2002-03-28

As the crazy receptionist/documentation writer says, "There's a lot of angry people in this town." It's been three weeks now and so far I've seen five, maybe six, demonstrations, sorry I mean protests, in the streets of downtown Chicago.

First there was the actors' union insisting that a play be boycotted. I can't remember why exactly, but I'm sure it made sense. There they were standing in front of a theatre making lots of noise and handing pamphlets to passers-by. It was all so familiar. I felt like I was home again. All that was missing was the toyi-toyi. Which was probably a good thing. It would have been a little too Far Side to see a crowd of largely white Americans toyi-toying down the street.

There were a couple of small ones that I completely failed to understand. I think they may have had something to do with the primaries for the state governor's election later this year, but I couldn't be sure. Just a couple of hundred people marching along, shouting incomprehensibly and waving placards that made no sense. Weird, weird, weird.

The two Invisible Marches came next. I knew they were happening, because I could see the city police stopping traffic and I could hear the chanting. From the chanting, I think one lot was a bunch of women and the other a bunch of Arabs. I really don't have any idea what those were about. The trouble was, they were on the street 18 floors down in the middle of some nasty weather and I didn't want to know badly enough to go and see what they were about. They were on different days, by the way. They just both got a bad deal on the weather. Having a demonstration is no fun if nobody comes out to see it.

Then came the really big one. There is nothing quite so scary as seeing 3000 Anderson employees marching in lockstep down the street towards you. OK, maybe not in lockstep, but still terror-inducing. All I wanted was to get across the street to where a bowl of broccoli and cheddar soup was pining for the touch of my lips. I only just managed it before the March of the Androids swept all before it. They were unhappy about the company being indicted in the Enron case, because that's likely to force Anderson out of business and everyone will lose their job. All because a couple of people were a little too eager with the paper shredders. I always thought auditors knew that theirs is the one business where you definitely do not give the customer what they want.

And then there was the very small one. A single person, standing on a corner with a placard. And oddly effective too. A lot of people use the argument that a lone voice can make no difference, yet this lone person is the one I remember most clearly. I even remember what was written on her placard.

2002-03-26

I remember rabbiting on a few days ago about the "War on Terror" and the "War on Drugs", as Americans like to call their global socio-political re-engineering projects. Well, the clever little buggers have outdone themselves this time. There I was innocently watching Friends one night when this kid appears on the screen and says something like "This weekend I went out with some friends, drank a few beers and helped to torture someone's father". Then another one, saying something similar. And another. Then the message: "DRUG MONEY SUPPORTS TERROR". Subtle, huh?

Guess what, they're merging the two projects. I'm sure there's some kind of anti-trust legislation that should prevent this. Has anyone told the Department of Justice? But then, considering the job they did with Microsoft, I won't hold my breath.

The whole idea is also pretty much bullshit. It seems to be based on the fact that Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium. I'm sure you can follow the tenuous chain of logic from there. Retrofitted logic is the easiest thing in the world. Ask any mathematician, or lawyer.

But the weird thing is the complete mismatch between the content of the ad and the message. All the people in the ad look like fairly normal people who smoke a joint every now and then or pop a couple of ecstacy pills at a rave. At least, I think that's normal. None of them look like they've been doing serious amounts of heroin or crack. If they did, I could begin to understand the ad. But they don't. And the fact is that almost all the dope smoked in the US is grown in the US. And almost all the E used here is also made here. So where's the connection?

In the short term, all this laughable little campaign is going to achieve is to alienate people who use the softer drugs. They are going to resent being called terrorists. For the very good reason that they are not. If anyone actually believes them, it may also put a couple of farmers out of business in California or Florida. In the longer term, who knows? I hope that it makes people less eager to believe everything the DEA or FBI or CIA say about drugs and/or terrorism.

If you think about the way the US defines terrorism and the people and countries that it implicates in various plots and axes, then it becomes pretty clear that it is really oil money that supports terror. But that's a problem, because oil money also supports the US economy. Oops. Of course, if you think about other definitions of terrorism, which would include much of US foreign policy, then we would have to extend that to Coca-Cola and software too. Hey, there's a valid, ethically sound reason not to buy Microsoft software.

The "War on Drugs" itself seems to be little but an astounding waste of money. I have no idea how much money the US has spent on this war, but it must run into trillions of dollars. Most of the cash spent seems to have gone into propping up repressive regimes or lining the pockets of corrupt officials in Latin American countries. The funny thing is, the drug supply just doesn't seem to be drying up. Just today police found two kilograms of cocaine in a house right here in friendly Chicago and I'm sure there's a lot more out there.

There are interesting results coming out of the Netherlands and the UK concerning the Dutch drug decriminalisation experiment. It seems to be working. There are fewer addicts per capita in the Netherlands than in the UK by a large factor. Sounds weird, but it's not. At least not if you think about it before reaching for your Bible, Qur'an or other weapon of mass destruction.

Here in America they even have the example of the Prohibition. People these days have a bizarrely romantic view of that era, but when you stop and look at it, it's all very familiar. The bootleggers of the Prohibition were simply the drug lords of the time. And sneaking into a back room and sharing a bottle is not really any different from sneaking into a back room and sharing a syringe (except of course you can't get AIDS from sharing a bottle, but that's a different issue). All the "War on Alcohol" did was chew up money and lives until people finally came to their senses and decided that it actually made more sense to make alcohol legal. Did it stop people dying from alcohol abuse? No. But it did make life a lot safer and it gave people responsibility for their own choices. And, of course, access to help if they had a problem, without making them criminals.

2002-03-25

OK, it's a bit weird having four new posts on the same day. Within minutes of each other on the same day. I've been writing these over the past few days, but I haven't the opportunity to post them until now. I think I've posted them in the right order too. Wow, maybe the brain is beginning to recover slightly.
Another great day. Well, the temperature hovered around freezing most of the day and it snowed on me as I walked back to the hotel, but apart from that it was great. I spent the day wandering around the Art Institute, which is Chicago's biggest art museum. I emerged many hours later after an experience that started out in near horror and went on to approach the ecstatic. Wow.

The collection is HUGE. I started out looking at the smallish African art collection. Which was fun and vaguely familiar. Mostly sculpture from West and Central Africa. Then I went on to the Ancient American section. This was mostly fun too. A lot of Maya, Olmec, Aztec and suchlike artifacts. Now we get to the horrific bit. I was struck by a particularly interesting clay figure of a man. At first glance it looked like he had a hideous scar across his chest. Then I realised that he was actually wearing some kind of skin-tight garment that was fastened across the chest. Looking a little closer, I thought, "Wait. This is a seriously odd bit of clothing he's wearing." It was clear from the detail in the figure that it covered him entirely - arms, although his hands were free, and legs, although the feet had broken off at some point, so I couldn't be sure. I could easily make out his own eyes and mouth behind the appropriate holes in the garment. Very weird. Then I read the plaque. It seems he was depicted as a participant in an Aztec ritual which involved wearing the flayed skin of a recently sacrificed victim. The "scar" across the chest was where the skin was sewn together.

I fled to the foyer where a beautifully serene Buddha and a couple of bodhisattvas helped me regain my calm. I took the hint and headed off into the Far Eastern section of the museum. Here there were more Buddhist sculptures, delicate translucent jade carvings, Chinese and Japanese paintings and some truly exquisite porcelain. I remember a vase, from the Qing Dynasty I think, which was glazed a prticularly rich shade of blue, the kind of blue I had thought existed only in dreams.

China and Japan led eventually to South and South-East Asia. The pieces here were mostly Buddhist and Hindu religious art. I was completely in my element, although I kept having to fight the urge to perform obeisances. Just can't escape the damned conditioning. There were even a couple of works from the old Tamil motherland which I really loved. One was a 14th century bronze of Shiva Nataraja - my all-time favourite depiction of a Hindu deity. There's something compelling about the idea of Creation being the dance of God.

I spent the last couple of hours wandering through the European painting collection. My head still hasn't stopped spinning. When you go up the stairs to the this part of the museum, the first thing you see is El Greco's magnificent 15-foot high Assumption of the Virgin. This used to be the altarpiece of a church in Toledo, even though Mary is being lifted into Heaven balanced on the crescent moon - a slightly pagan touch, I thought.

The collection of paintings is also huge. I have never before seen so many Picassos in one place, for example. There's one that I really enjoyed, which I will forever think of as Picasso's portrait of Alka, called Crazy Woman with Cats. I've also never seen so many Monets in one place either. Or Miros, or van Goghs, or Matisses. And lots of others. I am in the throes of severe sensory overload.

I'll have to go back. What remains of my mind just couldn't deal with it all at once. There are whole wings that I haven't even gone into. Let's hope that the cashier next time also assumes that I'm a student and charges me $6 in stead of $10.
Unexpected pleasures. Saturday was warm enough to go outside without a jacket. Not for long, but still it was wonderful to go out and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. Sunlight makes me happy; when it's not there, I feel grey and depressed. I would have been happy to be born into some ancient sun-worshipping culture. Waking up before dawn to give thanks to the sun as it rises, performing deeply significant rituals at the solstices. Too bad I wasn't.

Today was also a good day to play tourist. I went off to the Chicago Cultural Centre (I can't bring myself to write Center), mostly to visit the tourist info office. But I got seriously distracted. It is an astonishing place. The building itself is beautiful and the stained glass dome is amazing. There were also various exhibits, ranging from a look at the the man who designed several of Chicago's parks through some seriously odd sculpture, some of the starkest drawings I've ever seen and photography that was simultaneously playful and sensuous, to my favourite, a range of prints, etchings and suchlike by a graphic artist I'd never heard of, Red Grooms. His work was all intense, often moving and occasionally very funny. He seems to have an obsession with other artists - several of his works are portraits of artists, including van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and a wonderfully surreal piece called Dali Salad.

Outside the Cultural Centre building is a life-size bronze of ... a cow. It is one of the last remaining cows from the 1999 Cows on Parade public art campaign, in which a lot of cow sculptures were placed all around the city. I paged through a booklet about the famous cows and they were wonderful. Whimsical cows, psychedelic cows, winged cows (at the airport), cows covered in postage stamps (this one was called Stampede), you name it. My favourite was the down-covered fledgling cow emerging from the remains of an extremely large egg. The campaign was seemingly hugely successful. It was modeled on a very similar one in, of all places, Zurich. Just when you feel comfortable with the boring Swiss stereotype...
I promised a rant of the week and here it is. I wrote this on Fri, but didn't get to post it then.

Thursday, the 21st, was Human Rights Day back home. I managed to celebrate the day in a peculiar fashion by having a good old-fashioned shout-you-down argument with one of my colleagues. A fellow South African who was vigorously defending the police officers who killed 69 unarmed civilians on that painful day in 1960. I was stunned. I was amazed. I was angry as all hell.

I eventually realised that I wasn't going to change his mind. I had discovered that most bizarre of all specimens - an apologist for apartheid. A genuine dyed-in-the-wool racist. Someone who can (and does) use the word "black" in the tone of voice that others reserve for "maggot".

I was horrified. It was like walking into a room and realising that it is crawling with cockroaches. At least cockroaches have the decency to scuttle out of sight when you turn the lights on. OK, I'm familiar with racism. Spending most of my life living under apartheid certainly saw to that. Even since the demise of the old regime, racism abounds in South Africa. I know, for instance, that many people mean "Black person" when they say "criminal" and that many people blame all South Africa's woes on the fact that the government is black. I know what the agenda is when people imitate a stereotypical African accent as a way to portray stupidity. But I also know that people who do these things realise on some deeper level that their beliefs are completely irrational and just plain wrong, which is why they try to conceal them.

This guy, on the other hand, is completely unrepentant. He's stuck in some wacky time warp where suffering from a melanin deficiency somehow means that he is superior to the rest of us. How does one deal with someone like this? At times like these I wish we had had a real Bolshevik-style revolution. At least then we would have some convenient gulag where he could be sent for some serious re-education.

On the brighter side, the fact that blatant racism like this so horrifies me and is so bizarre to me is an Good Thing. There was a time when this sort of attitude was a daily experience. I'm willing to bet that it horrifies almost everyone reading this too. It's become a glib cliche to talk about the South African miracle, so I won't. I'll just call it an low probability event.

2002-03-21

A quick note to the faithful: You can now comment on my posts. I can't wait. Thanks muchly to YACCS.

Also found Mike Golby, another South African blogger. He has some interesting things to say.

2002-03-19

I'm just a bad tourist. No doubt about it. St. Patrick's Day is a big deal in Chicago, what with all those millions of Irish-descended people living here. Green people everywhere, funny hats, huge parades, the President visiting the city, the river being dyed green, etc. All this was going on and I went to take a look, of course. Great fun it was too. But (and Alka will never forgive me for this) my camera stayed warm and snug in my hotel room. There's just no hope.

Of course, St. Patrick's Day and all those Irish pubs (I've lost count now, but they average around one every three blocks.) lead directly to the consumption of large amounts of Irish beer. I managed to stay away from the whiskey for the sake of my wallet. I still spent a lot more than I should have, but that seems to happen even when I'm not intoxicated.

I also went out clubbing on Sat night. It was great - more alcohol, loud thumping music, flashing lights, pretty people everywhere, the possibility of not spending the night alone. It was a bit of a nasty surprise when the club shut down at around 2 am. This is apparently standard for nightclubs in Chicago. There are one or two that stay open until 4 or 5, but mostly it's curtains at 2. Very bizarre. I can't imagine going clubbing in Joburg and being forced to leave at such an uncivilised hour.

I did however give thanks for the train service. They run all day, every day. I can't imagine there are too many places in the world where you can wander unsteadily into a subway station at 2:45 in the morning and five minutes later a train arrives to take you home. Having once spent an entertaining morning in London trying to get home after missing the last train, this was utter bliss. No wonder they like to call this "the city that works".

I learned at breakfast the next day that Chicago is positively wanton in the matter of allowing clubs and bars to stay open late. In most cities in the US they would have shut down even earlier. And as for staying open until 4, just forget it. This is all according to the waiter, who is a drama queen the like of which I'll probably never see again, so it may be a wee bit exaggerated. Our man in Washington tells me that there is at least one rave club there that stays open until sunrise, although the bar closes much earlier. But then, it is a rave club, so who needs alcohol anyway?

This has been the party edition of alien tongue. No rants, no tales of horror. Just good, er ... clean fun. I'll rant again later this week. Promise.

2002-03-15

I've just had my best meal yet in Chicago. There's a chain of restaurants that makes Asian-type food, called Big Bowl. I can now say that they make a damn fine Thai-style vegetable curry. Plus they serve Tsingtao beer. My happiness is complete. I'll be back, I think.

Being a vegetarian in this town is a challenge. Being a vegetarian on a very small budget is almost impossible. Being a vegetarian on a small budget who detests deep-dish pizza is completely impossible. For some reason, and I know the gods are rolling on the floor about this one, Chicago happens to be the home of deep-dish pizza. Even what they call thin-crust pizza has about half an inch of crust to carve your way through. Deep-dish pizza is a culinary horror. Eat one and you'll have nightmares for days afterwards. Nightmares in which you're trapped inside a giant ball of dough and are forced to eat your way out. Aargh!

Did I say vegetarian? I meant almost. I make an exception for sushi. But sushi is expensive wherever you go. I have found a nice spot that sells excellent sushi at lunchtime for a very reasonable price, so I've had lunch there a few times already. The fish is fresh, the sushi is exquisite and the chef is friendly. He's an immigrant from Burma, would you believe? We spent some time chatting yesterday, sharing our mutual disgust at finding ourselves in a place so cold that frozen rain falls from the sky.

I've found that foreigners and immigrants are, for the most part, far friendlier than Americans in general. I'm not sure why this is, but immigrants are far more likely to respond to a greeting or strike up a conversation. Maybe it's a language issue. Maybe immigrants are already trying harder to understand what other people are saying and Americans just don't bother. Maybe I should just give them some time.

The people at the office, with the exception of the receptionist, who is completely insane and quite wonderful, are definitely very cool towards me and the other South Africans. This may be a political issue - after all, we are the evil Third-Worlders come to steal jobs away from God-fearing Americans.

The language issue is huge. If my concentration wavers when someone is speaking, I find myself thrashing about in a loud flood of looooong vowels, dodging whirlpools that suck most consonants into oblivion and wild fountains that spout R's out of nothing. Say what?! This is, of course, completely mutual. I'm sure it's all very amusing to somebody.

I have to confess that I've made some concessions. For instance, in order to get a decent cup of coffee, I've had to learn to ask for a laahtay when I mean a latte. But if I start saying fawerr when I mean four, please will somebody shoot me in the head.

2002-03-11

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. For the first half of my flight here, I got bumped up to business class. That was just wonderful. For the first time ever, I had no trouble sleeping on a plane. Ten hours of absolute bliss. Unfortunately, the fairy tale ended in Amsterdam. The switch to my connecting flight to the US was a little bit distressing, especially the bit where the airline officials ordered us off the plane just after we'd boarded, because they needed to do a "security check". Talk about paranoia-inducing!

It didn't help that I was back in cattle class. There was no chance of sleep, so I just read a couple of trashy crime novels (my latest obession). But even they couldn't stop me wondering when the bomb was going to go off.

We arrived in Chicago at about lunchtime on Tuesday. My brain was convinced it was around seven in the evening. This has not made for a happy week. I was finally able to have a decent night's sleep on Friday, although that likely had something to do with the consumption of large amounts of alcohol.

I haven't been able to do much touristy yet. I've been working fairly solidly since I got here. I did manage to get out on the weekend, but the weather has been thoroughly disgusting. The temperature today hovered around -5 Celsius, but it was at least mostly sunny and not very windy. Yesterday was just as cold, but was cloudy, rained and then snowed for most of the day and the wind was a vindictive howling demon that somehow managed to escape the frozen desolation commonly known as Canada.

In fact, you may have heard (there's been little else on the news here) about the scaffolding that the wind ripped of a building downtown and then dropped on a couple of cars, killing several people. That happened about half an hour after I had walked past there on my quest to buy a camera.

A few hours later, I sipped my $4 glass, yes glass, of wine over lunch, in a kind of self-congratulatory euphoria caused by returning from my shopping expedition with a firm grasp on my life and, even more impressively, not having had to amputate any of my extremities due to frostbite. The news of the flying scaffolding tragedy was all over the news. Something about the coverage got me thinking about how Americans seem to need to have somebody to blame for just about everything. Almost instantly, both the news anchors and everyone they interviewed was calling for somebody's head to roll. It didn't matter who - know one knows yet who it's going to be - but there had to be someone. You can see this clearly in American responses to other things, like the WTC attack. You can see it in the so-called "War on Drugs". You can see it in the incredible litigiousness of American society (you wouldn't believe how much of the Chicago Yellow Pages is devoted to lawyers).

I see signs of this sort of thinking emerging in South Africa too. Where we would once have said "freak accident" and left it at that, I supect we would also now have some desire to see someone take the blame. I'm not sure how valuable this is. The victims are still dead and the person who is officially to blame is hardly likely to be some sort of bizarre murderer just waiting for the next 90km/h wind so they can strike again.

Having mentioned the current "Wars" on both Terror and Drugs, I have to say that I find the whole idea of making war on concepts and inanimate objects misleading. They are generally a way to make opposition impossible - What, you mean you support Terror?! But as wise South Africans who lived through our very own version of the War on Terror, and of course, the War on Communism, we can see through this ridiculous ploy. Although I have the nasty feeling that by the time I get back someone will have declared a War on Crime or somesuch.

Oh well, it won't be for much longer. For verily there shall come the Liberation from Silliness and we shall ascend into the Bliss of Compassion. Amen.