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Memphis Earlene and I are on the Virtual Verandah with our beverages of choice–Southern Comfort for her & a Dark and Stormy for me to match my mood, because I still read the papers. Sandra Bland’s death at the hands of Texas style law enforcement is very much on my mind.
“It’s called driving while black,” says Memphis Earlene, who prefers to take the Metro.
“ Something real ugly about a bunch of guys in uniform, public servants, picking a fight with a woman. Telling her to put out her cigarette? That’s not proper law enforcement. Cop should have given her hell for bad driving and then write up the ticket–or better yet, let her off with a warning. She’s no physical threat. And even if she gives you a bit of lip, that’s no excuse for going postal. She’s a woman in a suit , not a gang banger.”
“Driving while black and female,” says Memphis Earlene.
“And what about Bill Cosby?,” I say. “Why did he have to drug all those women? That’s the dating strategy of loser guys who couldn’t get lucky any other way. You mean to tell me he didn’t have options? ”
Memphis Earlene puts her hands over her ears.
As a disenchanted Woody Allen fan I can appreciate the trouble she’s having shifting gears. But right now I’m not seeing much difference between Bill Cosby and those white Texas cops.
Memphis Earlene and me on the Virtual Veranda reading the New York Times and the Washington Post. Memphis Earlene sips Southern Comfort while I rant.
She takes mendacity in high places for granted.
I’m always surprised.
It was the Washington Post Headline that set me off.
“Roof’s Manifesto: I Have No Choice!. Like there’s two sides to this issue and maybe the guy is just a crazy loner instead of a terrorist !”
Memphis Earlene just shakes her head.
“Dylann Storm Drain, Damn. Looks like John Boy Walton with even worse hair.”
“It’s Roof, not Drain,” I correct her.
” Makes no never mind,” says Memphis Earlene, “Sounds like one of those porn star names . ”
“Mom’s a Storm and Dad’s a Roof and they both liked Dylan but wanted to be different.”
It’s possible .
Maybe he had no choice.
April 20……..Hitler’s birthday. Mine as well.
I’m in a Doctors waiting room in Amherst Virginia, been here for two hours, FOX NEWS on the TV. Springtime for Hitler doesn’t feel so much like a joke. I got a tick bite, but a good dose of anti-biotics will ward off potential Lyme Disease.
Fox News, on the other hand?
“Happy birthday” says the receptionist.
As birthday parties go, this one’s crummy.
When Ford Madox Ford was my age he looked like an old Walrus. Or else he was dead. One of the All-Stars– wrote THe Good Soldier and Parades End, which are still very much alive.
He beat the reaper.
I might not live long enough to finish my masterpiece.
“Don’t fret yourself,” says Memphis Earlene. “
You can grow old with the Blues, she reminds me.
That is, if they don’t kill you first.
“If the Blues were going to kill you you’d be dead already,” says Memphis Earlene.
Not that I’m there yet.
Not old enough.
Yemen: 2006. I’m the only woman in the room, I’m chewing qat for the first time, and I’m doing it wrong, masticating the tender green leaves into pulp and then swallowing, as though I’m eating salad greens. Despite my faux pas, such is the magic of Yemeni hospitality that I am feeling perfectly at home among strangers. My host, who I am meeting for the first time, has graciously invited me into his home as though I am a welcome guest rather than an intruder into a male sanctuary.
“Just chew it a little and stuff it in your cheek, Judith. Don’t swallow it,” he patiently explains.
I’m here because Larry has fallen in love with Yemen, for the warmth of its people and its beauty, both natural and architectural. He’s the one who told me about the “Solomon Hour”, a magical time in the late afternoon, when Yemeni men and sometimes even Yemeni women chew qat, feel wise and view the large world with disinterested, affectionate equanimity. Special rooms, often with spectacular views are reserved for qat chews. According to Larry, a qat chew among friends is a civilizing ritual.
I wanted to experience this for myself.
Qat, the leaves of a shrub grown throughout Yemen, is a mild stimulant. I have yet to hear of qat inducing violence or other anti-social behavior. Qat seems to make the routine aggravations of the day assume their proper proportions. Life looks easier in the afternoon, which is when tell-tale cheek bulges appear on the faces of many men in the street. What appears to be a badly swollen jaw is really a thick wad of chewed qat, stuffed into one cheek. In a country where men don’t feel properly dressed for the street unless carrying some form of weapon, there’s much to be said in favor of a substance that promotes sociability and frees the mind from agitation.
The best qat room I’ve seen so far is Dar-al-Hajar, the Imam’s palace, at Wadi Dhar. Built on top of a five story rock, it looks fantastical, like something placed by a show-off genie. The palace interior is both austere and magnificent: thick white walls, with irregular niches, stained glass windows, and winding staircases. The view from the qat room is spectacular, overlooking the entire wadi.
Back in Khalid’s well-appointed qat room, we contemplate the latest installment of World Cup soccer on television. Instead of mountain vistas. I am surrounded by happy men, speaking in English for my benefit, and they are doing what comes naturally to men back home, namely talking about sports. France is playing Switzerland. Is America the only country in the world that doesn’t take soccer seriously? Back home in Washington DC, World Cup Soccer barely grazes my consciousness. Under the influence of qat I rise to my country’s defense, reminding everyone that America has a championionship women’s soccer team. Didn’t we beat Brazil?
By now I have generated a healthy beginner’s wad in my right cheek. I feel clear headed, alert, and full of good-will. No distortions of time and distance, or ravenous hunger for junk food like a marijuana-induced high. It feels more like a strong dose of caffeine and nicotine without the coughing and the jitters.
“Is this the Solomon Hour yet?” I ask.
There are three stages to a good qat chew. Stage One is full of humor, of good natured joking and general discussion. Like now, for instance. Larry has been studying Arabic, and with encouragement from the group and his friend Muhammad’s assistance, he tells a joke he has learned from one of his teachers. In Stage Two, group conversation breaks into individual discussions of more serious nature. Arabic surrounds me. I don’t understand the words, but I can hear the music, that of good conversation,and surmise that we’ve entered Stage Two. With Stage Three comes silence and individual contemplation. My host hastens to advise me that there’s no fixed program, and some of the best chews never leave Stage One. By now, my throat is dry and my right cheek aches from holding in an immense wad of qat. My thoughts feel too large for words, at least the ones at my disposal. This must be Stage 3
Dame Freya Stark, the famous British explorer wrote of experiencing, upon setting foot in Yemen a rich and novel sensation , namely happiness,” pure and immaterial; independent of affections and emotions…a delight so rare and impersonal that it seems scarcely terrestrial when it comes.” Perhaps this best describes the exaltation I felt waking up for the first time in Old Sana’a, to a cityscape like none I could have imagined. Each building looked hand-crafted. Every house, no matter how humble, half moon windows decorated with curvilinear designs and stained glass, or encased by intricate wood carvings. There seemed to be an acknowledgement that every day beauty was essential as food. The delight continued as we drove down to Aden, past smaller versions of Old Sana’a tucked into mountains. Everything man-made harmonized with the landscape.
I contemplate the miracles of technology and friendship that have brought me to Yemen to chew qat, and conclude that life is full of unexpected pleasures.
I think I’ve hit the Solomon Hour.
There’s no place in the Blues for “My Child Didn’t Get into an Elite Pre-school.Children do not belong in the Blues. Lost my Baby in the Mall? A heartstopper if you’re the parent but it’s not the Blues.
” Don’t ask why, just accept it as a Given,” Memphis Earlene tells me.
“What about Post-Partum Blues in Saint James Infirmary?” I ask.
Memphis Earlene gives this some thought.“The Blues are strictly personal,” she says which is one of her all-purpose answers.
I take it to mean that feelings of sadness and inadequacy fit into Blues language but not true terror. ‘My baby has cancer’ is too big for the Blues when there’s a real baby involved. See above.
“What about the Holocaust?” I ask Memphis Earlene.
Now she’s pissed.
“I taught you better than that,” she says. “Nazi Concentration Camp Blues is not only tasteless but a violation of Blues Ethos. The Blues were created by free men and women, not slaves.
The Blues are Existential.
The Blues are the price you pay for being free.
“Don’t ever forget that, honey. The Blues are a goddamn privilege, ” says Memphis Earlene.
Blues for Beginners: Stories and Obsessions. Still available on Amazon and Smashwords. Buy it, read it and learn.