Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Confessions of a Former Disco Maniac

There was something about Michael Quintanilla that drove expectations sky-high long before he owned the stage. Flamboyant at once, and energetic to the point of mystery, Quintanilla was quick to declare how much he loved women, setting the stage for a sensational performance in which his mom was the absent hero.

Most of the journalists attending Quintanilla's session had probably heard good things about a writer who searches deep inside his personal story to find the compassion and courage necessary to write narratives, but it seems i had underestimated the impact his performance would have on me.

In the end, Quintanilla, brilliant and funny, was for real.

He started his journalism career, he said, at a paper where an editor told him he had no place, apparently because the aspiring reporter had gay tendencies. Quintanilla had a talent for hairdressing, his editor told him, driving the young man into uncertainty.

It is proof of Quintanilla's spirit that he would become a successful writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered everything from dancehalls to fashion to crime. Now with the San Antonio News-Express, his workshop, appropriately called "Confessions of a Former Disco Maniac," had been brought to Indianapolis, where he was ministering to the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Let's face it, Quintanilla acts and sounds like he still is a disco maniac, but it is in his emotional energy, and in the brightness of his personality, that every journalist can find redemption. He spoke of his mother, a woman who ultimately divorced her husband after years of silent captivity, as the force behind his success. Quintanilla recalled how, in his early days as a writer, he lied to his employers that he had a car and could drive. Meanwhile, his poor mother was doing all the hard work. "We covered the police beat together," he said.

In reality, the connection between Quintanilla's journalistic success and his mother's loyalty is rich in sentiment, but the lesson is reasonable: we can be good storytellers if we summon the compassion that keeps us alive. "Anything can be an important story," he said. "Be clever and audacious...Writing is seduction. It is a seduction that begins with listening."

Yet his most important advice came when he asked journalists to be more outgoing, to spend less time in their newsrooms, to shun their phones. "I don't see us hanging out," he said. "It is the only way to get surprises for your story."

It was not hard to see why the audience inside Grand IV, at the Indianapolis Westin, never stopped applauding when Quintanilla was done, forcing him to ask us to "relax." Quintanilla had made "a human connection," in the manner of his mantra, and in the style of his journalism. He had not faked it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

In Google's Name, For My Sake

I look forward to 9 a.m. these days. Which is a strange obsession, considering that i don't gain full sobriety until about noon, by which time my caffeine intake has driven me to torment Google with all sorts of questions.

Mr. Google isn't on the Star's editorial board, whose morning meetings i have been attending since July 27, regularly taking my seat next to the men and women who voice the paper's stand on the day's major issues. The foreigner that i am, i have been less inclined, or perhaps not qualified, to contribute greatly to the discussions, choosing intead to listen while retaining the possiblity to ask an important question or laugh at a clever joke.

Even if i have lived in Kansas City for nearly five months, and while i have been to some places of the type i would never care to visit in Kampala, Kansas City is still not my turf. I do not care whether Mayor Mark Funkhouser should be recalled for allowing his relatives to be a ubiquitous presence around City Hall, and i do not give a damn if the cash-for-clunkers program is not taken to the next level.

What i really care about, and what makes the meetings special for me, is the kind of intensity that often defines them, the question deployment that dismantles a hot topic and leaves it so exposed, even ugly. In the rare moments when there may be some disagreement among the board members, it is still not hard to see where the path leads. And almost always, i have stepped out of the meetings hungry for some answers, ready to do my endless Google searches. The lesson: It is never enough to have a debate that does not raise new questions, or at least one that does not leave room for further debate.

As newspapers go, the search for information is endless, especially as our readers become ever more sophisticated. To keep up with them, and to avoid embarrassment, we must resist the urge to think that we are always more informed than they are.

Recently, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to conclude her tour of Africa, the board decided there was an editorial to be written about her trip. I was a natural fit for penning that one. But i did so after defending the idea that she had brought a diplomatic nuance to Africa-U.S. transactions when she told Nigerians that democracy was a work in progress even in America.

My editorial said in conclusion: "As Clinton said in a major speech in Kenya, the U.S. is now seeking Africa as a partner instead of patron. Clinton seemed to read the minds of Africans who, correctly or not, believe that U.S. transactions with Africa are often disrespectful. Her candor disarmed them."

I think i got it right.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Feeling Called Feedback

The messages never stopped coming. In fact, they are still trickling in, the latest from a reader who told me she'd "never taken the time to write a columnist before."

Even if it's not that good, there's something about feedback that stimulates me to reach for my cup of tea, or playfully grab the phone, as if i can't believe what i just read or heard. Trust me, it's a good feeling.

One of my recent articles for the Star, the one that's kept the messages flowing in, plumbed the subject of homelessness in America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner. Recalling the plight of one homeless woman i had seen downtown, and set against the stellar fantasies of my friends in Kampala, my article was an opinionated attempt to make America look bad or less good, in the words of a Kansas Citian who called in to tell me she hoped i would have "a safe flight" back home. In reality, however, my article tried to put some of America's glory, at least in the eyes of foreigners whose only window into the country is whatever appears in the movies, in its unHollywood context. Still, the outcome was nowhere near cynical.

To be sure, the lone negative message, for all its silent rudeness, was nothing compared to tens of messages from readers who thought they had been awakened to look at a sad phenomenon in a new light, to consider being more helpful. But what they all do not know is that, in their unique ways, they left me with something to ponder, nuances no book or movie could ever lead me into. I say this because, at my newspaper (the Daily Monitor), it's not often that readers write or call to express their feelings and opinions about certain stories. Feedback is not such a thing that's practiced there, at least not in the strict sense of the word. As i see it, there's something we are missing that nothing else could ever provide.

As i spend more time on the Op-Ed section of the Star, i increasingly see why it's terrible to write an article and not expect to hear from at least one concerned reader. To the extent that i now appreciate how uncool it is to be aloof to feedback, i am going as far as saying it's high up there among my most important lessons. Valuing feedback from readers is part of the growth process for any newspaper, more so for one that's not yet 20 years old.

In Uganda, where state tyranny over the media is sometimes taken for granted, reporters know they are doing a good job when the state comes down hard on them. It has become one crucial, if painful, way of measuring influence, yet one that ultimately shows a blithe disregard for what the ordinary Ugandan thinks. If we are as good as we think we are, then our journalism should not merely aspire to draw the wrath of angry dictators. Above all, it should get the local people, the silent ones, talking.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Poynter to New Things

On the day the 2009 class of Alfred Friendly Press Fellows left Poynter, one after the other, each nostalgic from four days spent in good company, two curious things happened. Five men in crisp suits looked on intensely as one of us, an Egyptian, gave a presentation. Then, when it was time to hear from them, there seemed to be no time to ask the right -- but hard -- question: What the hell were they doing at Poynter?

The question, debated informally among the Fellows after it was revealed that we would meet a group of Egyptian professionals, would preoccupy me well into the night i left St. Petersburg, and long after my memory of the men's intense gazes had been lost to the summer heat. One of the Egpytians spoke of plans to start a program in Egypt along the lines of the Alfred Friendly Foundation, and all of them seemed to be genuinely interested in cutting-edge journalism.

Back home in Cairo, however, they are the men (there was no woman among them) who give independent editors and reporters nightmares, the censors who run the dreaded agency whose role is to crack down on the critical press. If these men allegedly worked to kill the free press in Cairo, they had no business learning the hallmarks of good journalism. Period. Yet, like us, they were at Poynter, one of several groups that visit the respected institute hoping they'll leave with something, something valuabe.

Looking back, i realize that asking the question, however good, might have been considered rude. What's more, it may not have been necessary to ask the question at all. It was a tribute to the greatness of Poynter that these men had visited the institute, perhaps the only one that might challenge them to be conflicted about the kind of work they do to muzzle the free press. It's difficult to know what effect, if any, the Poynter visit had on the Egyptians, but i hope they left feeling good like me.

In the four months since i arrived in America, one of nine international journalists on a working fellowship at various newspapers, i have not felt as comfortable as i did when i was at Poynter. The reasons for that are legion, but significant among them was the teaching style -- and affability, of course -- of Bill Mitchell and Paul Pohlman, our shepherds there. Not only were they engaging teachers, they were also brilliant exemplars of a journalistic conspiracy, only the right one: Ask questions. Listen carefully. Then ask more questions.

It was magical.

We were at Poynter to take stock of our achievements and frustrations so far, to map ways of doing things even better (and differently), and to imagine ourselves in the role of mentor or coach. It was new territory for most of us. In the end, having listened to the presentations of all the Fellows, i got the impression that i was not alone. Nearly all the Fellows had come to Poynter as stricly print journalists, a clearly dangerous attitude to have in a tough new world. In my case, that demon was exorcized at Poynter.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Look What They Did to Me

There is no easy way to say this. For over two weeks now, i have been taking endless strolls down Main Street, staring into the humid air whenever i see a Yellow Cab and occasionally making an abrupt stop just to be sure i did not miss a certain Abdul Sharif. He has not been answering his phone lately, and i am yet to see him again at the shady part of Pershing Road, outside the Westin Crown Center, where he once had been one of three cab drivers manically breaking down the business for me.

Like the two other men, Sharif is originally from Somalia, one of hundreds of immigrants from the Horn of Africa who have embraced the trade in Kansas City, eventually forming a disproportionate number of the entire cab-driving force here. The problem is that they tend to look alike, and even their Abdulesque names can be excitingly similar. If you are not careful, or at least if you are as unlucky as i have been, you will see so many Abdul Sharifs in just one yellow moment. The images will be fleeting.

But the real Abdul Sharif, for all his recent reticence, had been a darling when i met him, eloquently letting me into the joy and agony of being a cab driver in a new city. Even as he announced that "i was not born to be a cab driver" early in the interview, Sharif was at once comfortable with his keys. He never struck me as a guy afraid of commitment, and i let him know that there was a good chance we could do it again. I was wrong. When all the voice messages have been counted, and when the somber picture of all the empty stares has been drawn, my energy will have taken a big hit. Sharif will also count his losses, or at least he will not know why he should do the math.

The story was supposed to be a human-interest feature about why Somali immigrants were embracing cabs in such huge numbers in Kansas City, and how the business helped them adjust to a new life away from home. On the face of it, the questions would range from the simple (Do you enjoy what you do?)to the provocative (Is there any other job you would rather be doing?) and to the intense(What's your worst experince as a cab driver?). The feel-good nature of the story far outweighed any of the embarrassing questions i may have had to ask, and this particular story was of the kind where the questions could be legion. Still, i told Sharif, i would keep the queries germane to my original pitch. My draft generated even more questions, but the now-futile hunt for Sharif and company means that they may forever be unanswered. What's more, i may never know why these men were reluctant to take it the extra mile.

If truth be told, I have seen this before. Only that i am experiencing it away from home, inflicted upon me by men i thought should not be nearly as paranoid about journalists as some of the people i have interviewed in Kampala. I hate it that their possible paranoia now means that i may also have to be paranoid about their silent intentions. If Sharif and company have done me any favor, it has to be that they have done their best to improve my aptitude for patience. I still want to meet them, of course, not least because the list of questions keeps growing, but essentially because they have not given me the last word. Kansas City is not the place that is going to teach me how frustrating interview subjects can sometimes be, yet this example is a hell of a good one insofar as it is a test of my tenacity. And here's why: Ordinarily, i could forget about Abdul Sharif and friends, find other cab drivers and tell the story anew (but maybe not too differently). No, because that's no way to learn something new, and since that's the simple way out. I have intriguing questions that only those three men could answer, and so I choose to hang in there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some Mo Stories to Tell

Cake and ice cream aren't the kind of food that's likely to lead me to places worse than temptation. On June 5, hours before i turned 28, i gorged on both as i smiled like a fool and joked with my editors that i was happy to be making 18 in America. There's a picture of me moving a spoonful of ice cream to my mouth, the plate from which it was drawn nearly full, as if i am about to concede defeat at the hands of junk beauty. It's now a lost battle.

The cake and ice cream had been a gift from my colleagues at the Kansas City Star, whose local page that day carried the story of a little boy recently run over by a fire truck. He was known to all as Momo, short for Obarimomoya, the gifted son of a family of Nigerian immigrants whom i had met the day before at the school the boy used to attend. Momo, the victim of a fire truck responding to an emergency call, never lived to celebrate his eighth birthday, but his friends at Woodland Elementary School had set in motion plans to remember him, including mounting a plaque that would forever celebrate him as an "excellent student..." His father told me he was not sure he himself would ever get that kind of honor.

The story of Momo was still on my mind as i devoured the cake and ice cream, pondering all the good things that had been said about the life of a boy who might have lived to accomplish great things. A part of me was really doing a Momo celebration, recognizing the important ways in which reporting that story made me a better journalist. Listen, listen, listen. Then, listen up: Kids can be so much fun to listen to.

Momo's sister, initially reticent, was able to open up when she thought she could trust me, and his brother was able to tell me just how much he missed Momo. Listening to nearly 10 people recall their memories of Momo is just about the best reporting experience i've had since i joined the Star, where my broad goal is to talk to as many people as possible in the course of my reporting. It's the only sure way to learn something new -- and have fun along the way. And these people need not include a corrupt mayor or a useless police chief. Back home, at the Daily Monitor of Kampala, a story similar to Momo's is not one that many staff reporters would be keen to tell. As a matter of fact, several human-interest stories that open wide windows into failed public policies often go untold. Sometimes, especially if there's space to spare, they might get briefed.

This story can be rewritten.

Friday, June 12, 2009

No Country for Black Men?

My passion for country music goes back many years ago, when my father was still alive, when Jim Reeves was all the rage in Kampala, long before i knew the way back home. Now, just a few hours after i saw a Larry King special on country music, i realize that i still haven't grown up: I love country music as much as i did when i first heard "Danny Boy" as the curious son a country fanatic.

As a grown man, my collection features such icons as Kenny Rogers, Rodney Crowell, Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Tim McGraw -- artistes whose music has since been poisoned by funky variants and, even more painful, knocked out by cultural currents on both sides of the Atlantic. The charge that my taste in music is outdated and uncool is probably fair, but the idea that music made in Nashville is crazy is one i am unkindly disposed to.

I've been told that country music has long been associated with the vanity of southern white males, especially those who have little or no interaction with blacks. In that regard, country has subliminally been known as the music of white racists, even if most country songs treat the whole gamut of every-day subjects far removed from the friction between black, white and everything that falls between. As i have discovered, the allegation is long on perception and short on fact; the connection is tenuous, and the oxymoronic equation is akin to some white people pigeonholing hip-hop as the language of tomorrow's criminals. It doesn't fly.

While my music collection has become eclectic in recent times, only country music ever manages to let me "confess like a child." Many country records out there were intended to speak to the unintelligent, but i am lucky to have known country songs that are as spiritual as they are enlightening. Sean Hannity, the FOX News commentator whose views i rarely agree with, said in a recent edition of his daily show that he loved country music because it's "about real people, real ideas." I agreed reluctantly, in large part because he was making a deliberate attempt to link country music to the ideals of the GOP in a virulent examination of the Obama administration. I would feel much better if the claim is made by, say, Colin Powell.

It's true that i am bothered by the constant risk of having to explain how it came to be that a black man from Africa so loves country music. And it's also true that i don't own a pair of cowboy boots or a fedora or tight-fitting jeans. But guess what: I am going to Nashville.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why Africa's Liberals Can't Spell "Obama"

Barack Obama's army of African fans is incredibly long. Among his African admirers, he counts millions of Facebookers who categorize themselves as liberal, millions of teenagers who think he's cute and, of course, millions of men whose pride was fed by his historic presidency. Although Africans, like black Americans, have long associated with the Democratic Party, and specifically with Al Gore and John Kerry before Obama, the rise of a black man to lead the Democratic Party cemented that relationship. But, if a man with Obama's credentials, charisma and looks ran somewhere in black Africa on a platform that includes enhancing gay rights and legalizing abortion, he would lose in a free and fair election. While these are two of the most enduring cultural issues that helped John McCain lose to Obama, they do not in any way account for the U.S. president's popularity among millions of Africans who now find it cool to "liberal" themselves on social networking sites. They are jokers, and their real crime is to give liberalism a complicated definition.

Exhibit A: I went to school at Makerere University in Kampala, where quack doctors run illegal abortion clinics that count students among their regular clients. By 2004, when i was graduating from college, so widespread was undergound abotion that most young men had to do background checks on the women they were dating just to be sure they had no abortion record. To do an abortion check was the beginning of wisdom, and, as it were, some girls were the victims of malicious rumors that left them isolated. To be sure, even today in Kampala, i don't know of any young man who would stick with a girl after he's heard tales, true or false, that the woman he's dating has in the past aborted another man's child. It's a deal breaker.

Exhibit B: To say the very least, it's tough being gay in black Africa. Literally and physically. In fact, the best treatment gays really get in a country like Uganda is tough love, with some activists calling conferences to counsel them or impart "skills" that would ostensibly prevent young people from becoming gay. The sometimes-rabid crusade against gays, championed by a so-called minister in charge of ethics and integrity, often goes unchallenged. Uganda's Penal Code Act still categorizes homosexuality as an offence "against the order of nature." And most Ugandans, including thousands of young people who help entrench homophobic language, seem to agree. A 2007 study by the Steadman Group, a respected research firm in East Africa, found that 95 percent of Ugandans did not support demands to decriminalize homosexuality.

It's futile to postulate that Obama's African supporters, even if they are incorrigibly conservative, love him essentially because he's a black man. Such an argument would be as bogus as the claims to liberalism of his African supporters. What's true, however, is that Obama's African fans do not know him well enough.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Please Leave a Message

In the grand scheme of things, journalists tend to want it quick. It's the logic behind the idea of "a scoop." Among reporters who casually aspire to get the next big story, it's the kind of attitude that quickly defines incompetence. All things considered, however, who is to deny the role mobile phones play in helping reporters balance stories, cross-check facts and, above all, beat deadlines?

In Uganda, one of a handful of African countries that have witnessed a perfectly furious growth of mobile telephony, jobless peasants who can't afford the next meal can be seen carrying expensive handsets. They talk. They think they are happy. And President Yoweri Museveni is happy to claim bragging rights.

In the same way those peasants don't realize how much those phones are hurting them, Uganda's reporters -- i am one of them -- have found the mobile phone a reliable partner in crime. In Kampala, you could call a Cabinet source at midnight and have a silly chat on what he thinks about the alleged shenanigans of the government ombudsman, Faith Mwondha. The culture of voice mail as practiced in America is unheard of and, as i've found out, even dubious.

Almost all the sources i've interviewed as a reporter for the Kansas City Star did not answer their phones when i first called. My first instinct, at least when one source called me seconds after i hang up, was to imagine that there was some kind of sinful pleasure to be derived from listening to voice mail. Keen to satisfy my curiosity, i tried it at home and walked away dissatisfied. It was an act of great dishonesty; i should have picked the bloody phone!

To be sure, voice mail is an important part of the American lexicon. I've seen reporters at the Star record messages in the most farcical ways possible. It works, however funny it may sound. And it may be good for journalism in ways Ugandan (or African, for that matter) journalists could benefit from. The patience it takes to leave a voice message when working on an important story is a virtue to be cherished by every self-respecting journalist. It is not a routine that will improve a reporter's overall craft, but i find that leaving a message, even if grudgingly, is to reaffirm your commitment to seeking the truth. It is to do journalism nice and slow.

In the weeks since i discovered the beauty of voice mail, only once has it failed to serve me. Back home after a slow day, i realized that i had left some of my valuables at my office desk. Calling my desk phone would have been a hopeless idea, of course, but i was also sure that the reporter who sits next to me would have given me a please-leave-a-message deal -- a bad deal.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Girl on Walnut Street

A few blocks from my apartment building, a one-time warehouse whose rugged exterior belies its inner beauty, a pedestrian is likely to see what looks like a human shape rolled into a denim-covered ball. This coil, lying next to a dirty backpack and cigarette butts, is probably replicated in many parts of Kansas City, but there's something quite unusual about this homeless person. Until i got to see her face -- girl's smile, woman's comportment, cigarette in hand -- i had no interest in writing about a person who reminds me of where i come from, a place where panhandlers and beggars rule the streets. Until i got to see her face, pale and gaunt, i didn't care.

Now, because i get to see her almost everyday, the girl on Walnut Street intrigues me in a way no beggar has managed. And, coming from Kampala, where city authorities have to arrange nightly raids to sweep itinerant kids and women off the streets, i have seen many beggars. Very many. A good number have asked me for money, some of them very aggressively. But, informed by conventional wisdom that being generous with beggars encourages them to stay on the streets instead of going back home where they might have a decent place, i tend to shrug off importunate requests. The beggars i saw in Columbia, where i spent at least two weeks before coming to Kansas City, usually asked me for a cigarette, and the beggars i've encountered in Kansas City wanted money they would use to travel on a bus. They all looked fit and healthy, much like the Kampala beggars whose stock in trade is fooling wimpy Ugandans. They never have luck with me.

But the girl on Walnut Street does not ask for anything. In fact, she does not seem to be asking for anything. The rare beggar who attracts you even in her sleep, she is the kind of homeless person that most Africans cannot imagine would be a fixture on a street in a metropolis as modern as Kansas City. The image of America, in the mind of the typical African, is that of a place full of glory and wonder -- a veritable Garden of Eden. Even among educated Ugandans, some of whom i call friends, the idea of homeless Americans does not make much sense. Even worse, some of them don't imagine that people here, as elsewhere in the world, wake up thinking about how to keep their jobs, how to survive. This perverted perception is the reason they keep asking their African friends who live in America if they are foolish enough to consider returning home. It's the reason i keep repeating myself when dealing with them: Give me a break!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Importance of Being at Large

On the afternoon of May 20, when i face Kansas City Star editorial staffers for what will be a welcome party, it will also be an opportunity for me to set the record straight on many things. It will be the first time i am doing a presentation using PowerPoint, and for many in the room it will be their first time to hear so much about Uganda in 20 minutes. In the weeks before i arrived at the Star, which has won eight Pulitzer prizes over the years, a dubious picture of me that would have made Osama bin Laden proud was pinned on several boards. The picture, a photocopy of the original, has me sporting a goatee that, as it turns out, gave everyone at the Star a very exciting (if lousy) portrait of the reporter from Uganda. For those who were hoping to meet a bearded guy with Buddy Holly glasses, i can imagine how deep the disappointment has been. Mara Williams, higher education reporter for the Star, spoke of someone asking: "How old is that guy?" Well, when other factors are not held constant, i am 27 going on 17.

And so, for good measure, i will circulate the original picture in the room where reporters and editors will converge to hear about Uganda and, yes, Idi Amin. The picture will happily send fiction to the grave, and I will undertake to bury it with the youth on my face. My time at the Star will have officially started.

Yet i have already spent well over two weeks at the Star, for the most part making independent obervations, getting situated and building rapport with reporters and editors. After all, one of my stated objectives is to observe the camaraderie and energy among reporters and editors. A former Friendly Fellow at the Star, Peter Makori, told me long before i entered America that i was lucky to be going to a newsroom that tends to be friendly and helpful to visiting journalists.

He was right. Everyone i have met at the Star has expressed a willingness to be helpful in any way they can, and some have really walked the talk. Greg Moore, Kansas City Star wire editor, has excelled in the role of mentor and friend, regularly taking me places and giving me advice as intriguing as the importance of keeping a handshake firm. On that and many other tips that, quite frankly, i find hilarious, i am a work in progress.

But the story may be quite different from my journalistic work at the Star. I took the necessary stand, in keeping with my own values (and sense of vanity), that if i was going to pen a few stories for the Star, they had better be well written and cool enough. My first story, a human-interest piece on a plumber who assumed that being fit meant being healthy until he suffered a heart attack, was important to the extent that it appealed to a wide section of people that think like Bill Torres, who, interestingly, was given the grim diagnosis during a chance converation with a photo lab supervisor at a Leavenworth CVS store. The rest, as they say, is history. Subsequently, i penned a story about a cultural exchange program that allows Kansas City area teachers to spend at least 11 days in Turkey, and will soon be interviewing two students with extraordinary survival stories. The more i venture out into Kansas City's oft-deserted streets, the more i see opportunities for fantastic human-interest stories. To do this thing, and possibly escalate it, I need to turn off the telly more often than i switch it on. I need to be out. At large.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gimme Some Cheese, Baby!

There's a legitimate tale from Buyanja, the Ugandan sub-county where my father was born, about an irritable old man who never ate pork. Then, one day, his sons pulled a prank that may have turned him on forever. Unbeknownst to him, they prepared a meal laced with slices of pork, a delicacy that left him asking for more. His boys had done the unthinkable, but soon he would discover the thinkable: pork tastes real good, even if you hate the animal.

That's where my beef comes in. For the record, I don't do a lot of dairy products. That means that i hate cheese. But this is cheese country, and America will be my home for at least five months. Mike Fannin, Kansas City Star editor, was taking me out for lunch the other day when he asked what my favorites were. With no quick answer in mind, i offered: "All i know is that i don't do cheese."

Fannin smiled a bit. But i had told a lie.

While i have always told waiters to decheese my food, it's not true that i have not ingested a significant amount of cheese in the four weeks i've been in America. In Columbia, the college town that i dearly miss, my favorite eatery was Chipotle, where it was easy to spot the sliced cheese and rule it out of the equation. Almost always -- and i found this interesting -- the person behind the counter nodded in approval.

But it was not always easy for me to do cheese control at other restaurants.

When, at a recent dinner for Center for Practical Bioethics, i was given a cheese cake while everyone else on my table got a chocolate cake, the irony was wicked. But it was obviously funny when Coleman Hutchins, seated next to me, complained that he handn't gotten a cheese cake. I wanted to give him mine, but it was already too late; someone else had grabbed it.

Like pork, cheese won't kill a man. In a country where most meals are incomplete without cheese and where most waiters take it for granted that the average customer doesn't mind a cheesy topping, it is a stupid man who says no to cheese. Since I am no idiot, at least according to my mother, i am asking my friends to show me the cheese.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mobama or Nobama, America's a Mixed Bag

What happens when your American barber asks if you've seen a lion in the wild? You crack up. What's the story when, on a flight from Chicago to Kansas City, the flight attendant is so fat she has to negotiate the aisle with the finesse of a matador? You crack up. And, let it be said, how's one supposed to react to the idea that so many Americans, most of them ostensibly independent, need their dogs for a shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough? It's good material for a neutral comedian, and it's hard for me to say that i've not enjoyed the comic routine.

Missouri does not lie. After all, planted firmly in the heartland, this is the "Show Me" state, perhaps the best place to measure the American soul and make value judgments---for better or worse. In the three weeks that i've been in Missouri, where i will spend at least five months, the sheer depth of the ironies that define this powerful nation have been hard to miss, in large part because they are actually obvious. Not once have i needed to misrepresent my identity to be able to see that black Americans are comfortable playing pool amongst each other. And i have not yet found it necessary to apply my journalistic skills to notice that, even in these topsy-turvy days of unemployment or worse scenarios, it's mostly Latinos who clean up the shit in hotel rooms. What's more, at the Kansas City shop where a black barber asked if i had seen a lion in the wild, perhaps mauling a zebra in the African savannah, the only white man who walked in while i was around had actually come to make small talk. Not to have his hair done, OK? As the story was told, it's highly unlikely that a sensible white boy would spend his $15 there, a shop where the barber plays rap music and the radio bellows out the baritone of a popular black presenter. Not long after my experience with the barber, a slightly chubby man with the stupid smile of a teenager, i had the pleasure (or is it the agony?) of having a fast-talking middle-aged man as my driving instructor. "What does the red mean, Rodney?" the guy would ask me, apparently doubtful that i knew what the red light signaled. Soon, to my utter amusement (and relief), this white man would ask if i knew Idi Amin.

At once, in that grey saloon car that gave me nightmares for all of 120 minutes, i diagnosed the man's problem: LACK OF EXPOSURE. Those three beautiful words. If he came to Uganda --and he's never been out of his country-- he may not be able to move his car an inch. Yet, while he meant no harm, he's not a lone ranger.

For the most part, the trait that unites Americans black or white, especially in terms of how they relate to the rest of the world, is their shallow grasp of events elsewhere. They have to work hard to get it right. I am lucky to be in an environment where i get to interact with some people who know good things about Africa and who have grown up with the rest of progressive America. The story can be so wonderful. But, like most good stories, the beast wants his share of the cake. Just over 100 days after a black man was sworn in as America's chief executive, the fissures and frustrations that made his campaign message attractive are still evident. Only that they are are much more obvious to a foreigner, even a dumb one. I've not spent a lot of time in America, but i've been here long enough to discern the subtle lines that chase hopelessness away from hope. The interesting part is that some anti-Obama posters from 2008 proclaimed the wisdom in "Nobama." I hope the spirit of "Mobama" keeps winning.