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February 2011
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Mali Journal

M, my older daughter, is now posted in Mali. It will be a week before she has Internet access again, but here is her latest:

I met my homologue today (the woman I will be working with most closely at site). She seems nice, but she also seems more interested in hanging out with the other Malians than me right now. Since we are going to spend the next two years together, I'm not pushing it right now.

The village I'm going to is N'tjilla. It is actually a rural commune, which it sounds like means 10 small villages somewhat clustered together and somewhat spread apart. I leave on Sunday, so then I'll know for real what I'm facing for the next two years. I'm going to be working on microfinance and with a women's shea butter cooperative, which is exactly the type of work I wanted to be doing. I'm replacing a volunteer so the house is already set up and there is already a tutor in place (who speaks English!)

Things were going well at my home stay. I've kind of been the super star in my small group of Americans. I actually hang out with my family more than most of the other volunteers. I don't think my language skills are necessarily better, but because I'm around them more I get more credit for trying. I've been jogging in the mornings and playing some soccer in the evenings if nothing else is going on. We had an "Income Generating Activity" where we made popcorn to sell in the village, and we sold it at the schoolyard during their brunch break. Since I'm in a family with 30 kids, a lot of the kids who bought from us were my family members or their friends. I think they also like that I don't go to the bar in the neighboring village, although that never explicitly gets brought up (I think I did hear them discussing it in Bambara once though, but I couldn't be sure). I've also been doing my own laundry and pulling my own water from the well (for the most part, sometimes someone intervenes and depending on how I'm feeling I'll let them). We celebrated "8 Mars" International Women's Day the day before we left the village. They had two balafon players and two drummers at the school, and we got to dance with the adults, while the kids watched (parties here are kind of weird that way). L and I also decided to "make" our host brothers cook with us for L's family (my family was way too big for us to reasonably cook for and she's in a compound with only 8 people). Mainly what we got out of the experience that even guys here are better at cooking than L and I. We bought sweet potatoes and plantains and it turned out delicious, but we didn't really get the timing right because we were kept later at the school dance than we'd expected, so the last batch of fries came out a little before 10. We all ate together though, which was also kind of a big deal since men and women don't eat together here. My brother A was a good sport about the whole thing, and Laura's brother M actually turned out to be the most adept at all at cooking, from having had to cook for himself in Bamako as a student. When I asked him afterwards if he'd ever cook again he said yes, then when I clarified if he'd ever cook for the whole family again he said no, why would he? His sister does that. Oh well. At least he did it once, and we made a point of saying it was a necessary skill for an American man, which most of the guys here want to be.

Wait for the Denial

Cockburn On Waiting To Believe Until Receiving The Official Denial
Notice how well this works: Denial from GW Bush -    The United States is not wiretapping Americans unconstitutionally. Accurate post-denial belief: The United States is wiretapping Americans unconstitutionally. Denial from Richard Nixon:  I am not a crook Accurate post-denial belief:  Nixon is
a crook.Denial from Ronald Reagan:  I am not giving arms to terrorists. Accurate post-denial  belief:   Reagan is giving arms to terrorists. Denial from Lyndon Johnson:  I will not send American boys to fight a war Vietnamese should be fighting. Accurate post-denial belief: Johnson will send American boys to fight a war Vietnamese should be fighting. Denial from Condoleezza Rice:  No one could have imagined such an attack. Accurate post-denial belief:  Anyone could have imagined such an attack.


3.5 stars out of 5
I wouldn't know the main character was Johnny Depp if I hadn't seen it on a poster. He does amazing things with his voice, does our Johnny. Here, he kind of hollows it out and makes it wimpy, as befits the dreamy lizard who is at the center of this film (he reportedly modeled the voice after the Don Knotts character Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show) A delightful melange, chock full of references to just about every western you've ever seen Ned Beatty absolutely channels John Houston from Chinatown (I wondered if it was some electronic simulacrum), and Timothy Olyphant's Clint Eastwood imitation was so good it kept me in my seat until the credits rolled--which is funny, since I could have easily gone home and checked it on IMDB. Speaking of which, IMDB lists great trivia for this film: this is the first animated feature for special effects company Industrial Light & Magic; Rattlesnake Jake was modeled after Lee Van Cleef; Depp's Rango.  Two great lists of  film references in the movie are here and here. It is funny and entertaining and might win some awards. Thank you, director Gore "Pirates of the Caribbean" Verbinski.

Carroll Cat Column, Beautiful truck crash. Dan Grobstein File

Yet another brilliant cat column from Jon Carroll, America's most talented quotidian columnist.

A friend notes The most beautiful truck crash ever

Dan Grobstein File

Public Speaking Sunday

I must share my pride in an all-star (albeit exhausting) Sunday of volunteer public announcing. At St. Stephen's Church in Orinda I did my first stint as a lay reader at the 8 a.m. service, where I read Psalm 2 and the prayers of the people. Vicki says I was a little loud at first ("the person in front of me winced"), but I settled into a groove. No ad-libbing in this gig. And I discovered why people supply their own cassock and surplice--because the off the shelf ones don't fit so well.

Just a few hours later, it was off to the Blackhawk Museum in Danville where, despite the rain, the Danville Community Band had a record turnout of more than 500 for its "Jukebox Saturday Night" concert, the 10th one I have announced. Since the band was founded in September 2001, I have only missed two concerts. Next fall marks our 10th anniversary season. I am looking forward to it! In any case, I was in top form, riffing on the script with witty banter and asides that were appreciated by the band and the audience both. I won a great deal of heart-warming praise from a number of people after the concert. I mentioned to one band member, who, like me, is a refugee from the Lamorinda Town Band, that the conductor had decided to stop using me as an announcer. "Biggest mistake he ever made," she said. I feel his decision to cut me from the band was his biggest mistake, but dropping me as announcer was a close second.

I was proud of my work, but exhausted.

Political Briefs: Wisconsin in Detail

Other News

On DVD: The Joneses

How did a $5 million film staring David Duchovny and Demi Moore manage to gross only $1.4 million on 193 screens? How did I manage to not hear about it? Well, GQ magazine has a fantastic article (The Day the Movies Died) about how Hollywood doesn't make interesting original films anymore because it can't figure out how to/afford to market them. The article explains why Inception is an exception, rather than the rule. Well, The Joneses is a clever and completely original film that isn't a sequel or based on a comic strip, and so is not easy to  make a trailer for. So, while it wasn't straight to video, it was close. If not for Netflix, which knows my taste, I'd have never seen it. It is a well-written and well-acted critique of our consumerist society, even if the ending is predictable. You'll spend the first 20 minutes marveling at a film that doesn't beat you to death with exposition. Hooray! For that alone, you should see it. The reveal is like a great strip-tease from the glory days of Burlesque, except that, unlike Burlesque, you don't know what's underneath/

Gnomeo and Juliet

2.5 stars out of 5
Once again, we learn that it is possible to have an all-star voice cast (including Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart as the statue of William Shakespeare) and letter perfect--indeed, quite clever CGI, and produce a completely limp animated film. It was OK, it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't very good either. Clever idea, badly executed.