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There's a script to be written and one of the plot points
Should be about a precious, but illicit cargo
Contraband, now impounded on the big stuck boat

Oakland Container Port 053

An act of God, force majeure clauses
Call it Waiting for Godot in Suez
Imagine a duel with high stakes
Not a tale of pirates but a test of wits
Not on the high seas but on the canal
Not an action heist, not that kind of drama
But rather hardboiled, the theater of the absurd
And, in the background, the big stuck boat

oakland port container crane

The backstory would involve General Sisi's fixer
Four dodgy salvage agents and a claims adjuster
The Japanese owners would be cracking the whip
Ratcheting up the tension as their deadlines slip
On the one side the supply chain enforcers
On the other the logistics operators
And via diplomatic channels, Bonecutter bin Salman
And we'll cut away often to the big stuck boat

Oakland Container Port

Throw in a Moslem Brotherhood angle
A few bellydancers to ramp up the tension
Bond shouldn't be the only one to have gratuitous fun
But in this tale there are no villains
Or, rather, everyone gets their comeuppance
For no one ever paid their soul insurance
The premiums due, to free the big stuck boat

Oakland Container Port 023

Let's pitch it to Netflix or one of the majors
It's provocative and edgy but still heartwarming
We'll bring in Roddy Doyle to doctor the script
Or Irvine Welsh if you insist on a counterintuitive premise
The fresh take on age old issues will seal the deal
And ultimately, at the climax, we'll have the big reveal
The reversal of fortune occurs on the big stuck boat

oakland port 022

There'll be multiple seasons worth, just think: containers!
We'll be taking meetings next, all we need is an agent
They should be hungry these days, the pandemic's got Hollywood idled
Remember you heard it all here first, this scribe's for hire
On the ground floor of the dream factory, the idea production line
The chief toli monger with the crystal ball and batik print
And it all happened, it was written, on the big stuck boat

oakland port 049

Big Stuck Boat, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version) ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

See also Soul Inspiration

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Writing log: May 7, 2021

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2 days ago
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White Graves

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"There are small fortresses on the hills in the background< to which the inhabitants flee in times of danger or when bandits attack them.
White graves lie scattered on the slopes lower down."
Those of the Basel Mission captured so much that was striking
From the souls that, through advocacy, they converted to be Christian
To the photos that they amassed, with their typically meticulous bookkeeping
Their legacy is all over the world, they were, as advertised, on a mission

Which is how I came upon the image of the white graves
The tiny speckles that littered that Chinese landscape
Truth be told, this puzzle came by way of a diversion
But I was altogether intrigued by the poetic caption

I'd been searching the archival record for a doctor
Who I'd long known had ties to my grandfather
It's not that I was searching for a (white) saviour
But the title did suggest itself, A Good Doctor in Africa

He was an elusive figure this good Doctor
To whom had been seconded my grandfather
But armed with those keywords, his name and Gold Coast
I quite easily came upon African and Chinese mission posts

The annotation was prefixed by Huppenbauer
And therein lay the little mystery
For there was no known missionary
By that name who worked in China

"We don't know what this means", wrote the cataloger at the mission
This was an affront to their normally excellent record keeping
I guess it was at this point, a century later, that I took a second look
Perplexed, as would be future archivists, with the scrapbook

All that we had was the photo and the scraps of metadata
"Black and white positive, paper prints, gelatin silver"
But, you know, browse a little and your attention starts to wander
The trail of missionary Huppenbauers led to the Fophin River


Just past the bridge over the Fophin River
Near the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy
A group of house evangelists gathered
In front of the Basel Mission Station

All bore smiles, some wore hats, while others carried umbrellas
These men were converts, it couldn't have been easy, they were treading water
For they were surrounded by Buddhists who found it hard to relate
Nay, there were anti-Christian placards on one of the town gates

The mission vocation held that, through advocacy, redemption could be found
But there were a few limits: the house for Europeans lay in the background
The station was erected at a remove, a secluded part past the town wall
The mission had an uneasy foothold in the town, especially after nightfall

Still, there were good times at mission station Fophin
The Free Chinese evangelist Lo Wun Tshin
Would play hide and seek with the Meyerholdt's children
Idle moments of laughter in the botanical garden

I then ventured to Limtshai (an outstation of Fophin) on the hills
Navigating past the wet market and river down to the rice fields
The village is not compactly built, with fields between the groups of houses
The vistas laid out in this rural setting, and of course the outhouses

There was more, I continued in that vein, there was no end of material
For the archives were a font of lost stories, fugitive and ephemeral
Imagining backstories of those souls whose likeness had been captured
Conjuring up the rhythms of life of those places and their measure

I guess you could call it an odd form of escapism
To while away my pandemic with rank speculation
To spend time exploring the world of these missions
It might be a peculiar form of cultural projection

I was minded of the ambiguity in the Christian missionary impulse
And the old joke about the encounter with Africa, and our loss
"When you came, you had the good book and we had the land.
Now we have the good book - we read it, and you have all the land"

I would return later to my search for the good Doctor
I am quite hot on the trail but he was not to be found in China
More likely, the note was written by the other Huppenbauer, Hans
Who was on mission in Borneo and pictured teaching knitting class

But back to the striking caption, I beheld at this note's introduction
The small fortresses in the hills didn't look to afford much protection
Flimsy edifices, less robust escape room, and more temporary enclave
No wonder the bandits were wreaking damage as witnessed by the white graves

I was curious about this glimpse of a strange kind of life
The townsfolk regularly having to flee those bandits wielding knives
Only a century ago, at the heart of rural China, during their lost decades
What bothered me was what the missionary observed: the sight of the white graves


Fophin Mission Station, a playlist

A soundtrack for this armchair historian's note. (spotify version) ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

See also: Fophin Mission Station in the Basel Mission archives. A mysterious image that troubled this searcher.

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Writing log: May 6, 2021

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11 days ago
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My Dictator: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov

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I FLEW TO Turkmenistan for the first and only time in 2018, a few weeks after a video surfaced showing the country’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, lifting an empty golden barbell in honor of the Weightlifting World Championships to be held that year in the capital city of Ashgabat.

In the video Berdimuhamedov, a sturdy, graying man in shirtsleeves and a black necktie, appears behind a weightlifting platform, flanked by traditional flags; cut to his cabinet ministers, who are already applauding. He strides to the empty bar and hoists it to his chest, fumbling slightly before lifting it over his head to continuing applause, his smile both wide and expressionless. In his grasp the bar teeters perilously to the left. 

Autocrats often cultivate an athletic image to vaunt their power. In the present instance the golden bar adds an extra veneer of dictatorial ridiculousness to the proceedings. Empty, made of gold, Berdimuhamedov’s barbell is the perfect avatar for the hollowness of masculine posturing: a luxurious falsehood. But the members of his cabinet remain on their feet for the entire video, applauding rhythmically, like automata.

By 2018, Berdimuhamedov had been the dictator of this Central Asian country of 6.4 million for 12 years. Turkmenistan, a Soviet Republic from 1924 until 1991, hadn’t hosted many international events, and the Weightlifting World Championships represented a significant occasion. I attended with my father, a sports scientist and author, with whom I’ve traveled to dozens of weightlifting competitions. This would be my third in a post-Soviet Central Asian country, having visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for previous events like this one. 

My father’s weightlifting career spanned the ’70s and ’80s; he once trained and traveled in Russia behind the Iron Curtain, so he’s able to recognize certain customs as holdovers from Communist times. Turkmenistan’s barren capital city offered many such opportunities.

Ashgabat seems to be entirely composed of marble and gold, and it also appears to have been all but abandoned, despite being home to a substantial part of the country’s population, perhaps as many as half; published population figures are almost certainly false, according to multiple sources. Radio Free Europe reports that millions have left the country due to a lack of opportunities and personal freedom. Berdimuhamedov has withheld census data, according to the CIA Factbook.

Even before the pandemic, foreign visitors to Turkmenistan were tightly restricted though onerous visa requirements; the country received just a few thousand visitors per year. (Its Tourism Committee website was recently disabled altogether, though the Wayback Machine has an archived version.) 

Walking around Ashgabat felt to me like visiting Disneyland after the rapture. There’s no litter on the sidewalks and no billboards on the highways, only manicured shrubbery and silence. Aside from a handful of soldiers and a single person taking the bus, the streets stayed empty for my ten-day stay save for groups of uniformed women with straw brooms, scraping away at nonexistent refuse. The city gleamed in the sunlight and lit up at night in shifting candy-colored hues set off gorgeously against the white marble. For years it was illegal, in Ashgabat, to drive a vehicle in any color other than white. 

Even in this barren landscape, I felt watched wherever I went. Public bathrooms often had attendants who seemed more interested in keeping an eye on the stalls than in making sure they were supplied with toilet paper.  Having once illegally exchanged currency in a Central Asian bathroom, I found the extra security unnerving. Elevators were guarded in our hotel, and soldiers lined the streets. Before entering the hotel compound by car, my father and I had to submit to TSA-like body scans, and our bags were searched by armed security officers. We wore our passes around our necks at all times, and were expected to scan into every location we entered so that data could be logged. Each of us was assigned a guide—a boy for my father, a young woman for me—who stuck by our sides every hour of the day.

I have fewer photos from Turkmenistan than other countries I’ve visited for weightlifting events. Using my phone in public felt reckless, or suspicious. Most of the photos I have were taken inside the museum, where the lifters, coaches, and members of the media were taken for guided tours. We were filmed the entire time by a Turkmen camera crew, but were never told why. One subject I couldn’t help capturing, over and over, was Berdimuhamedov. He was everywhere—embroidered in hand-woven rugs, in portrait after portrait hanging on the walls. In the center of the museum there’s an immense image of the president, much larger than life size, in which he is walking on an emerald green carpet and waving. Birds soar behind him above pristine marble landmarks. There are rainbows. Below the portrait rests a scimitar in a jeweled hilt kept in a class case. 

Berdimuhamedov won Turkmenistan’s first presidential election with multiple candidates in February 2007, after his predecessor, Saparmyrat Nyýazow—official title President for Life—died in 2006. Berdimuhamedov has had extraordinary luck in subsequent elections, winning again in 2012 and in 2017 with over 97 percent of the vote. He stepped down in February 2022 as head of state to become head of the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, one of the main governing bodies in Turkmenistan.  Another presidential election was held; his son emerged victorious, after capturing what must have been a disappointing 73 percent of the vote. 

For as long as men have ruled empires they’ve tried to prove, or pretend, that their bodies are superior to those they’ve conquered, and the distance between the macho fantasies and the lived reality is often grimly comical. Italo Calvino’s essay on the evolution of Benito Mussolini’s portraits and Janet Flanner’s pre-Holocaust feature on Adolf Hitler appeared, decades apart, in the New Yorker, both excellent catalogs of flexing dictators: Mussolini disguising his bald head with a manly helmet, and Hitler camouflaging his perpetually dyspeptic, weak, malnourished body with military trappings and tough-guy posturing. Vladimir Putin loved posing shirtless on a horse, and Donald Trump’s hair weaves and globs of orange makeup grow increasingly wild. Can there be a correlation between these absurd displays and the dictatorial goal of limiting personal freedoms and public resources for millions of people? 

Other, even sillier, videos of my dictator have emerged in the past decade: Berdimuhamedov shooting targets with a handgun from the seat of a bicycle; Berdimuhamedov in military fatigues flinging knives at targets, recording a rap video with his grandson about the importance of sports, unveiling a giant gold statue of a Central Asian shepherd dog modeled after his favorite pet. This last one appeared in November 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world, claiming millions of lives. Turkmenistan is among just 11 countries to report zero COVID-19 infections or deaths to the World Health Organization, and it is, tellingly, the only non-island nation on that list. 

When I visited the museum in 2018, I wandered into a circular room where photographs of Berdimuhamedov surround you on all sides: there he was, playing guitar on a stage surrounded by Christmas trees, then sitting on a carpet in a white fur fez deep in thought; a serious image of his face that looked eerily like a cartoon, gazing serenely into the middle distance. As I marveled at these portraits of the president, who appears to deeply love his country but perhaps not the people in it, I wondered why my grandmother had so rarely discussed Mussolini. She was born in 1924, and so must often have seen the ubiquitous portraits Calvino described. Her comments on il Duce, however, were mostly restricted to his weakness as a leader and the fact that it was he who had commissioned the construction of the homes in her neighborhood that had crumbled under Nazi occupation. It was in this decimated village that she met my grandfather, a Polish soldier and raging alcoholic, whom she married and eventually fled with to Canada. Most of the circumstances that carried my grandmother to America were brought about by the failures of weak and violent men in power, men who wished to be strong, and who fantasized that they could be the architects of a better world. Through their vainglorious arrogance, we can be certain that their images will never be forgotten.

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11 days ago
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There's no good way to receive bad news And it is a feature of grief That it catches you unawares Cuts your soul, plunging deep A phone call One-handed, you answer While marinating the meat Raw chicken Primal Raw scream A dear one has been stolen from you by this thief

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There's no good way to receive bad news
And it is a feature of grief
That it catches you unawares
Cuts your soul, plunging deep

A phone call
One-handed, you answer
While marinating the meat

Raw chicken
Raw scream

A dear one has been stolen from you by this thief

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12 days ago
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Trained officers
A tough job, we all know,

Jogging. Uppity
A stare. Traffic stop
Or sometimes just reaching

One wrong move
And your life slips away,
Your chest is heaving

Pleading for God and your mother
Or simply lying there

edge by kristin willits

After the killing of Daunte Wright.

Soundtrack for this note


Timing is everything
Observers are worried

See previously: Goody Two Shoes

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: April 13, 2021

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17 days ago
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Soul Inspiration

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I saw an opening, that was all there was to it
Soul inspiration, I guess that's what you'd call it
Still, I'm not quite sure about my contribution, it has to be said
But I thought that I should join in the conversation, even if it came in verse

Inspiration is like that, when you suddenly have something to say
A stray word, an odd image, and you're off to the races
You're not even thinking about how it ends
It's all about the pleasures of taking up a pen
Or keyboard, or phone or, of old, a typewriter
You've gathered the writing pad or, in extremis, the scrap of paper
You've found the requisite solitude, it can no longer be denied
The detachment needed is on hand, you've sharpened the splinter of ice

And now that you're ready, the idea simply glistens
You'd explain its beauty to anyone if only they'd listen
But now it's down to you, and you're on a mission.
Who knows whether it will be worth it in the final analysis
But, for the moment, you're finally past analysis-paralysis

It's down to execution at this stage but that is its own tale
And when, no doubt, you revisit it, you'll note the irksome detail
That you had discarded even as you knew that it would matter
That plot point, that loose rhyme, that woolly notion
That you knew later readers would brand as imprecision
The failing you thought you could overlook as you rushed to completion
The fleeting doubt as you faltered in your tower of Babel creation

But nothing is amiss, right now there's a creative abundance
You're merely reaping the wages of soul insurance
Remember, the muse wills what she wants
She, it was, that ushered you in this direction
Be thankful for these moments of soul inspiration


Soul Inspiration, a playlist

soundtrack for this note (spotify version) ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

File under: , , , , , , , , ,

Writing log: May 5, 2021

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21 days ago
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