win in a landslide. Putin will take a position, perhaps going back to prime minister, that gives him a direct phoneline to the president's office and a nice salary. There will be no balance to the central Russian government, no check on its power. Except for the name on the door, nothing will change.

. . .

Sometimes when an athlete reaches a certain level of success, they'll walk away from their sport and try out something different. There are exceptions, but usually the results are disastrous. This unfortunate impulse is to blame for Michael Jordan's baseball career, Magic Johnson's talk show, and Carl Lewis, national anthem warbler.

But Garry Kasparov, politician, is no whim. He's been obsessed with politics since the mid-80s, when he first started speaking out against the government. His 1985 victory over Anotoly Karpov was seen as a landmark meeting of Russia's Communist past and its democratic future, and Kasparov embraced this representation. (As far as symbols for Soviet strength, Karpov ranked right above the hammer and a few notches below the sickle.)

Kasparov is also not new to the state of affairs in today's Russia. He has for some time taken an active role in the Other Russia, the wide-ranging and young political party that seeks to get everyone opposed to Putin under one big tent. Besides, Kasparov did not choose to run; he was chosen, and in resounding fashion, by the Other Russia delegates in late September. So now he's running, and running right into the teeth of the Kremlin.

He's saying, and has been saying, the kinds of things about Putin that have made other people disappear. He says these things knowing that the next time he looks out his peephole he may be looking into the chamber of a loaded gun, that his next restaurant meal could be the corned beef and polonium on rye. Oleg Kalugin, Putin's boss from his time at the K.G.B., said, "I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about something terrible happening to (Kasparov)."

Though supporters might call him an idealist, critics have cast Kasparov as foolish, putting himself and his family in danger. So how smart is Garry Kasparov? The answer to that question could begin and end with the oft-told story of a six year old Garry solving a chess endgame puzzle in a newspaper. . .before he knew how to play chess. But I'll offer another one.

While researching a profile on Garry, a New York Times reporter told a bystander that he met Kasparov when the writer's son earned a draw with the grandmaster during an exhibition two years earlier. Hearing this, Kasparov counted off the first 20 moves of that game. That's some Rainman shit.

But his intellect includes both the depth of memory and the breadth of curiosity. He loves soccer, literature, and, of course, politics, and can and will discuss nearly anything at length.

In some cases brilliance spins its owner deeper and deeper into his own mind, burning off things like logic and compassion along the way. (See: FISCHER, BOBBY.) But Kasparov's genius is more extroverted, more accessible. As it was with chess, his politics are refined over coffee with friends, not just in a meeting between his own neurons.


"I am the raider, the soldier that uses a parachute and attacks the back of a front."
- Garry Kasparov, 1990

It's called check.

In chess, the final move, the culmination of all the ones before it, is called checkmate. The king is trapped, endangered where he stands and with no move that would save him. But before checkmate comes check. It simply means that the king is exposed. Some piece has him in his sights and the king or one of his subjects must make a move that will protect him. Check announces that one player is attacking and the other is defending.

Garry Kasparov, the grandmaster, thrived against defensive players. He was aggressive on the attack and aggressive on the defense. So when he organized a protest march through St. Petersburg in March of this year, he would have recognized the strategy. In its preparation for the march, Russian police drew back to surround the governor's office. Typical, thought Kasparov: "They protect themselves." As a player he'd have attacked without mercy and left wooden figures and another man's pride in his wake. As a politician he led 5,000 protestors into the heart of the city, where 130 of them were arrested.

There are no moves that will make Kasparov become Russia's next president. There is no checkmate scenario. There is no positive endgame. Kasparov will run on principal, and he will lose on principal.

But there will come that moment. This is Kasparov, after all. I know it will come. He'll shuffle here and slide there, positional actions that won't merit attention until they've built to the final move. Kasprov will make eye contact with the king and match Putin's cold stare with one of his own. Check.

(Notes: This column was informed largely by two great pieces. David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote a great story on the build-up to Kasparov's run, and C.J. Chivers’ award-winning and heart-stopping account of Russian hostages in The School, which first appeared in Esquire magazine.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The man I wanted to hate

I didn't want to like Didier Drogba. In fact I wanted to hate him.

As so many of my conflicts do, it started with his hair. Long, straight and slick, his pimp-style mane never moves while he plays. And yet, it moved me to dislike him. Then there's the name. Didier Drogba. Part Bond villain, part high-end fashion designer. There's the voice, that Afro-French-accented bass, so lowdown and mumbled that it usually took me a couple seconds to realize he was speaking my language.

Hair, name, voice, I didn't like any of it. I can’t explain, nor do I stand behind those opinions.

But I wasn't alone in hating how Drogba played. More than once I've seen him drop to the ground rolling and cringing so convincingly that you'd expect him to pull a knife out of his thigh, only for a replay to confirm that he'd gone untouched. Before the edict went out for referee’s to crack down on this nonsense, he was among the game's worst offenders, blatant enough to once say, "Sometimes I dive, sometimes I stand." He had no qualms about using his hands to move the ball or opposing players to where he needed them. This was amoral soccer. Win at all costs.

None of Drogba's offenses reached the height of a single moment I saw on a highlight reel from his time in France. After one of his goals Didier whipped off his shirt and ran to the corner, where he celebrated by pretending to hold a machine gun and firing it into the crowd.

From another player, this gesture would be immature. Stupid, even. From Drogba, a native of the Ivory Coast, it was unforgivable.

. . .

When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, he threw out the antiquated notions of developing chemistry and cultivating young talent. Instead he handed blank checks to coach Jose Mourinho, who went about stocking Chelsea with the best players at every position on the field. And Drogba, who came to Chelsea in 2004 from Olympique Marseille, seemed to me the ultimate football mercenary: fast, fearless and without conscience. I thought if the paychecks came he would score goals in the Arctic, accumulate yellow cards at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

The paychecks came in London, and so did the goals. In Drogba's three years Chelsea has won six trophies, including back-to-back Premiership league titles. Last year he scored 33 goals in total: some great, some greatly important and some both. He scored the game winner against Manchester United in the FA Cup final, and both goals against Arsenal in the Carling Cup final. If you're keeping track, that's one man, three goals, two trophies.

If John Terry is the fire behind Chelsea's eyes and Michael Essien is its relentless heart, then Drogba is its fist. A sharply-knuckled thing dangling at the end of a long arm, when you blink too long it touches your chin and turns out the lights.

Didier can beat you with his right foot, his left foot, his forehead or his frontal lobe. He is dangerous with his back turned and facing goal. He is dangerous as a target of free kicks, or as a free kick taker. Long range or point blank. With the ball, without the ball. Don’t blink.

. . .

They burned their guns. They burned their guns and the war was over. That's what they said. The President and the Prime Minister stood next to a flaming pile of a few dozen guns and congratulated themselves on finding peace.

In 1995, 35 years after Cote d'Ivoire declared itself free from France's rule, its then-president Henri Konan Bedie took a bit of that freedom back. He placed restrictions on who could run against him in the upcoming election. The opposition boycotted, and Bedie got 96 per cent of the vote in something that I suppose looked like an election. Before the next one came around, General Robert Guei led a successful coup d'etat. With no shots fired, the coup put Bedie on a plane to France and put Guei in the big office with the view.

It's unclear what Guei's problem with Bedie was, because he proceeded to do the same thing, putting restrictions on who could run against him in the next election. It still didn't work: Guei lost to Laurent Gbagbo. When Guei didn't honor the results, Gbagbo's supporters turned violent, and this time it was Guei who had to leave the palace in a hurry.

Gbagbo was only in office a couple years before another coup attempt. The rebels accused the president of discriminating against the country’s Muslims. (I guess you just can't get away with discrimination in an immigrant-rich country that speaks more than 60 languages.)

This time around there were shots fired, and by the end of the night General Guei was dead in the street, among others. Thanks to French troops, this one was only an attempted coup. But the rebels had seized the northern side of the country, and Gbagbo lashed out against the threat to his power and life by directing his troops to attack shantytown residents and burn their houses. The loose command led government forces to random killings, and the random killings filled the occasional mass grave.

Since late 2002, the few attempts at drawing up peace agreements have been far outnumbered by violent flare-ups. The Ivory Coast was a country divided.

In March of this year, Guillaume Soro, who had previously led the rebels, signed a ceasefire agreement and was named Gbagbo's prime minister. Then in late July, Soro and Gbagbo watched a dumpster full of flaming guns. The war was over. Except. . .

Except the gun-burning came only weeks after Soro's plane landed in Bouake, the rebel capital in the North, and was greeted with rockets. The Prime Minister survived, though four other passengers did not.

Except. . .the rebels weren't there burning any guns. They were up north, probably holding them. And the government didn't burn any significant number of guns. This was only a few. It still has the rest of its weaponry. You know, just in case.

Except this is West Africa, where anyone with cash, a landing strip, and Viktor Bout's pager number can be armed to the tonsils by tomorrow morning.

Enter Didier Drogba, the man I wanted to hate.

In the Ivory Coast the average citizen can measure his political power in close friends and ammunition. But no one, not even a sitting president--not even a standing president--is as powerful or popular as a goalmaker. Drogba, whom I'd thought to be a footballing mercenary, could in his regular life be some wonderful oxymoron: a soldier of peace.

In June, an Ivory Coast match against Madagascar was scheduled to be played in Drogba's hometown, the government-controlled city of Abidjan. On Drogba's audacious suggestion, it was moved north, to the rebel stronghold Bouake. All parties agreed. After all, this was the goalmaker. Aside from Ivory Coast's five goals--the fifth from Drogba--it was without incident. Rebel forces and supporters coexisted with government officials in one stadium, cheering for the same 11 people. Deflecting credit, Drogba said "it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

The long term impact of nights like this--or the one in October of 2005, when the team qualified for the World Cup and people in Abidjan called bars to order beer for those in the rebel North--remains to be seen. As we Americans foolishly say, "It's only a game."

But I know that the more time you spend arguing over whether to play Emmanuel Eboue at right back or right mid, the less time you spend counting ammunition and looking at maps. I know that the same money that buys Drogba a house in London builds a hospital back home. I know that long after his knees give out, Drogba's mouth and his brain and his heart will still work.

Drogba has spent enough time in London to know that he could lose himself in the paved roads and high speed internet and DVDs and fine dining, and he could buy expensive speakers and try to drown out the gunfire back home. He spent enough time in France as a kid that he could probably have applied for French citizenship, and he could have suited up alongside Zidane and Henry in last year's World Cup Final. And yet he keeps turning back to his homeland and saying and doing things that most Ivorians cannot.

Though I'd like to ask him about it someday, I still don't forgive Drogba's "machine gun" move. But I think I can finally begin to get over the hair.

At the beginning of that highlight video where I saw Drogba's wrongheaded celebration, there is no sound. I saw Didier run a midfield give-and-go with a teammate, leaving him a single defender and the goalkeeper. Drogba beat the defender on pure speed and with a single deft touch swerved left, away from the keeper, and scored easily. At the moment he made the decisive move, there was a sudden pulse of string instruments that blared out of my headphones and scared the hell out of me. It introduced a powerful piece of orchestral music that played for the rest of the video.

If there is any player in football whose soundtrack would be opera, it is this man. In any one 90 minute match he can be bully, victim, artist, fiend, villain and hero. In a virtuoso performance, he played the full spectrum last week when Chelsea visited Valencia for a Champions League match.

In the first half he set up Chelsea's first goal with a through pass to Flourent Malouda, who squared the ball across goal for Joe Cole to poke in.

Midway through the first half Drogba collided with a Valencia player at midfield and went down clutching his head. The impact was sufficiently jarring that moments later I saw the Chelsea trainer holding smelling salts in front of Drogba's face. He sniffed and threw his head back. (His hair did not move.)

Just before the half ended Drogba flailed his left foot at a waist-high cross, but he couldn't make contact. Immediately he came up limping. He'd pulled his hamstring, and he started walking toward the sideline. Though he stayed on the field the last few minutes, he was a hobbled man, and I assumed he would be substituted at the half.

The second half came and there he was. I'm not sure what combination of wrapping and painkilling went on, but Didier Drogba, who had just legitimately pulled his hamstring, was as good as I've ever seen him. He won every header that came his way, and any ball rolled in his direction belonged to him, and more importantly, to Chelsea.

At one point, after battling for a ball in the corner, one Valencia fan said something ugly enough to make Drogba whip his head around and glare under narrowed eyebrows. Given Spain's pathetic recent history of spectator racism, we can only imagine.

Then with the score tied 1-1 in the 71st minute, Cole gained possession in midfield and without hesitation struck a pass with the outside of his right foot. The ball carved out a left-to-right path over 150 feet of grass, right to Drogba. Didier was one-on-one with a single defender.

He controlled the ball with his right foot, held off his defender, and beat the onrushing goalkeeper with his left. Lights out.

He ran to the same corner that he'd shot the look toward earlier, then shook his head and made a gesture as if to say, "Forget it, this isn't about you." He turned back to his teammates, and the smile that he showed Cole does not come from a mercenary.

In the 85th minute, Salomon Kalou came on as a substitute for Malouda. Kalou, 22, was born in Oume, Cote d'Ivoire, and if he weren't so damn fast he'd probably be going into his ninth year on a cocoa plantation. Instead, Kalou was becoming a multi-millionaire and a national hero. (He scored the Ivory Coast's first goal against Madagascar that night in Bouake.)

I like to imagine that Drogba has taken his young countryman in as a little brother. I'm pretty sure that, like most young Ivorians, Kalou fiercely admires Drogba. I'm pretty sure I do, too.

(Note: This column benefitted greatly from a Vanity Fair piece by Austin Merril, which you can find here. And for the same story with a different protaganist and location, try S.L. Price's A Good Man in Africa, about the Liberian George Weah.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Photo album

Hello. Been a while, and I'm sorry. Today I have pictures. (Click on any picture to see a larger version.)

My girlfriend went to the Red Location museum, which is a testament to the local anti-apartheid movement. Red Location was the first black township in Port Elizabeth. (For more information, go here.)

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This is the plaque that introduces you to the museum, and I just like the phrasing of the last line--". . .to portray a feeling of awkwardness, ambiguity and complexity." As a rule I'm for any exhibit that says, "We have no problem making you people feel uncomfortable."

(Note: I don't think my girlfriend would have taken pictures in the museum had there not been a shockingly frustrating situation: the power was out in some parts of the building. She was taking pictures so that the flash would hit the wall, and then she could look at the picture to see what was on there. I could not have come up with a more striking metaphor than a museum that illuminates the struggle against oppression, with the lights off.)

This next picture shows the government's official tactic of dealing with uprisings in the 70's and 80's. They’d round up organizers and well-known opponents of apartheid and "interrogate" them until they died under murky circumstances. Hundreds of bright young men were shot, stabbed or beaten to death while in the company of a number of policemen. Other prisoners conveniently fell or jumped to their deaths. Apartheid sent one generation of leaders to Robben Island, and the next to the grave.

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There are a couple other pictures my girlfriend took at the Red Location, but I won't be publishing them. They were of two speakers that they had, a couple of older men who were themselves residents. I won’t put them up because I wasn't there to ask their permission. But I should mention that these two guys found time to smile and laugh with their visitors while talking about the darkest days of their country’s history. I seem to harbor more bitterness about apartheid than most of the people who lived through it. They're very forgiving. Me, not so much.

Now I'll show you the beach, which is about a five minute walk from where we live. This is the part where I confess that I don't give a damn about beaches. I just don't get it. Even Zanzibar, with its famed white beaches, holds no appeal to me. The beach part of the beach is just sand.

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I do understand man's fascination with water. In Port Elizabeth, you'll often catch someone lost in the oncoming waves and their own thoughts.

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Next, we'll look at drainage. One day when it was pouring rain, I noticed this coming up under the wall of our place, courtesy of the neighbors. How thoughtful.

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And here's a picture to illustrate my last post, where I talked about the lack of a front wall. The two guys sitting on the right were responsible for taking down the rest of the wall, before a few others joined them to rebuild it. Again, this hole was there for a month.

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Now, just a couple of pictures from the game drive. We’ll start with the least interesting animal, which was the sleeping rhino. Looking at a sleeping rhino is a lot like looking at a rock. (Note: the head in this picture belongs to Sergio, another passenger on the game drive. Sergio actually took all of these pictures, except, I assume, this one. Nice kid.)

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Next we’ll see the immeasurably goofy ostrich. This odd bird came walking right up to the truck, where it became fascinated by our guide’s car keys. With its curious eye, craning neck and frazzled hair, it seems to be the nosy-old-lady neighbor of the animal kingdom. Can’t you just imagine her asking, “How’s that boy of yours?” with a smoke hanging out of her beak?

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When I first saw a giraffe close up and moving in the wild, I immediately thought of dinosaurs. I know there's no close relation between the two. They just don't look like they should still be walking around on my Earth. This one trotted down the road in front of us before ducking off into the brush.

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And then, with the sun setting behind it, the giraffe took 15 seconds to remind us we weren't the only curious ones.

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Now the real reason to go on a game drive. Lions. The park we went to happened to have a rare white male, and on this day he was relaxing with one of the females. (You'll see in one of the pictures that she eventually decided to come check us out, probably getting within a 10 feet of the truck, at which point the guide decided to put some distance between us.)

You've seen pictures like these before. And you can look at the lions in these pictures, but you'll have to go find your own. These two are just for me. I get why Hemingway's Old Man could not get the lions out of his head.

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I know, I know.

- Finally, in sports, here's something that just came up on my TV screen. It's your update on South Africa in the Cricket World Cup. The score at the time was SA 154-8 Overs 20. I have no idea what that means. It looks like coordinates on a map. On the right hand of the screen, this competition was identified as the World Twenty20 Super 8. Right.

Look, what they're doing seems very athletic. It reminds me in principal of baseball. But the scoring is weird, the batter wears a beekeeper's uniform, and matches go on for six weeks. I find it highly coincidental -- if not outright suspicious -- that a sport called "cricket" has something in it called a "wicket." (There are no zolfs in golf and no clasketballs in basketball.) I can't quite say why, but this bothers me.

Also, judging by "Twenty20 Super 8," I think this tournament is taking place 13 years in the future at cheap hotels. I think I like cricket the insect more than cricket the game.

And in rugby news, rugby is awesome. Very watchable, often very hardcore. It's American football without stops and pads. Thrilling. 40 minutes, halftime, 40 minutes. No commercial breaks. I dare any American football fan not to be caught by it. In the second half, play stops every few minutes and doctors run onto the field. They seem to help six or eight players at a time, most of whom are bleeding from the head. When they show replays, the announcers say, "Let's see how exactly the rest of them didn't get hurt."

I would probably miss it at home, but South Africa is one of the most Rugby-crazed countries in the world. (Though SA's mascot, the springbok -- a dainty little deer thing -- isn’t exactly intimidating.) The overriding theme of the Rugby World Cup at this point is the dominance of the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa huge over England, Argentina over France, New Zealand crushing Italy.

And I'm sitting in a country that just made itself look like the second pick behind New Zealand, with its scary Haka pregame ritual and even scarier speed. This could get interesting for me if South Africa go deep into the tournament. Bars are going to be on fire, maybe literally if they win.

Meanwhile the cricket thing is actually here, in South Africa, and I'm not going. Well, maybe in a few days if I still can't get a good night's sleep.

That’s all. I'll write again soon.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Let go

You can't sleep.

The wind is blowing. Somewhere in the house there's a door that's not shut, and it's creaking and banging and rattling, and you might as well get up and try to get the words out.

About a month before you came here, a woman, drunk and suicidal, drove her car into a streetlight pole just down the street from the house where your girlfriend stays. Then, apparently upset to find herself still alive, she backed-up and accelerated right through the wall in front of your girlfriend's house, right up to the door, where she was stopped by the front steps.

She survives, and you assume she is arrested, though you do not know. She is not heard from again.

It took a month, but the wall's back up. Everyone's got a wall here. A month without a wall in front of your house in Port Elizabeth is a month without a front door in the States. Everyone's got a wall, and everyone's got something on top of the wall: little spikes, electrical wire, something. A lot of them have something behind the wall: hulking, ferocious guard dogs that bark at everyone they see.

The house's backyard walls have the spikes, and your neighbor has electric wire that runs above the spikes. You are completely protected from your neighbor breaking into the house.

The front wall of this house, now freshly replaced, has nothing on top of it. It's about six feet tall. Yesterday some punk kids were tossing a rugby ball around and one of them threw it over the wall. One kid, about 13, just boosted himself over the wall, grabbed the ball, and went back over it. He didn't mean any harm, but it's not making you sleep any easier.

Nor is the woman who came by earlier this day. She looked nice, and she had a clipboard. ("Normally I have a laptop," she said, oddly, more than once.) She asked your girlfriend some survey questions about radio stations or music or something.
Then there were other questions.

"How many TVs do you have in the house?"

"How many laptops?"

"What about other electronics?"

The girlfriend said, over and over, "Oh, no, we don't have any." Smart. You're stupid. You'd have said, "Oh, there's two TVs in here, but most of us watch movies on our laptops."

You can't sleep. Some house down the street had its alarm go off last night, when you couldn't sleep. A minute went by and they didn't turn it off. You remember when you heard that 99 per cent of the time home security alarms go off by homeowner error. "Not here," you think.

The alarm wailed for five minutes. Then five more, and five more after that. The homeowner is either deaf, dead, or out of town. The alarm finally stopped, and yet you were not comforted.

There was a free shuttle bus that just started to take students from around where you stay to the campus and back. It ran a few weeks. The taxi drivers--the one's you'd seen as funny characters, written about them jokingly--were not happy. A couple days ago one of them walked into the road in front of a free shuttle. When it stopped, the taxi guy crooked his finger and thumb so that they looked like a gun, and pointed at the driver. The free shuttles stopped running.

You can't sleep because a couple weeks ago, when you and the girl were off on your little safari trip, some guys walked through the non-wall in front of the house and took a baseball bat to one of the girl's windows. Then they left. They were probably just drunk kids, vandals, though you don't know. They are not heard from again.

Another alarm goes off tonight, somewhere down the block. This one stops after just a minute, and you wonder what that means.

Wind whips against the house. The birds make the most haunting noises here, and light raindrops can sound so much like footsteps.

. . .

You try to let go.

There's not much difference, really, when you look close. You drive through an all-black part of East London and you look close. The old men sit down and look tired, and one lights the other's cigarette. The young guys stand on corners and stare at you over their shoulders and try to look hard. The girls show a mile of leg and laugh, hard. You've seen all this, more or less.

You try to let go of "normal." First world, third world, the developing world. . . There is no juxtaposition, just position.

The BMW drives by the goat farmer who lives in a little aluminum rectangle. And maybe the driver thinks "Poor bastard," and the goat farmer thinks, "Rich bastard." Or maybe the driver thinks, "I wish it were that simple," and maybe the farmer thinks "I'd rather have a Lexus."

Maybe you just think too damn much and they're both thinking the same thing: "Beautiful day, inn'it?"

Let go.

Let go of the fact that the best piece of local nonfiction you've read since you got here was a stunner of an essay in the Sunday Times by a journalist who's paranoid because a few years ago someone showed up at his bedroom window and shot at him and his wife. And he was a local, a native, a lifer here.

Could you really--do you really think that, as you've said a number of times in your own head and maybe even once out loud--do you really think you could move here?

Yes, you think you could, and you think you could let go.

You can't sleep because there's something blowing in your head, and it'll keep banging and rattling until you get up and get the words out.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dead ends on the way out


I've been in South Africa almost two weeks now. My only real problem is that I can't sleep.

But then, I couldn't sleep a full night in the U.S., either. And if I slept well at night I'd probably have nothing to wake up and write about. So I can't complain.

I had meant this entry to be a compilation of pictures with humorous captions, but my girlfriends camera has gone ill. Its only working function right now is a buzzing noise. Well get it repaired. The pictures will be up some time this week. Until then, a few observations:

1. The first thing you notice about Port Elizabeth is the wind. It's incredible. And this is coming from someone who lived the majority of his life in North Dakota and Minnesota, where there's nothing tall enough to stop the stuff ripping down from Canada.

At night in Port Elizabeth, you can lie in bed and listen to the entire outside of your house turned into a whistle. And when you're walking outside during the day, the noise of it whipping against your ears is deafening. You have to yell at the person walking next to you, and then you have to watch their lips while they talk. I'll need a hearing aid by November.

2. The second thing is the speed of life. No one's in too much of a hurry to do much of anything, except for us damn Americans, who can often be spotted passing the locals walking along the roadside. Here's a good example of the relaxed South African pace: the word "now" does not mean now. As in, "I'll be with you now," which means, "I'll be with you in a moment." Then there’s "now now," which is the extended phrase: "I'll be there now now," is more like, "Give me five minutes."

And just to mention another phrase that is uniquely African: When someone says something in the U.S. that you didn’t expect or that you want them to expand upon, you’d say, "Really?"--admittedly, not too clever. Here though, they ask, "Is it?" I assume this is shorthand for "Is it true?" I'll get used to it. But the first time I heard it from an otherwise highly intelligent person who has been speaking English since birth I wanted to say, "There's been an accident--get this man to a hospital!"

3. The third thing you notice about Port Elizabeth is the exchange rate. American money goes a long way here. A few South Africans have told my girlfriend, "Go back to the U.S., work for three years. Then come back and buy a house." Needless to say, it's being considered.

4. The fourth thing you notice about Port Elizabeth is the wind. Wait, did I already talk about the wind? WHAT? OKAY!

5. The fifth thing is a sad one: they play awful American music here. Just like in America.

6. The sixth thing that you notice as an American in South Africa is the faucets. Hot and cold water come out of separate taps. So if you don't want third degree burns or frostbite, you have to somehow make two streams of water that are four inches apart become one. I think anyone who can do this has magical powers, and should immediately be named President Mbeki's Minister of Health.

7. The seventh thing you notice are the taxis. There are "cabs," which we Americans would call "taxis," and then there are "taxis," which are more like shuttles. They look like they seat about eight or nine, but if you watch them load or unload you’ll see something similar to the clown car act at the circus. They zoom around one right after the other, and if you can stand the risk of sitting next to someone who smells like last Thursday, you can get most places in the city for less than 10 rand (about $1.25 U.S.).

As the taxis roll upon the endless stream of roadside walkers–-and count this lazy American among them-–they leave no ambiguity about their presence. The driver honks, and his partner, leaning his head out the window, yells "TOWN!" at everyone they pass. (I’m sure the driver thinks, "Why is he shouting? Can't he see that I'm honking?" And the partner thinks, "Why am I shouting?") They don't discriminate, either: say a taxi's going west, and someone is walking east--this minor detail does not stop the taxi from trying to lure them in for the ride.

I can't imagine the success rate on that kind of attempt is very high. I'm not sure many people think, "Well, I was going home. But those guys seem to be having a lot of fun. I'll go that way instead." I'll learn to drown these characters out now now, but for the moment they’re a nuisance. Besides, they drive on the left side of the road, which seems incredibly dangerous.

Okay, that's enough for now. I'll leave you with a letter I've written to Fred Khumalo, a columnist for the excellent Sunday Times, which is based out of Johannesburg.

Mr. Khumalo, whom I know to be sharply-dressed from the enormous picture at the head of the "Fred Khumalo Page" in last Sunday's times, has written a column about the bus tours that pass through the various townships. You can find it here. I’d ask that you read it before reading my response, if only to give some context.

As Mr. Khumalo's "MAILBAG" feature runs only a thin column down the left side of the "Fred Khumalo Page," I've decided to run my letter here, in full.

Mr. Khumalo -

I am a visiting American. I arrived only about 10 days ago, and I'm staying in your country for three months. I read with some interest your column about the bus tours that take visitors through the townships of South Africa.

I'll admit that I was a bit squeamish when I first heard about these tours. I thought, as your column alleges, that they sounded exploitative. Indeed, I first imagined zoo-like tourism destinations. ("Have you been to Coffee Bay? Oh, and you must go see the Sowetans.")

But now that I’ve been to the Walmer township in Port Elizabeth--where I'll be volunteering with an after-school program for young kids--I've changed my mind. Sure, I was made uneasy when a man in his 20s stopped working on his car to glare at me as I got out of the van. But that went away when a dozen kids surrounded myself, my girlfriend and another companion. They were full of questions. They wanted us to play with them. A couple of them just hugged and said nothing.

I cringed when I read your words about the animal attacks at game reserves. I get the comparison you're trying to make. But to me, it fails.

You see, I've also just been on a game drive. And I have to make a few points.

- The animals do not see a group of human tourists when the 4 x 4 rolls up alongside of them. They see a single, huge animal. So they don't feel exploited, they don't feel intruded upon. They just think, "There's that elephant-like thing." And, thusly, they are almost indifferent toward it. We sat about five meters from a pair of lions, and the big male didn't even stand up to welcome us. A rhino slept peacefully in our presence; a giraffe shuffled along in front of us before stepping off the road, only to turn back and cast a curious glance our way.
- The animals at the game reserve seemed totally content with their lives. They eat as much as they want, they roam around as they please, and they sleep well at night knowing they are completely safe from the poachers that would otherwise be hunting them to extinction.
- The story about Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who escaped being trampled by a bull elephant, was not a new one to me. These kind of near-misses happen all the time to naturalists, and in my experience, they say the same thing 10 times out of 10: “It was my fault. I did something stupid. God I love that animal.” Mr. Anthony was probably trying to check the elephant's health or attend to a wound or something constructive. Let's not imagine that he was standing over it, poking it with a stick.
- "Leave the animals alone," you wrote. "If you truly, truly want to understand them. . . ah, wait a minute. Why do you want to understand them in the first place?" I find this point silly, Mr. Khumalo. You see, I too, am a journalist. Younger, greener, dumber, and without the smart suit you sport in your picture--but a journalist nonetheless. And any journalist who doesn't know man's inherent curiosity to observe and understand. . . well, perhaps he should become an electrician.

Now let me tell you what stood out from my trip to the township. The first two girls I met, about six or seven years old, were bright, if a bit shy.

Then I was introduced to a young man named Bokke. Bokke was a very impressive boy, probably around 10 years old. His spelling was near-perfect. His math was better. He asked how old I was.

"I'm 21," I said.

"You were born in. . .1986," he said.

Then he asked what date I was born. July 29th, I said, and he told me he was born the third of May. Then I told him my dad was born May 5th, only, "a long time ago."

"How old is your dad?" he asked.

"He's 68," I said.

Bokke’s eyes rolled up a bit as he tried to find the numbers in his head. And then: "He was born in 1939."

All I could do was laugh out loud.

When my girlfriend told me later that Bokke was a bit of a hellraiser when he was with his friends, I realized he reminded me a bit of myself. (Only smarter, and with a cool accent.) Then I thought of all the things that could have – and in some cases, did – keep me off of a successful path in life. And I grew up white, in the center of America, with highly-educated and prosperous parents who treated me well and helped make up for my mistakes.

I know that in Bokke's case, there are a lot more dead ends on the way out of the township. I know that he has to chase down education and opportunity with more aggression than I ever have. And I decided, on my way out of the township, that I would keep in touch with Bokke as long as he returned my correspondence.

If the money from township tours goes back into the township itself, or at least funnels toward government programs that might help to make the life of the unfortunate better, I think it's worth it. If 1 or 2 of the 10 people on a township tour bus get off at the end and ask the guide, "Is there anything we can do to help?", then I think it's worth it. If 1 in 1000 passengers says, "You know, I'm a retired teacher; are there any schools around here I could volunteer at?", then I know it’s worth it.

I would be okay with certain safeguards put in place to insure the validity and the focus of these township tours that you don't like, Mr. Khumalo. I think the tour guides should have been born in the townships. I think the passengers should be allowed to get off the bus and talk to, and possibly dine with as many township residents as they care to meet.

And I think that the first time someone makes a snide comment, or someone takes a picture without asking permission, or someone takes a superior tone when talking about what they're seeing. . .

I think that person should be driven out, and dropped in the middle of Kruger Park to fend for themselves.

- Mike Mullen

Friday, August 10, 2007

A clear image. . .into my mind's eye

I've landed in Port Elizabeth, alive and jet-lagged. More jet-lagged than alive. So jet-lagged, in fact, that I'm writing this in the middle of the night. I slept a few hours to repay a bit of sleep debt, but then I awoke and rolled around for an hour or so until deciding that I had enough of an idea to put out a few words.

My flight from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg, and the subsequent Johannesburg-Port Elizabeth flight were each remarkably unremarkable. Nice take offs, nice landings, no crying babies.

When I first boarded in D.C., I noticed that a woman, whom I would later find out was from Botswana, was sleeping in my seat. I decided I'd take the next one over, but then a nice American woman walked over and told me I was in her seat. At this point a nearby flight attendant asked to see my ticket.

"Perhaps you are mistaken; maybe you are in first class," he said, smiling, to the tired-looking boy wearing sweatpants and standing 50 rows away from first class.

I smiled back and produced a crumpled stub from my pocket, one that indicated that I belonged in the seat of the sleeping woman, who had since awakened. The flight attendant asked for her ticket, which actually gave her a seat one row back.

"Ma'am, you are in his seat. Is it okay if he takes your seat?"

She nodded. He turned to me.

"It's okay with you?"

It was, and without further incident I was in 57A.

This was my first taste of South Africa, and it was not lost on me. I know the frazzled state of airplane travel in my country, and I'm quite sure that on an American plane this kind of mix-up would have resulted in both of us being detained. I would eventually have been released, and sued the FAA, and the sleeping woman from Botswana would probably have been shackled and sent to Guantanamo for further questioning.

But here, on South African Airways? We smile and joke and switch, and it's over.

It was one of several differences I noticed on the flight alone. The most startling would come from the flight attendants: three pretty young women, and four men, three of whom I'm quite certain were not gay. I'm not saying that it's better to have pretty young women--okay, it is--or straight men serving you on a plane. It's just different.

But what was different and decidedly better was the attendants' attitude. For 15 straight hours, they smiled at passengers and laughed with each other. And they didn't laugh like the American, where's-my-Prozac, I'm-only-laughing-to-keep-from-crying kind of fake laughter. More like, "Did you see that guy in the Hawaiian shirt in 78D? He might as well wear a hat saying, 'PLEASE, TAKE MY TRAVELER'S CHECKS.' " Which I suppose is the kind of thing you can get away with when you speak a native tongue.

One of the guys was even nice when I blanked on a regional phrase. He came around with drinks and I asked for water.


What do you mean, 'still?' I thought. I just asked for it. I stared up at him for a second, and he realized my confusion.

"You want sparkling or still?"


The older gentlman sitting next to me downed a miniature bottle of red wine, and I struck up a conversation. It turned out he was originally from Uruguay, but had been living in D.C. for 20 years.

We talked off-and-on for a while, and he told me he was visiting a friend outside of Johannesburg. His friend had been running a construction business for some time in South Africa.

"It's a rich country, South Africa,” he said. “You know? They have a lot of gold and diamonds."

Because there was a language problem--and of course the problem was, this fellow didn't speak my language as well as I wanted--I held back.

I would have liked to say, "Ricardo, I believe your friend has misled you. A few people, like your friend, have done very well. Many more are struggling."

Instead I smiled and, like an idiot, said, "Yeah."

It's probably best I pick my battles.

. . .

So, back on solid ground, what then?

Being greatly concerned by race relations, I was immediately alarmed when I saw a thickly-accented white South African berating a black airport employee in Johannesburg. He was jabbing his finger in the guy’s face.

"Don't you fucking smile at me!"

I was relieved when later I saw the guy giving the same business to a white employee. Apparently someone had lost his bags, and no race, color or creed would be spared his wrath.

A black gentleman was standing right in my way after I passed through customs.

"May I take your bag for you?" he asked.

I wasn't quite sure how to get to the domestic flights, and I could've used the conversation, so I accepted.

He explained to me that we had to walk outside because they were rebuilding most of the airport. I had seen this. When I looked outside my window upon landing to discover three different cranes in operation. I'm not sure the typical crane-to-person ratio, but I assumed they were doing a massive overhaul, and he confirmed this.

"They are building the underground train, too," he said. "It's all for the World Cup."

Ah, there it was. The thing that I had come here for, the thing about which I have a thousand questions, had in fact found me.

Because to me, this is the story of the 2010 World Cup. Will South Africa be ready for it? What will that look like? And most importantly, what will this country look like when the games have come and gone?

After all, if South Africa builds subways and fix roads and expand airports and do all kinds of infrastructure work that had heretofore been beyond its government's reach or desire. . . well, after the World Cup is over, all of those things will still be here.

But I’m no dope. I’ve seen my country explain the side effects of big projects, and I’m trying to get better at taking the spin off of what I hear.

I know that one part of construction means deconstruction. I know that one part of revealing South Africa's developing culture is hiding its hideous past. I know that very near to the stadium in Port Elizabeth is the city's township, where steady work is rare and crime is common, and for some people the two are one and the same. I know that these people will watch tens and hundreds of thousands of foreigners pour into their country to go watch games they could not afford to see themselves.

I know you can't erase hundreds of years of poverty and prejudice in a couple of years. It's much easier to sweep those things under the rug when company comes over.

. . .

I lay in bed for some time, trying to organize my thoughts. But they were too far apart, and I couldn't get a hold of one of them for long enough to shape it into the written word.

After some time I saw it.

Usually when I'm trying to sleep, all I can see is the inside of my eyelids. When it's dark, they're black. When the light is creeping in it's those splotchy little spots and lines that I assume are blood vessels. But occasionally, a clear image sneaks out of my consciousness and into my mind's eye.

So here, in the middle of the night: a pair of dark brown eyes.

Even without a face to put them on, I knew they were the eyes of a child. I have no explanation for what they hell they were doing there. But I know where I can find them.

Somewhere in Port Elizabeth's township, or somewhere in the afterschool volunteer program, or on some street--perhaps as in this occurrence, when I'm not looking for them--I'll see those eyes again. Maybe I'll see them everywhere.

And that is where my story begins. Anyone who saw those eyes and didn't understand what they had to do with the 2010 World Cup is either a sports-obsessed creep or an insensitive jackass.

The question is not what those eyes, what this child means to the World Cup. The question is what might this World Cup mean to the child.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A bridge fell into a river

I'll be in Boston on Friday, and in South Africa next week. So I'm moving everything into storage. Every -- single -- thing.

I spent the entire day moving boxes, washing dishes, sorting clothes, and sighing. Around 5:00 p.m. I was ready to deliver a load at the storage unit my sister had picked out. I drove, following her directions, through stop-and-go traffic.

But after I took the exit, the storage place was not immediately visible. After a minute I saw a sign off in the distance -- not at all where she'd said it would be. I drove to it, and pulled up to the electronic gate. I typed in the numbers she'd given me.

CODE NOT VALID. I tried again. CODE NOT VALID. Well, she's dyslexic, maybe she mixed up that 1 with a 5; CODE NOT VALID.

With no cell phone, and with the office closed, I drove away. You can imagine the thoughts running through my head at this point, and every one of them contained a word I wouldn't say in front of my grandmother.

On my way back toward the highway, a sign caught my eye. STORAGE, it says -- right about where she'd said it would be. I must've driven right by it.

I pulled in. The code worked, and I pulled around to my spot. I went up to my door and used the key on the lock. But I couldn't open the door. It doesn't pull out, and these little levers don't move left or right or up or down... I stand there, helpless. Maybe if I really pulled -- my God, is everyone who stores there stuff here 6-5, 300 pounds? It wasn't moving an inch.

Again, I was ready to leave, and you can imagine my frustration. On a whim I tried sliding the lever one last time. Success. I was in.

I piled up boxes of books and DVDs and dishes and a bag of clothes. It wasn't a lot, but it would have been annoying to have made the trip back home surrounded by this crap and with nothing to show for my evening venture.

I began the drive back, and only a minute later that a voice broke into National Public Radio.

"We've got breaking news. We have a bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis on 35-W, at the University exit."

I'm sure you've seen the pictures, and if not you could find them easily. "Collapse" is the right word. A bridge full of cars fell into a river.

My frustration subsided.

If I had seen the storage garage right away, if I'd figured out the door, if I hadn't circled the entire compound looking for an exit. . . I'd have been on or damn close to that bridge.

I found out later that my sister had been crossed it about 10 minutes earlier.

If, if, if.

So what do you do when you've come close to something like that?

Do you think about all of the times you'd been on that bridge? Do you think about a life of bad luck with cars, a paralyzing fear of heights? Do you think about how since you were 15 you've always been 20 minutes late, for everything? Do you think about the time when everyone was talking about death, and how they might die, and you said, "You know, I've always had bad luck with cars, and I'm afraid of water..."

You think about all those things, and you look for some larger meaning. It's not there.

Instead you go out and buy ice and bourbon. You pour a drink with an unsteady hand. Then you sit down and write it out, and you hope that someday it makes more sense.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fresh air

It's hot and sunny here in Minneapolis. Combine that with the blacktop effect and smog, and we're having a week of low-quality air. Yesterday it was so bad the elderly were advised against strenuous activity.

I am not unaffected by this, as I live only a couple Pujols moonshots away from about a dozen factories and mills. When I've gone outside this week and the wind was low, I could feel how bad the air was.

So when the stuff outside your door's no good, where do you go to get fresh air?

. . .

Tim Donaghy, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, the Tour de Frauds.

Where do I begin?

Nowhere. Today there's no beginning, just an ending.

I'm not going to sift through five dozen highlight tapes to decide whether "Points" Donaghy was on the take. I'm not checking to see if that dubious third quarter blocking call from a Memphis game in December was in fact a charge.

Though I'll follow it's arc, I'm not going to get lost in the minutiae of Vick's strife. If you want my initial thoughts, scroll down. That's all I've got.

I won't go into detail on why I think Bonds should retire with 754 home runs.

I won't try to understand why everyone in the entire French countryside, peasants included, begins their morning with a piping hot cup of human adrenaline.

I mean, my God, now they're telling me I can't trust Alberto Gonzales. Where will it end?

I've been up and running here at needle in the hay since March. Covered a variety of topics, and you can find them listed at the right. Sports, other stuff. About 60,000 words.

But all of this? This is too much. I wish I was angrier. I wish I could come out all fire and brimstone. I just can't bring myself to care enough.

Yesterday ESPN.com was wallpapered with scandal coverage, stories and analysis. Not long ago they had a poll question up asking whether baseball, basketball, or football was facing the worst scandal. I opted not to vote.

The real news in this world is mostly bad news. So often I turn to sports to distract myself from people's personal struggle and hardship. It's just easier for me.

And when there is scandal in sports, what then? If your distraction from the corruption of daily life is itself corrupt, where do you turn?

Where, indeed, do I find fresh air?

. . .

My girlfriend's been in South Africa a month now. I leave in a little more than a week. I'll be there three months.

I can't wait. Besides the obvious downside of that kind of distance -- miscommunication and bad connections, now only 51 cents a minute! -- it'll be nice just to have her in the room with me again. I've spent much of the last three weeks alone. I'm tired of being on the internet sports beat. I'm tired of being inside my own head. I just want to go sit somewhere with her and talk about how good the food is.

I plan to keep writing in this space, but not necessarily along the same track. I'm not sure what I'll end up writing while I'm in South Africa, though I am not without my ambitions. I do plan to immerse myself in the local soccer scene and see what comes from that.

Anyone with a good knowledge of world sports and politics would see the fallacy in looking for honesty from this game and asking for justice from this guy. But then it's a sliding scale, isn't it?

I assume that when I get back in November, two teams will be in the World Series. Steve Nash and Phoenix will be up and running. There will be half a dozen Heisman candidates, and Randy Moss will have been either great or terrible.

Sometime after I get back, it'll catch me again. I'll hear about something Gilbert Arenas said to a 76ers fan, or I'll see a college football game turn on a punt return, or Sid Crosby will grab his stick by the blade and score a slapshot with the handle just to show he can.

Until then? As the lead character said in Good Will Hunting, "I'm holding out for something better."

Right now, something better comes in a few forms for me. I'm taking a self-taught class in storytelling, I'm trying to remember genius, and I'm looking for miracles, both great and small.

I'll keep you posted.

Until then,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Horror at 1915 Moonlight Road

The other day I took my dog for a walk.

Like always, I took him back behind my house, and we walked along the railroad tracks. Charlie, my lab retriever-husky, likes walking back there because there are a million weeds growing for him to smell and piss on. I like walking there because it greatly limits the chances that I run into, you know, people.

We'd only been walking for a few hundred feet when I noticed Charlie drifting toward something. Out of the corner of my eye it looked like a fat, headless duck. But when I looked closer I saw that it was in fact a fish, and one of considerable size.

You'll excuse my mistake: I see a lot of dead birds on our walk, not a whole lot of dead fish. While walking the tracks, I do see the odd person -- some of them very odd -- but very few of them are carrying fishing poles. Even if you've killed off a liter of rum, I just don't think they're biting.

I pulled Charlie away before he put got near the fish, and we pressed on. After a while I decided we'd come far enough, and we turned back for home. Again we passed the fish. Strange indeed, but once I got home it was out of my mind.

. . .

By the time the first whispers came out that Michael Vick was tied to a dogfighting ring, they were no longer whispers. There are no small stories today, because everything echoes off a thousand outlets big and small. We'll wring the news out of anything that's damp, but this story had legs and would be made to walk.

From late April to early July, the story was like stones in a river: pieces hit and rippled, hit and rippled.

If those were stones in the water, then Tuesday, via the smoking gun, came the landslide -- an 18-page, 84-point indictment of Vick and three others -- and the resulting wave has buried the entire sports landscape. The only thing that compares in this year is the fallout from Lebron's 48-point masterpiece against Detroit. The year 2007 in sports may historically belong to a 48-point rise and an 84-point fall.

As soon as all of this started, I basically got the hell away from Vick, having been burned by Jason Kidd. I was not going to defend an athlete out loud or in my own mind simply because I like what he does on the field. I don't know Michael Vick. I never did.

And he's not just a benefactor in this document. He's one of the stars. He's there on the ground floor -- "and MICHEAL VICK, also known as Ookie, decided to start a venture" -- he buys the house at 1915 Moonlight Road, he got his "Bad Newz Kennels" headband, he's at fights, and most damning, he's there at the very end.

"In or about April 2007. . .and VICK executed approximately 8 dogs that did not perform well. . ."

I finished reading and leaned back in my chair. My mouth was suddenly dry. I tried to think of something to think or feel. I just felt numb.

I got up. I called my dog. We went out the back door for a walk.

I didn't even see it first. We had gone only about a hundred feet and I could smell it. That fish. Soon we were next to it, and then past it. But even when I was upwind, I couldn't get the smell out of my nose. It stunk. It would, from that point forward, be harder to ignore.

. . .

Roger Goodell made it clear early in his term as NFL comissioner that he would have no patience for wrongdoing from his players. And this came as no surprise. But much more revealing to me was that player leadership had requested harsh penalties. No more "protect your own," no more "no snitchin'." The players themselves said, "This is too much."

That all came out in February, and over the next couple of months, we saw Goodell's rough justice. And the league was served notice: no more messing around. If you're doing something, get out now, because anyone caught on the wrong side of anything is getting suspended and is losing money, or worse.

I don't think Mike Vick is a stupid guy. I think he understood the implications. And the things written in that indictment carry right through the Pacman saga. The only thing I can take away from his continued involvement with "Bad Newz Kennels" is that he didn't think he was doing anything wrong.

Do I think that some of the allegations about 1915 Moonlight Road may be embellished or remembered incorrectly or just wrong? Yes. I'm willing to listen for Vick's version. But this investigation cites at least four sources. And the number of other people listed -- construction workers, dogfight enthusiasts, friends -- who would have acquired knowledge of the operation over the six years in question makes me believe the investigators are pretty sure of what they've got.

Do I think that pitbulls are predisposed to some level of violence? Yes, in the same way that poor young men might be more predisposed to crime. But they're not gang members until somebody trains them.

Do I think that this kind of thing happens often in some parts of the South? Yes. But there was another thing that was pretty popular in the South about 40 or 50 years ago. And that thing was called widespread and violent racism. Some people let it happen, others embraced it. History has not remembered them well.

And I'm sorry I have to make this point. But earlier this year, Vick teamed up with the United Way to donate $10,000 to Virginia Tech, which had been Vick's college. (Although I'm tempted to call it his "college team.") I probably shouldn't doubt anyone giving to charity.

But just so we're clear here, this was $10,000 from a guy who signed a contract in 2005 that came with more than $30 million in bonuses. Bonuses means it's upfront. As in thanks for signing, here's your check with EIGHT zeros. This of course excludes his endorsements. And he's "teaming up" with the United Way for 10 grand? (Ten thousand dollars, by the way, is slightly less than the amount that was allegedly wagered on a single dogfight in March of 2003.)

At the moment I also can't find any evidence that Vick ever actually visited the campus of Virginia Tech after the shootings.

Perhaps he had other things on his mind. Because a short time before or after Vick made this pledge and the run-of-the-mill statement that came with it, he is alleged to have participated in killing eight pitbulls.

. . .

I was brought out of my haze by the sound of a train engine. It was coming up behind us. "C'mon, Charlie," I said, and we turned back.

He doesn't do a lot of tricks, but Charlie's a great walk. He listens to me, and he would only be interested going somewhere if I was going there too. In the year I've known him, Charlie has become completely devoted to me. And if he's devoted to me, he is consumed by his love for my girlfriend. He follows her room to room, lying outside the bathroom when she showers. He sleeps when she sleeps, and he whines to me when she's gone too long.

I've never really valued dogs as tools. It's not in my nature to train my dog to hunt or roll over. And I don't need to "show them who's boss." Charlie had a rough life before he ended up at the humane society, and that came through when he was scared of me for weeks after we brought him home. And every time he met a new adult man, Charlie winced and clung to the girlfriend.

Charlie had been beaten, undoubtedly by a man. And when we first got him, he had several marks on his nose and a ring of stitches on his elbow where his dominant brother had bitten into him. He shakes uncontrollably at the sound of thunder or fireworks, and he can't stand to be left alone for too long. At least once a night I have to wake him from his nightmares.

Needless to say, his life has left him with a meek personality. There are very few things he'd qualify to be as a dog, other than a loyal friend. He just doesn't have it in him.

". . .executed the pit bull that did not perform well. . .executed at least one dog that did not perform well. . .executed at least one. . .executed at least two. . ."

. . .

We passed the fish, one last time. I could see that it's rotted and been picked down to the bone. Soon it will be completely gone. In 10 minutes I would forget about it. But for a moment, I was downwind. And my God, the smell.

. . .

It's been hot here in Minneapolis, and if it's hot for me it's worse for Charlie.

I got him some water, and I poured him way, way too much food.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Notes, or Sell your soul while it's still worth something

Hello and welcome back. Today, we've got affirmation in the NBA, pain and triumph on the soccer field, and my thoughts on Mike Vick's pet cemetery.

- In a quick editor's note, I've started breaking my posts up with seperate links. If you're looking for something in particular, click on the link at the top of the post and you'll be taken directly to that section. Those links-within-the page are called anchors, which is also the term you use for fat-headed stiffs who weigh down sports networks. Eventually I'll get it so that the entire archives are organized in this way.

- Of course, we begin with robots.

Two AP stories recently appeared on MSNC.com -- one on June 22, the other on June 28 -- that are mistakently reported as seperate news. Oddly enough, they both came out of Boston, and yet they were not combined into one super-story, that should really should be getting play everywhere.

June 22 - Robots to look for life in Arctic
And June 28 - What happens when you hand a 'bot a Taser?

This is it, folks. Live it up, because we've all got a few months left.

The first story explains that we're sending robots to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to look for life in some hotprings. We plan to someday use robots to look for life on the moons of distant planets. In other terms, we'll be sending these robots about 500 million miles into space, where they'll go through piles of frozen dirt looking for minnow fossils.

That's a bad gig. Apparently, limited benefits on this job. Although if the robots do form a union, it's expected they would endorse Mitt Romney.

So, to the second story. I think this is self-explanatory. The question is, "What happens when you hand a 'bot a Taser?", and the answer is "Probably nothing all that great."

The lead source in that story is John Pike of Globalsecurity.org. Mr. Pike says that in the near future, "you're going to start seeing Robocops, or a Terminator. We may see autonomous robots capable of inflicting lethal force."

First of all, when we're in the development phase of these Robocops, I think I have a volunteer to play the test criminal. "That's right, Mr. Pike. Just pretend to take the old lady's purse, and hopefully your heavily-armed robot is a reasonable fellow."

By the way, how hard would it be for a robot with a taser to wait for the right moment, stick it to some guard's neck and say, "Hey, how about you give me the rest of the tasers?"

And here's how the two stories are actually one story, and it's also how the world ends: one of the robots in the first story meets one of the robots from the second story.

Robot: Check it out. I got a taser.
Robot 2: A taser? I have to go to the bottom of the Arctic, and you get a weapon? Do you think you could get me one?
Robot 3: Well they're sending me to Jupiter to go play in the dirt. Does it have a "KILL" setting?

Don't say I didn't warn you.

- Okay, now some quick notes on the NBA. First, an update on my Grant Hill idea from last month.

June 23 - Notes or Trying to make sense of a bullet hole
"If Hill comes back, can we just make it so that it's not with the Orlando Magic? Phoenix, Dallas...somebody offer him a jersey."

Well that didn't take long. Phoenix signed Hill to a two-year contract. I think it's a good fit for everyone. Hill makes the Suns go one guy deeper, and he can still find the open guy.

Phoenix, meanwhile, gets Hill's leadership. Hopefully Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire tip an ear toward Hill. Both of them have expressed at least some willingness to leave Phoenix, and I think Hill can point out the reality here. You can get paid later. You can be the man later. But when you're in a situation where you're trying to build talent, and you finally start to see over the horizon. . . you're only one or five ankle injuries away from never getting your chance. It would be stupid for either of them to split Phoenix until they actually see Steve Nash's back carried away in a garbage bag.

By the way, for all the people taking shots at them on this, this absolutely makes them better. They can now rotate lineups of Nash, Barbosa, Marion, Diaw, Hill, Raja Bell and Stoudemire, where they'll have four passers on the floor with the league's best catcher-and-dunker.

Barring injury or suspension, that's my pick in the Western Conference.

- Now to the ever-worsening case of Mike Vick. And when I say ever-worsening, I mean that it's looking pretty good for him. It's highly unlikely that he'll be indicted for anything, particularly because that would call for someone to snitch on him.

But investigators just found double-digit dog carcasses on the property that was in Vick's name. And I don't care if he gets indicted or not. There's something very, very wrong going on at that place.

Here's who should have more than 10 dead dogs in his yard: a 120 year old dog lover. Everyone else? You'll need to explain that.

And I don't care that this will probably never reach him. One thing that you don't do when your rich and famous buddy puts you up with a property is set up an illegal business without, you know, asking him. My message here goes to all the people who rushed to defend him: make sure you know who you're fighting for. I know you didn't want to believe that Mike Vick was in the wrong. But you'd never met him, and it seems like the critical details in how we should view Mr. Vick are just coming out now, and they have very little to do with his left arm.

After all, there was a time in my life when my first instinct would've been to speak up on behalf of Jason Kidd.

- Now, soccer. I'd heaped about 5,000 tons of praise on the national team. I even went so far as to say, " I am now of the delusional opinion that our second team shouldn't get blown-out by anybody."

I'm not sure if I should get any credit for correctly labelling my own opinion "delusional," but it seems that I was a bit wrong on the Copa America. We lost 4-1 to Argentina, 3-1 to Paraguay, and 1-0 to Columbia, and a number of our players got a "NOT READY" stamp jammed onto their forehead.

The high point in our tournament came on Benny Feilhaber's 40-yard pass that Eddie Johnson ran onto to draw the penalty kick. Then Johnson calmly scored the kick. And that was it. There were a few moments of steely defense, and even fewer offensive-minded moves. But by the time the second half of the Argentina game started, the U.S. looked so travel-weary that they may have travelled to Venezuala by boat.

At about the 60 minute mark, it appeared that they may have rowed the boat.

But when I look at this roster, I see only a handful of players who I think should represent us at the 2010 World Cup: Feilhaber, Johnathan Bornstein, Ricardo Clark, Justin Mapp, Twellman or Johnson (but not both), Demerit or Conrad.

And why am I ready to get rid of the majority of this squad -- which I have since decided is our third team -- just based on this hideous week?

Because after each Copa game, the national team got bumped-off the top story on ussoccer.com by a plucky group of youngsters who were playing about 2,500 miles north of them.

Our under-20 national team played a 1-1 stalemate against Korea in its first group game.

Then Freddy Adu made like Tommy Johnson and agreed to a deal at the crossroads. Freddy left the meeting with boundless skill and no soul, and who are we to judge?

First he terrorized Poland in a 6-1 blowout. He scored three, and that included his
first one. (Seen there slightly underplayed by the French-speaking highlights guy.)

And that goal. . . I tried to sum up Benny Feilhaber's goal in the least modest terms. And Freddy's goal was as good as Benny's Gold Cup winner. And we Americans just don't really score 'em like that.

We could expect an American player to take a swing at a falling ball like Feilhaber, or to turn on a defender and fire like Freddy. But when Feilhaber's shot hung-up in the back of the net, and when Freddy's curler smacked off the inside of the post, my head snapped a little bit and I flinched.

I was not surprised by the trajectory of either shot. But I was stunned when both balls stopped mid-flight because they flew into the goal. Again, we're the Americans, and we're not supposed to score those goals.

As good as Freddy was against Poland, he was equally brilliant against Brazil. He simply could not be stopped with the ball, and all of his teammates were always open, and he himself was always wide open. Appropriately he set up both Josmer Altidore goals, the second one with a perposterous bit of juggling to escape a corner trap.

We won 2-1 against Brazil, and we'll know who we've got in the round of 16 after today. At the moment, Freddy looks like the best player in the tournament, and we look like the best team.

The future is not now. It never is. But it looks closer and closer these days, and by the time it gets here, who cares whether you've got your soul?

- That's all for today. Be careful out there. This is the time of year when renegade weather balloons are known to fall out of the sky.

Back soon with other things. Goodbye.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes, or "Period. New paragraph. Capital B..."

Hello. Today's schedule includes a reptile, the Gold Cup Final, and my upcoming trip.

- In a quick Editor's note, later in this post, the U.S. soccer team provides the second entry in my new series "Now that's a real sports picture." I had only previously used this once, and since this is the second time, that makes it a series.

We begin, as you might expect, with crocodile news.

- I think a lot of people have heard of Gustave. Apparently, not nearly enough of them. Please, go to about the 3:00 mark of this video.

One person on youtube had this reaction:
np67 (1 month ago)
Hopefully Gustave is alive and well. I hope he copntinues to eat the people there. Its the foodchain afterall.

According to National Geographic, Gustave was last seen in April of this year. That's a couple months ago. Let's assume he's still alive. And let's be clear: when Gustave was seen in April, it was while he was, you know, attacking fisherman. He's not exactly packing it in and joining the senior tour. He's not doing the lecture tour. He will not be doing a couple nights at the Palms.

Let me say, I'm all for diplomacy whenever it's feasible. I think we should be able to sit down with almost anyone except for the most radical and unreasonable people. But not even Bill Richardson could get Gustave to back down. Hell, I'm not sure if Bill Russell could stop this thing.

Here's how you make the decision of whether Gustave can be allowed to roam free. He's about 20 feet in length. Look around the room you're in right now. Imagine something 20 feet long, and fat, being in that room. Now imagine that you're in the room too.

Can you imagine if this was happening, if this thing was killing hundreds of people in, oh, I don't know, FLORIDA? Would we let this go on? The U.S. does some -- not quite enough -- to support the research of AIDs in Africa, and some to help with poverty, and not nearly enough to help politically. But isn't this something we could solve pretty quickly?

You shoot this thing with a giant dart, loaded with tranquilizer. Maybe two darts. (Maybe throw in a couple shots of Jim Beam, just to be sure.) If the dart holds, Gustave gets put out to pasture and eats chicken cutlets -- and hopefully brings in much-needed money for the people of Burundi -- for the rest of his days.

If the dart doesn't hold? Let's try bullets.

I really like nature, and I prefer to let animals do what they do. But not here. Not at our expense. This is going too far. The fact that the people who share drinking water with this monster are surrounded by the wreckage of their own horrific civil war only makes this decision more obvious to me. Gustave cannot stay there.

I remember reading at one point that Patrice Faye, the naturalist who's followed Gustave closely for some time, was against killing this dinosaur. And originally, I was with him. But something Faye said has been rattling around in my skull for a while, and it seems to have stuck somewhere.

Faye thought that Gustave might be so virile, and have lived so long and been with so many female crocs that he could single-handedly re-populate the area with a new generation of big crocs. Now, I get his motivation here, as a naturalist.

But do you know who's not all that crazy about a new generation of super crocs? A kid who's lost a leg, or a brother, or a father to a reptile.

And hey, np67 (from youtube) -- why don't you go tell that kid where he is on your foodchain?

Okay, I went long on that. But it still felt right. And if you want another reason why I'm not okay with Gustave hangin' out, check the last dash-point in this entry.

- Now, let's get to soccer.

Gold Cup Final - United States 2, Mexico 1 (extended highlights here)

If you were writing the story of the United States men's soccer team, our play in the first 971 minutes (10 games, 71 minutes) of 2007 gets a paragraph. Nine wins, one draw, no losses, 24 goals from 13 players -- nine, count 'em NINE for Landon Donovan -- and a genuinely dominant peformance in our corner of the world. At the end of that paragraph, you'd talk about Mexico scoring first in the Gold Cup final, and then you'd mention Donovan's penalty-kick equalizer.

Then, if you were dictating the story, you'd say, "Period. New paragraph. 'Benny Feilhaber...' "

That's how big Feilhaber's goal was. Unless I turn out to be way, way wrong on this, we can now begin to look at this team's timeline in terms of before and after this goal.

Whew. Okay. I'm gonna' try not to go too far on this, but this is a big deal.

Of all the stories coming out of this tournament -- Demarcus Beasley's audition for big-time European soccer, Landon Donovan's 4-for-4 penalties, Bring Ching getting more and more cleverer -- Benny Feilhaber is the most interesting to me.

Feilhaber's game-winner -- excuse me, tournament-winner -- is now getting the label of the greatest goal in U.S. history. And you'll get no argument on that here.

Benny grew up in Brazil and moved up here when he was six. He bounced around, and eventually finished high school in California. Here's the single most incredible part of Feilhaber's story. He got his attention after appearing with our under-20 national team, but he was only called-up to the team after playing well at UCLA... as a walk-on.

Yeah, that's right. The guy who just scored the greatest goal in our country's soccer history got his big-time start when he walked onto a field in Southern California -- probably rubbing elbows with a dozen stoners and foreign exchange students -- and said, "Excuse me, coach, my name is Benny Feilhaber. I'd like to play some soccer for you."

Everything's been happening pretty fast since then for Feilhaber, now 22. His paychecks come from Hamburg SV right now, but I'm going to guess someone else will want him after what he's done this year. In 543 minutes, Feilhaber has one assist and two goals. The first goal -- shown very coolly just after the 3:00 mark here -- was good. The second goal was good enough to start a new paragraph.

While Feilhaber's been on the field, the U.S. has scored 15 goals and given up only three. That's in only eight games, and -- whoop, here comes the big point -- those eight games are Benny Feilhaber's FIRST EIGHT GAMES on the national team.

Wake up the kids. It's time to start watching the national team.

We're marching out a second-tier squad of youngster for the Copa America. There, we'll meet Argentina, which is bringing in an almost full squad. That game happens on Thursday.

We are not marching these kids out to a slaughter. We're not bringing our best group, but I am now of the delusional opinion that our second team shouldn't get blown-out by anybody. By the way, there is one player of note who will be available for Copa America.

Demarcus Beasley burns his fingers touching teammate Benny Feilhaber, mere moments before Feilhaber burst into flames.

Now that, folks, is a real sports picture.

- Okay, now to my last news of the day. This one files under "Self serving crap," but if you're a reader here, you might care too.

I'm leaving the country this summer. I'll be heading to South Africa for a 3-month trip, where I'm accompanying the girlfriend. She's doing a semester abroad, and I'm going to volunteer coaching youngsters.

I don't think I need to explain that this means the blog will take a severe turn away from it's current form. Instead of constant yammering about the NBA -- my God, enough! -- I'll be writing more about my personal experience in that country. I'm trying to think of a good way to market those kind of stories. I'm thinking of filing them under "Clash of cultures," but I think I'd get a lot more interest if I called it "Clash of vultures." That sounds like something people would want to know about. (And as Junior from Reno 911 would note, Clash of Vultures is a wicked-awesome band name.)

And now I'm going to announce something that hopefully puts a lot of pressure on me and makes me actually do what I'm about to say. Given the amount of free time I expect to find around my volunteering schedule, I would like to use the opportunity to start writing a book about the 2010 World Cup.

Becuase I'm not exactly, uh, being published right now, I plan to market the book in this way: report as much as possible during this trip, and post the first chapter on the blog once I feel ready. So, that's something to look forward to.

And now, to come full circle: being in Port Elizabeth puts me roughly 7,000 miles away from a certain murderous reptile. And 7,000 miles is far too close for me. If somebody doesn't get that thing out of the water before I get there, I might -- after a good amount of really good whiskey -- think about killing the son of a bitch myself.

That'll do for now. Back later this week with my big, fat ugly NBA draft coverage.

Thanks for coming out. You've been great.