Once, in Senegal

Once, in Senegal

This is a true story. An anecdote, really. A dot that can perhaps be connected to other dots to make something more impressive, but right now is just a dot.

My first long trip without my family was a research trip my university organized to Senegal. I was barely eighteen years old. Ostensibly I went to research the roots of American music in West Africa, but I had absolutely zero experience as a musicologist and no idea how to go about doing research or any scholarly work of any kind. The ‘unknown unknowns’ involved in the enterprise far outweighed the other categories of knowns and unknowns by a ratio of maybe thirty-to-one. So as a scholarly endeavor, my trip was a complete waste of money and jet fuel.

For the vague purpose of personal growth and spiritual/intellectual development, though, it was a total win, and the stories of my week-and-a-half have provided fodder for many a drunken conversation in the years since.

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The Mechanical Bull at Dallas

The Mechanical Bull at Dallas

For a few weeks in the summer of ’96, a club out on Route 4 called Dallas was the center of the known universe, because Bill Newsome, the owner, bought a mechanical bull and set it up on the dance floor, and suddenly everyone from all around the county–white, black, rich, poor, whatever–came out to dance (sort of), eat (the wings were good), drink (as long as they only wanted beer or water), and especially ride the mechanical bull, which was free to ride after your second drink. In the low-ceiling building, really more of a hollowed-out cement slab, an incongruously magical space was made, built on novelty and boredom, that ended suddenly when the bull died and Bill Newsome decided he wasn’t going to replace it.

Kaukonen County was and still is mostly rural, but it was never country country. Most of the county’s space is given over to farms, but we weren’t farmers–those big farms were all taken care of by machines and migrants. We were mechanics, cashiers, or truckers. We weren’t country, we were industrial fringe, and our music was Springsteen and Mellencamp and ZZ Top. But somewhere along the way, for reasons that no-one could quite put their finger on, we all started talking slower, buying boots, collecting guns, and when our Toyota Corollas and VW Rabbits finally needed replacing we all replaced them with Chevy Silverados and Ford F-150s. Where when I was a kid we all looked down river to the city as our cultural reference point, now we all started to act and talk like we grew up on a ranch in Texas and didn’t know what a coffee latte even was.

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A hundred years

A hundred years

In Mongolia once I met a woman who was a hundred years old. This was fifteen years ago, so doing some simple math has her born in 1902, give or take.

The story of the twentieth century has been told many times by sources more eloquent than I, so I won’t bother to even try, but I ask you to keep any of those narratives in mind as you consider this woman, born somewhere on the Mongolian steppe at the dawn of the American century.

She was born in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, and was nine years old when her country broke away from China. The ensuing battles lasted until she was about twenty. Mongolians had originally rallied behind a Buddhist theocracy, but when the dust settled they were a Socialist state about to launch a massive nationwide purge against religion.

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In the morning I found footprints in the snow. I followed them from my bedroom window to the edge of the woods. I wasn’t allowed to go into the woods without an adult, and because this rule seemed reasonable to me I turned around and followed the footprints back.

Examined side-by-side there wasn’t much of a difference between my prints and these others. They were a little bit bigger, maybe. I put my foot inside one to check, and then walked in the footsteps until that became a game. I lost my balance halfway back across the yard and as I pinwheeled my arms to stay up the barest glimmer of a thought shot across my consciousness:

The footsteps go to my window and then stop. They don’t go back.

And then I hit the snow and the thought blew away. The powder puffed up around me in a crystalline cloud and fell back into my face. I had to turn to one side and then the other in order to build enough momentum to flip over so I could stand, and once I was up I stomped across the yard kicking up the biggest plumes of snow that I could with my new pink snow boots. I heard my mother inside and went in to demand cocoa.

“Are there are other kids around here?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, sweetie,” she said. “Did you see any when you were outside?”

“I thought I saw one last night, in my window.”

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A better Tut

A better Tut

Some years ago I had to teach a unit on Ancient Egypt to a class of third graders, and naturally most of the lesson revolved around King Tut. In order to prepare–I knew nothing of Ancient Egypt at the time–I read the course materials and looked at the worksheets and activities provided in the syllabus. The lesson boiled down to this: Tutankhamun was crowned as a boy, died a few years later, and did nothing in between that matters. Because of his insignificance, his grave was obscure and remained untouched until some Englishmen dug it up in the 1930s. End of story, now let’s mummify an apple.

But I knew my students would ask questions, so to protect myself I dug a little deeper–not even much deeper, mind you–and ended up with my mind blown. The lesson was entirely rewritten, and a three-day unit ballooned into a two week long meditation on one of the most dramatic and difficult episodes in human history, peopled with fascinating characters and lingering mysteries.

With full apologies to proper Egyptologists, any sort of historian, and all elementary school teachers, here is the gist of my version of the Tutankhamun story, minimally researched and approved by nobody before being presented to unsuspecting children:

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