Port Alfred Overview

PORT ALFRED, SOUTH AFRICA

January 9, 2019

Jackie and I are both knackered by jet lag after a 24-hour flight to Johannesburg via Amsterdam, a hop to Port Elizabeth, and many hours driving on the wrong side of the road to the coastal town of Port Alfred. Experience tells me that we’ll need at least a week to fully recover. Until then we’ll be wide awake at 4 a.m. and down for the count by 7 at night. Right now it’s 5 a.m., the morning sun is fully up and there’s only a small breeze across the lip of the hill where we’re perched overlooking the Indian Ocean. The strong winds will come later in the afternoon and we’ll be happy to be sheltered by the tall walls surrounding the swimming pool.

We’re finishing up our first week in Port Alfred, a town at the very bottom of South Africa that’s about the size of Ashland, Oregon. Hard to know if that accurately counts the black and indigenous residents of the adjoining township, though I doubt it. Our landlords are German and Dutch emigres of more than 40 years back, a little racist by my standards and with not much to say about “the locals” except to remind us to keep the doors securely locked. We have a wing of a large house dating from the mid 1800’s, built of ballast stone that arrived in a windjammer at Port Elizabeth just down the coast. The grounds are protected by a huge, ancient German mastiff, too old to move around much but still the terror of the neighborhood. As Wolfgang (the owner) explained, any burglars would be fools to come on his property when the house next door is guarded only by a Pekinese.

So, some observations after our first week:

  1. Our accommodations were described on VRBO as a “pool house”. They’re actually an original 1850’s building which is now a wing of a larger, more modern house.  We have a sitting room and a larger kitchen/dining room which looks out onto the pool area, with a bedroom and toilet and bathroom behind, attached to the main house by an entrance hall.
  2. The pool outside is surrounded by a patio, bordered by a high wall with palm, banana and jacaranda trees. The trees are filled with doves and hoopoes and some large-beaked branch of the crow family, and the golf course down the hill supports a herd of beautiful black and tan striped impala.
  3. With the exception of the downtown area by the river (of which more later) there is a wonderful silence and lack of the “city” noises I’m so used to hearing. Here on the hilltop there are a few birds that call throughout the day, and a few houses away from us there’s a rooster who makes a ruckus for a short time in the early morning and just at sundown. Otherwise there is only the wind and, off in the distance, the sound of waves pounding on the shoreline.
  4. Port Alfred has one traffic light at an intersection at the bottom of our hill, at the entrance to the business area. Our hosts tell us that the town might install another sometime in the future, but right now it’s not in the budget. So far it doesn’t seem to have made much difference to traffic flow or accident prevention since the local drivers are a courteous lot anyway
  5. The sign outside the only funeral home in town advertises “One-Stop Funeral Services”.
  6. Our place loses electricity for up to an hour several times a day, but it always comes back on and the temporary loss rarely interrupts anything of importance.
  7. Internet service is very spotty. I can get online for an hour in the early morning and late evening, but only after waiting for the little circular whirligig thingy on the screen to revolve madly for minutes at a time. This is a good preview of what things will be like in the states when we no longer have net neutrality.
  8. And speaking of Donald Trump…. The lack of US internet news is refreshing, to say the least. Headlines here are all about how everybody pitched in to clean up the beaches after the New Year’s celebrations, and how the government is encouraging students who’ve had trouble with tests to register to retake them.  This is an improvement over reading that our CDC is preparing the country for nuclear war.

That’s all for now.  We’re going to go down to town and find a fruit stand. Our landlady tells us that oranges sell for around $2.00 a bag and she will lend us her juicer.

The Prodigal Writer

JANUARY 19, 2019

South African Internet

I think I’ve talked before about difficulties we have with the internet, such as not being able to get online, slow data transfer (can’t send pictures), dropping calls on Skype etc. It all sounds hard to believe but it’s a daily annoyance. Herewith I compare how the internet works in the US with how it’s done here.

US or South Africa, mobile devices:

If you have an iPhone or iPad or other mobile device, you can tap into the internet just like you do in Portland. Go out to a restaurant or coffee shop, get their password and a drink, log onto their internet and you’re good to hang and check messages or whatever until they kick you out. 

US, residence:

Pick internet service provider for your house

Pick data plan

Put it on automatic monthly payment

South Africa, residence:

There are two primary internet providers in South Africa – Vodacom and MTN – and they’re equally costly and unreliable. We chose MTN, not because it’s particularly better than Vodacom but because it’s the only one with a presence in little Port Alfred.

At our residence the landlady provides us with a router, but she doesn’t pay for the service. We pay for the internet service that comes through it for reasons that will become obvious. The router has a chip in it onto which we can load airtime. This is where things get hairy.

Airtime is paid for in discrete parcels, such as 10, 20, or 30 gigabytes of data. How long that lasts is dependent on how much one uses the internet and whether one is downloading data in large or small blocks. Think of filling up a tank with data instead of water. Each time you open the faucet you’re draining out data. So, checking and sending messages is like opening the faucet a little. Reading online news stories is like opening the faucet a little more. Downloading videos or sending pictures is like turning the faucet to full open.

The tank full of gigabytes therefore gets drained out over time, and once it is empty you have to buy more data and fill up the tank again. Problem is, there isn’t any gauge to show how much is left in the tank so you’ll know when you’re going to be cut off. The only indicator is a bright yellow warning page that suddenly appears on your screen and says hey, you’re empty. When this happens you curse, shut down the computer, hop in the car and drive to the nearest MTN outlet to purchase another package of data. This becomes a problem if you’re many miles away from an outlet, it’s after 5:00, or it’s the weekend. I know what you’re thinking: can’t I just call the company and buy more air time? Nope. And there isn’t any data plan that has unlimited data, so it’s a trip to the fucking store every time you run out.

When you do get to the store you stand in line with all the other poor schmucks who have just run out data in the middle of downloading porn. You hand the clerk your credit card and indicate how much data you want to pay for (did I mention it is ungodly expensive?) Once the transaction goes through and your credit card is charged, you are handed a slip of paper with a long series of numbers on it. You take the slip home and punch the numbers into a keypad on your router. These numbers then get transmitted to the mother ship who knows where and your tank is once again filled.

One obvious way around this mishegos would be to buy larger blocks of data. The providers figured that one out long ago. Say you get 40 gigs of data and at the end of the month you’ve used 30. You lose the gigs you haven’t used because they’re only good for a month. No, they don’t roll over. They’re just gone and so is your money.

A rational person looks at this system in awe and despair because it seems so god damn inefficient. But that’s the whole point. It provides make-work employment for the otherwise unemployed. The inefficiencies are not a bug, they’re a feature. The system is designed to be confusing and wasteful; that way the maximum amount of money can be skimmed off. It would be easy to change the structure but making it more efficient would cut into profits. The internet situation is like South African government in microcosm, and neither it nor any other facet of the country is going to change any time soon.

Back In The Saddle. My editor Mary Rosenblum died in March, while Jackie and I were in South Africa, so besides losing a mentor and friend I also lost several months in the editing process. Luckily my sister Meg had worked with Mary and took over the task of final edit. I had long since ditched the dream of having some company like Macmillan offer me six figures for the manuscript, so once we got back to the States I started looking for a Northwest publisher. Thus I came upon Inkwater Press in SW Portland – manageable, friendly and having a long list of enthusiastic reviews. I signed with them at the end of June. In addition to tending to all the nuts and bolts of the publishing process they will be guiding me in the game of marketing the finished product. Our plan is to have the book out for the Christmas reading season, so I promise lots more Blog posts to keep you informed of our progress.

Dylan’s Ghost

DYLAN’S GHOST

 

Dylan’s ghost lives at Grandma’s,

Downstairs, quiet, seldom seen.

At night Dylan lies within his magic ring

Of Thomas trains and legos.

The ghost watches from the stairwell

And needs no speech to murder sleep.

 

Describe the spirit?  The image twists, slips away.

No death’s head crone

Or rags or teeth or rattling sounds,

But something calling from the past.

Born in another house, dark and cold and broken,

Crouching behind a door,

In pain.

 

Who knows what’s real,

And to whom, and how manifest?

We wise Libras, anxious to rewrite the past, console:

“There are no ghosts”, “It’s a friendly ghost”,

Glancing at the darkness while we reassure.

 

For we know our own:

Alcohol, rejection, rage, abuse, neglect –

The hook is still caught in the bone; the pain endures.

And living with our ghosts we have forged a peace.

Now we can name them.

 

Dylan has no words yet

To flesh his phantom or to exorcise it.

How can we give him our voice, our years,

To help him speed the healing,

Or to even understand?

RIP Mary Rosenblum

Hi Folks,

The following notice was published in the March, 2018 edition of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I was fortunate to have worked with Mary for two years leading up to her death and she had a profound effect on my manuscript.

In Memoriam – Mary Rosenblum

Mary Rosenblum (b.1952) was killed on March 11 when the small plane she was piloting crashed near Battle Ground, Washington.

Rosenblum’s debut novel, The Drylands, received the Compton Crook Award and was followed up by novels Chimera, The Stone Garden, Water Rites, and Horizons. Beginning in 1999, she also began publishing mysteries under her maiden name, Mary Freeman.

In 2009, he short story “Sacrifice” received the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.  She has also been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, Tiptree, Endeavour, and Sturgeon Awards.

Rosenblum published a collection of her short fiction, Synthesis and Other Realities in 1996.

President Cat Rambo had this to say in remembrance:

Rosenblum was one of the vital components of our Pacific Northwest Community writing community. Self-reliant, pragmatic, and incisive, she could butcher a sheep or make cheese as easily as she could write a story that showed a depth of human understanding many of us work a lifetime to achieve. She will be deeply, dearly, heartbreakingly missed.

Kill Your Darlings 2

One great thing about editing a manuscript is that when you cut stuff out, it may be useful later in another context. Tommy the Viet Nam vet/counselor is a great example. My editor Mary said she loved his presence, his dialogue and how he filled up the room, but she explained that including him would push the story in exactly the wrong direction. He was just too compelling. So I killed Tommy off, at least as far as “Sunrise” was concerned. He’s gone but not forgotten, waiting for his chance to reappear somewhere down the road and work his magic.

*************************

As I walked up the Park Blocks to Portland State the late morning was bright and warm with only a slight breeze. The campus was wall to wall skateboards, dogs, and halter tops. Unexpected shirtsleeves weather for January but sometimes Portland had roses blooming in winter, too. Give it twenty four hours and we’d be back to normal, but today everyone who could be outside, was.

Tommy’s office was in the Simon Benson House, a mansion built in the early 1900’s that used to sit uphill from the campus. Over the years the beautiful old family home had become a boarding house, then abandoned during the 60’s and tagged for demolition. Portland’s preservation craze of the 90’s got a non-profit interested in the building’s historical significance, and it was moved on campus and refurbished for Alumni Services. There wasn’t an inch left untouched by the restoration experts. New chimneys sprouted up, all the ornate gingerbread was replaced and the front entrance was flanked on either side by so-called Benson Bubblers, brass drinking fountains donated by Simon Benson to the thirsty citizens of the city.

I walked up onto the wide, sheltered porch, stepped through the heavily carved front doors, and navigated a narrow staircase that wound its way up to the third floor. At the top was a plain oak door with a card pinned to it. T. Morales, PhD. The card was smudged and curling at the edges. I knocked. There was a muffled “wait a sec,” a pause, then “C’mon in.” I opened the door and poked my head inside.

The office was one large room, sparsely furnished, with sunlight fighting its way through dusty, high dormer windows on either end. A vase of lilies sat on a small table, the only touch of color in the room. Overlaying the sweet smell of lilies was the stronger, bitter aroma of a recently extinguished cigar. Behind a cluttered oak desk, his head bent over a computer, sat a short, crew-cut man. He held his finger up, then without looking pointed to a well-worn leather chair in front of the desk. I took a seat and waited. He finished typing and closed the computer.

“I’m not going to get up; got a little trouble with my foot.” He smiled. We shook hands across the desk. “Jack said we should get to know each other. Understand you were over there about the same time as me. Let’s get a little background before we dig into things.”

We talked a little about Viet Nam. He and I had fought in the same war, but geography was about the only thing we had in common. He’d been on the ground, digging Viet Cong out of holes and getting blown up. I’d done my missions a couple miles above, jamming enemy radar and refueling our attack aircraft inflight. I’d gotten through the war without a scratch; he’d been wounded twice and came back home with the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and most of his left foot. I told him briefly about my symptoms; nausea, pain, and recurring dreams. He said his own flashbacks were as important as his PhD in counseling other vets.

“Crack that dormer window, would you.”

I reached up and jimmied it loose. He rummaged in his desk and came up with a short, black cigar. He motioned to it. I waved no; he lit up and pushed back in his chair. My throat was dry from talking. I poured myself some water and took a closer look around.

“How’d you ever find this place?”

“Long story. Short version is I gave up my top floor corner office to one of the Administration types. We were talking one day; turned out he was in charge of the remodel here and Admin was going to turn this floor into storage. He wanted my view; I wanted someplace quiet for writing. What clinched the deal was when I explained how I’d been helping out Alumni Services for years. You know, satisfied students bring in their friends.” He took a long pull on the cigar and blew out a rank cloud. I could feel my eyes tear up. He contemplated the cigar fondly, then closed his eyes and did a quick recap of our conversation.

“Y’know, combat PTSD is pretty straightforward, most of the time. There’s usually a triggering event and then a reaction. I think of it like “Boom/Flinch”. Some event’s the Boom; like running over an IED, and then there’s a reaction; the Flinch, to put it simply. Years later the original triggering event is long past but you still get the Flinch for no discernible reason. One of my vets woke up one morning and found he’d killed his girlfriend’s yappy little shar pei during the night. Beat it to death with a bat; Louisville Slugger, I think. No memory of it. He was sorry, but his girlfriend was just plain hysterical. I talked to her; explained it might have been PTSD. I mean, he could have been startled by a village dog just when a bomb went off, huh? That helped her get over it.”

He took another long drag on the cigar and chuckled. “Me, I think he just hated that fucking dog.”

“Now you, you don’t seem to have any Boom to begin with, at least not coming out of Viet Nam. No jumpiness, no paranoia. You say that most of the problem is in your stomach and it comes out as nausea, cramps, pain. I’m not sure how that fits with combat PTSD. We’ll see.”

“Well, you know, there’s more…..”

He cut me off and ground out his cigar. “Yeah, there always is. Today was just to poke at each other a little, see what sticks its head up. I think we can work together. You wanna try, I’m game.” I nodded.

“Homework.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Homework. Before you go to bed, go back over the most recent dream you’ve had. Try for detail. The next time you dream, as soon as you wake up, write shit down. Also, pay attention to waking events that seem to trigger these reactions. Keep a journal. Might help; can’t hurt. We’ll get back together in a couple weeks.”

Coming off the porch I stepped aside for an exceptionally good looking student who was wearing a down vest and short shorts. I said hi. She gave me the kind of smile you give an elderly uncle whose intentions aren’t entirely clear. I waited as her Chocolate Lab, straining to his full height, leaned over and buried his nose in one of the fountains, snorting water as his collar tag clanged against the brass.

Now for something completely different…..

… because I’ve been spending way too much time revising the manuscript and emailing prospective agents, and far too little time writing for fun….

 

The Gringo and the Fisherman

My wife Jackie and I used to spend each winter in Mexico, in a little fishing town called Puerto Escondido.  In the harbor below the town there is a small fleet of fishing boats. The boats go out every night and when they return in the morning they do so at a dead run; everybody heading for shore before the sun is fully above the horizon.

There are two reasons for this daily race. The first is that the earliest boats back will get the benefit of the buyers who are already waiting on the beach; tourists, local families, and restaurants.

The second reason is that there just isn’t enough room in the small bay to hold all the boats at the same time. There is no seawall to tie up to, the water is shallow, and the bay’s sandy floor doesn’t hold an anchor well. About half the boats tie up to buoys, but each boat needs a wide berth to keep from smashing up against the others, so the available space disappears quickly. When the bay is full the rest of the boats are dragged up onto the sand and left while the fisherman wash and tend their nets. The whole family pitches in; the mothers clean and sell the fish and the children throw scraps of entrails to the pelicans that cluster nearby.

Early one morning I decided to walk down to the beach at sunrise and photograph the proceedings. When I arrived the harbor was already filled and the place was swarming with people picking out fish and haggling over the prices. I walked over to one of the boats that was sitting just out of the water.  A dozen men were struggling to push it further up the beach. Nearby was another gringo, a guy about my age, and as we watched I said something like, “A couple of years ago I’d have been right in there, helping.”  He nodded and said, “Yeah, better watch out now,” as I started walking away. I turned and looked back at him, waving as I went down the beach. “No, I mean really, watch out!” he yelled.

There is a universal warning sound that humans make, usually just prior to a disaster. It is the sound of air being drawn inward over clenched teeth, sort of a reverse hiss; a sound that says, “Too late, you’re screwed.” The last time I heard it was from a New York cabbie during my first trip to the city, when I opened the back door of his taxi and stepped out into Fifth Avenue traffic. Now it seemed that was the only sound on the beach, and I realized I was its focal point. I turned around and found myself looking into the panicked face of a young man.  As he backed away from me, mouth open, waving his arms, I heard another sound; the high-pitched whine of a boat’s engine, closing in fast.

I turned toward the ocean to see a twenty-foot fishing boat heading for the beach at full throttle. It blew through a flock of pelicans and came straight toward me, the fisherman at the helm waving frantically at me to get out of the way. At the last minute I took one step backward. The boat left the surf, sailed past my nose, smacked down onto the sand and slid up the beach. The fisherman cut the engine and for a moment, as they say, all was quiet.

I took a deep breath and looked around at everyone. Everyone looked back at me. The driver of the boat made the palms-up shoulder shrug that means, “Eh, Mexico!”

Then, with a collective shake of its head, the little community went back to haggling over fish.

 

 

THE FISHERMAN AND THE GRINGO

 

(With a nod to Alfred Noyes and his poem, “The Highwayman”,

which you probably read in English Lit. class freshman year.

It was awful then; it’s still awful.)

 

The sea was a wind-blown torrent, as the Fisherman turned for home,

Ahead he could see the other boats,

As they fought their way through the foam,

All night he’d thrown his nets and now, with his cooler full to the brim,

He dashed through the storm in the sunrise,

Through towering waves in the sunrise,

Heading for shore in the sunrise,

Where his family waited for him.

 

 

The Gringo left his place early, to take a long walk on the beach.

With a Styrofoam cup of coffee, and

A durazno (that’s Spanish for peach).

His beautiful wife had warned him, “Dear, be careful, it’s dark on the sand!”

But he left their warm bed in the morning,

Strode out alone in the morning,

As the sun came up in the morning,

And the shadows fled over the strand.

 

 

The Fisherman’s young wife stood on the shore with her baby clutched to her breast,

Anxiously staring out over the waves,

At the storm blowing in from the west.

She watched as the black clouds gathered, and prayed that the weather would hold.

For until he arrived on shore safely,

Bringing his little boat safely,

Through the shrieking wind and the pounding surf

She would wait, standing there in the cold.

 

 

The rest of the fleet was already home, the boats were high on the beach,

Dragged by dozens of helping hands,

Away from the surf’s deadly reach.

The crowd stood silent and listened, for the last engine’s high pitched keen,

When into the midst of the drama,

Unaware of the drama,

With coffee in hand and looking for fish,

The Gringo arrived on the scene

 

 

He wandered along in front of the boats, oblivious to his fate

The crowd tried to wave him away from the shore,

But by then it was really too late.

His ears perked up when he heard the scream of the fifty-horse Evinrude

Ramming the boat through the water,

He turned his face to the water,

Saw the boat leap out of the water,

And he knew then and there he was screwed.

 

 

The Gringo turned to step out of the way, and everyone gave him room

He was eye to eye with the Fisherman,

As the boat flew by in the spume.

He stood open-mouthed as the airborne craft went past him like a knife.

So close the driver could touch him,

So close the boat actually touched him,

Shaving some hair off the Gringo’s leg

And some years off the Gringo’s life.

 

 

The boat came to rest and the engine stopped, there was hardly a sound on the sand.

Just some Ave Marias in thanks that the boat

Was safely back on the land.

The Gringo looked at the Fisherman, as he quietly turned to go

On his shaky way back toward the condo,

His quiet, comfortable condo.

And the Fisherman smiled at him and shrugged,

As if to say, “Eh, Mexico!”

 

 

They say that it took ten strong men to drag the little boat back off the beach.

Now the Fisherman fishes more cautiously,

Avoiding the storm’s deadly reach.

But the Gringo has a long memory, and it feels to him like a scar.

And he stays off the beach, in his condo,

Way up off the beach in his condo,

With his beautiful wife in his condo,

He watches the waves from afar.

 

 

 

 

 

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