Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year faithful readers!

Our good friends Phil Johnston and Jill Cordes visited us last week. Here we are celebrating Christmas (a day late):

Phil’s a great photographer. While we were out walking just a couple blocks from our house, he took this picture of a very sweet little girl:

On Saturday we took a cruise on the Niger, where Phil snapped this photo of two fishermen at sunset:

We also went to the “fetish” market, where animal parts are sold for use in animist rituals:

Copernicus (a.k.a. Mr. C) seemed to like our guests, especially when they gave him leftover turkey:

Phil and Jill are touring Dogon country this week, and Allyson and I will meet them in Timbuktu next weekend.

It’s hard to believe, but we leave Mali in less than four weeks!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Less than two weeks after hatching, the two dove chicks in the nest on our porch are all grown up, and this afternoon they flew away. I confess to a touch of empty nest syndrome.

Meanwhile, my friends at the blog Literally, A Web Log have discovered the best misuse of “literally” in a long, long time:

“When you take a look at Britney Spears and her behavior, it’s very frightening,” Dr. Timothy Brantley, a PhD who educates patients on the power of food, told the tabloid TV show Access Hollywood. “She’s a person who’s completely addicted to sugar. This is like heroin for a junkie. She’s literally on a roller coaster to hell.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

There was a reception for the Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, et al.) at the ambassador’s residence last night. He was in town to meet with Malian filmmakers. It was a fun night. At one point Marty – yeah, I call him Marty – got up and danced to the Malian music:

And here he is, sharing a laugh with Allyson and her friends:

A lot of Mali’s leading artists were there. Here we are with Salif Keita, the country’s most famous singer and songwriter:

In other news, the dove eggs in the nest on our porch hatched last weekend. It’s hard to get good pictures without disturbing them, but here you can sort of see the mother dove (I assume it’s the mother anyway) feeding one of the chicks (using the popular regurgitation method):

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Not much to report. ... Two doves have taken up residence in the nest on our porch. Can't tell how many eggs they're sitting on, but I will keep you posted. ... I've started writing the new book in earnest. My goal is ten pages a day. ... Allyson and I have started getting ready for the move back to Washington, which is now less than eight weeks away. First order of business: Finding an apartment in Washington. We're also planning a little trip for when we get back in February, so fair warning to our friends in Portland, New York, and St. Louis. ... The weather here in Bamako right now is excellent! There's even a bit of a chill in the morning.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Philadelphia Eagles fan blog Bleeding Green Nation recently interviewed me about my book (and made the excellent suggestion that it would make a great Christmas gift). Also, the book was recently (well, back in September) reviewed (favorably, thankfully) in Pittsburgh City Paper.
We got back from our trek in Dogon country last night. It took about nine hours to drive up there last Wednesday. We hiked down the escarpment on Thursday, spent that night in a village, then hiked back up the escarpment on Friday. The hike back up was much more difficult than the hike down, I can tell you that. My whole body is still sore. Our guide, a Dogon named Habibou (hobby-boo), was fantastic. Anyway, here are a few pictures…

A menstruation hut in the village of Djiguibombo (jiggy-boom-bo).

Leaving Kani-Kombole on our rented cow cart.

Taking a breather on our way up the escarpment.

An animist teacher in Indelou.

A hunter in Begnimoto fires his gun for us (without ammunition, thankfully).

Last night we watched The Office on DVD.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The annual Marine Corps Ball was held in Bamako last weekend. Among us American expats, it’s the social event of the season. I even wore my tuxedo (well, the one my brother gave me). The event commemorates the birthday of the Marine Corps, and it includes a ceremony where the oldest Marine present is given a piece of cake. This year the oldest Marine was younger than me. (The youngest Marine also gets a piece of cake; he was born in 1986.)

Tomorrow we’re heading up to Dogon country for a two-day trek.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Allyson and I were married on this date in 1998. It was a Friday the 13th, but it was the luckiest day of my life. Allyson is funny, kind, intelligent, and beautiful. I’m still amazed she married me.

It’s been a wonderful nine years: St. Louis, Maine, Los Angeles, Washington, West Africa – and lots of stops in between. Still ahead: Washington (again) and Rome and parts yet unknown. What a life! I couldn’t be happier.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Arrived back in Bamako last night after a long, uneventful trip. I'd been gone just a few days shy of two months, and it feels good to be back, back home with Allyson, the cats, our stuff. And the weather here is as good as it gets right now. It's the cool season, which means high temperatures "only" in the upper 80s and low 90s, but there's no humidity, so it's relatively comfortable. Not like it was in Washington this week, with highs around 50, but it'll do.

Hard to believe we'll only be here another 12 weeks...

Monday, November 05, 2007

For the past week I’ve been staying at a boarding house in College Park, Maryland. The other boarders are mostly foreign grad students here doing research for their dissertations. There’s a German, a Brit, a Finn, and a Nebraskan (not a foreigner but close enough).

Last week I convinced them to let me watch America’s Next Top Model (a, shall we say, lowbrow reality show) on the only TV in the house. In one scene, the background music was Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” at which point the German noted how Wagner’s music had been appropriated by the Nazis. This led to further discussion of Wagner and the Nazis, prompting me to wonder: Do you think anybody else who watched America’s Top Model last week ended up discussing Wagner during the show?

On a similar note, my friend John Petersen was in town over the weekend, and on Friday afternoon we went to the National Gallery to see the J.M.W Turner exhibition. Turner was a British landscape artist in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to the exhibition catalog, he was known “for his technical brilliance and startling use of light and color.”

That night we went to a hockey game and saw a couple good fights.

I’m wrapping up my work here in Washington. On Thursday I head back to Bamako. Apparently the Malian Aviation Authority (or whatever it’s called) has decided to resurface the runway at the airport this week. Hopefully they’ll be finished before I’m supposed to land.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Grandfather's House

Those of you who were reading this blog back in 1996 might recall that that was the year of the Great Ireland Experiment. I moved to Dublin to embark on a career as an international correspondent. I filed a bunch of spots for NPR, but ended up spending most of my meager income on Guinness. And the rest of my money, as the saying goes, was squandered.

Anyway, in November of that year, shortly before ending the GIE, I went to the village of Dunfanaghy, in northernmost County Donegal. I went in search of my roots. Dunfanaghy is where my paternal grandfather, Samuel Algeo, was born – and whence he emigrated in 1908.

On my first night there I went to a pub, where I ran into a fellow about my age named John Algeo. We got to talking and discovered that his grandfather and my grandfather were brothers – so we were second cousins. It was pretty amazing, though running into one of my blood relatives in a pub isn’t that much of a stretch.

John couldn’t have been a better host, and he spent the next day showing me the amazing scenery around Dunfanaghy, as well as his house (which my grandfather grew up in), and a few other things best not mentioned here.

So when Allyson and I went to Ireland this month, we checked in on John and found him just as hospitable as ever. Here we are standing in front of his house – the historic Algeo family home, so to speak (the satellite dishes were added after my grandfather left):

And here we are standing on the beach directly across the road from the house. (John says that when our grandfathers were growing up, there was no road to the house, and the family didn’t own any land connecting to a road, so they could only come and go at low tide, when there was enough beach to make the trip!)

Allyson and I had a great time in Dunfanaghy, though it’s changed a lot in the 11 years since I last visited. It’s become a suburb of Letterkenny, a booming city about 40 minutes south. Lots of houses are being built, and fancy-schmancy shops are opening up. My grandfather would barely recognize the place. But at least he’d be able to walk back to his old house at high tide.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Well, Allyson and I had a great vacation. We were very sad to see it end. I flew back to Washington today, while Allyson flew back to Bamako. I didn't have a chance to update the blog while we were in Ireland, but here are a few photos from the trip...

We really had a blast in Belfast (no pun intended). It's a great up-and-coming city with lots of interesting architecture and wonderful restaurants. Of course, it has great history, too. We hired a taxi to take a tour of the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods at the heart of The Troubles. On the Falls Road in West Belfast, we stopped at the headquarters of Sinn Fein:

The windows are entirely bullet- and bomb-proof, which is not surprising. What was surprising, though, was the fact that there's a souvenir shop inside where you can buy all the Sinn Fein tchotchke your heart desires.

Travelling in the off season has its advantages: Here's Allyson waiting in line for a bus to one of the many - MANY - castles we visited:

Finally, for now, here's the wee cottage we rented in County Donegal:

That's all for now: I'm feeling pretty wiped out (and so request a special dispensation in case of any typos).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I had another encounter with a Very Thorough Docent last week. It was at the Thrasher Carriage Museum in Frostburg, Maryland. James Thrasher, who made a fortune in something or other, collected horse-drawn carriages. When he died, he left the collection to Allegany County, which now houses the carriages in a refurbished train depot in Frostburg. It’s a pretty spectacular collection. It never occurred to me how many different kinds of carriages there were: mail wagons, milk wagons, delivery wagons, bus wagons, large family wagons, etc. (Also impressive was the fact that the carriages on the second floor of the museum were carried upstairs by hand.)

Anyway, my docent was Jay, a fifty-something guy with a scraggly gray beard, a baseball cap, and exactly the same plastic aviator frames I wore in eighth grade. Jay knew everything about every carriage in the place. He shared his knowledge with me in excruciating detail, carriage by carriage, complete with carriage jargon: “This one’s got the surrey with the fringe on top.” “This one’s got the elliptical springs instead of the buckboards.” Half the time I didn’t even know what the hell he was talking about, but I kept smiling and nodding.

And, like my Benjamin Harrison House docent back in Indianapolis, Jay didn’t want the moment to end. When I told him I had to get going, he asked me if I’d seen everything. I said I thought I had, but Jay said, “No, I don’t think you saw the Ladies’ Pony Phaeton.” So he showed it to me. And he told me all about it.


Two days ago, here in New York, I went to the River Club. It’s a very exclusive private club on the eastside of midtown Manhattan. Harry and Bess ate there back in ’53. Rather naively, I walked in the front door and asked the guard, a green-uniformed Hispanic gentleman, if he had any pamphlets with some information about the club. Like it was my local Curves. He looked a little confused and said, “No, we don’t have nothin’ like that.” Clearly, the River Club is not hurting for members. Then I asked him if he could tell me a little bit about the club, and he said, “No, we’re not s’posed to talk to nobody ‘bout nothin’.” So all I got to see was the lobby, which was nice enough, with lots of plush carpeting and brass fixtures.


I’m headed back to Philadelphia today. Tomorrow I fly to Ireland to meet Allyson. We’re spending two weeks there, mostly in a rented cottage in Donegal. I can’t wait!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

I'm back in my hometown, good ol' Perkasie, Pennsylvania, spending some time with my folks. Tomorrow I'm going down to Philadelphia to do some research. On Tuesday I'm going up to New York for a few days, then, on Friday, I'm flying to Ireland to meet Allyson (yay!).

Last night I went to my brother Howard's to watch the Phillies game. A grand time was had by all, in spite of the fact the Phllies lost.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

On their way east, Harry and Bess ate lunch at the Princess Restaurant in Frostburg, Maryland. A bronze plaque above the booth where they sat commemorates the historic event:

SUNDAY, JUNE 21, 1953

Local legend has it that the Trumans were directed to the restaurant by the town doctor, Martin Rothstein. Doc, as he was universally known, was a Princess regular. As he was leaving the restaurant that Sunday afternoon, he spotted a car going the wrong way down a one-way street. Doc flagged the car down. When the driver rolled the window down, Doc saw that it was Harry Truman, who asked him to recommend a place to eat. Naturally Doc recommended the Princess.

Doc was Frostburg’s Moonlight Graham. In the early 1950s he charged $40 for delivering a baby – and that included nine months of follow-up care. House calls were just a part of the job.

Doc was also a very particular fellow. Every Thursday he had liver and onions for dinner at the Princess. But the liver had to be cooked just right: exactly two minutes per side. If it was cooked for just a few seconds more or less, Doc would know.

In the real world, Moonlight Grahams don’t walk into the cornfield and fade away. They end up in places like Room 111 of the Frostburg Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. That’s where I saw old Doc Rothstein this afternoon, his skin so translucent you could see the capillaries underneath. He was on his side in a bed, wearing a green gown that barely covered him. Across the hall a fellow traveler was watching Wheel of Fortune with the sound turned up so loud you could hear it before the elevator doors even opened.

I’d hoped Doc would brighten when I told him why I had come to see him, that his spirits would soar at recalling a sweet memory from long ago. But he was uncomfortable, tired, and sick. He told me the story. It took about two minutes. I think he was glad to see me go.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I borrowed my parents’ car for this trip: a 1995 Dodge Stratus. It had 97,458 miles on it when I started. Today, on I-70 east of Columbus, at mile marker 126, at 11:26 AM, it hit 100,000 miles.

I tried calling Dad on my cell phone to share the moment, but the number was busy. Mom and Dad don’t have call waiting. They don’t even have touch-tone service. You have to pay extra for touch-tone service. Dad says the phone company should pay *him* to switch to touch-tone. He’s right. Since rotary dialing takes longer than touch-tone dialing, it costs the phone company more money.

Anyway, I have a disposable camera, so I decided to take pictures of the odometer at 99,999 and 100,000 for posterity. But the camera ran out of film after the first picture. I hope it turns out.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Spent most of yesterday in Decatur, Illinois, where I finally found the motel where Harry and Bess stayed in 1953 – only it’s not a motel anymore, it’s a correctional facility. Officially it’s the Decatur Adult Transition Center – i.e., it’s where the work-release inmates stay. While it is technically possible for me to spend a night there, just like Harry and Bess did, my zeal for historical accuracy in re-creating their trip is not that strong.

I spent today in Indianapolis. I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, where a shuttle bus takes visitors around the 2.5-mile oval at about 30 miles an hour. In the time it takes the shuttle bus to complete one lap, an Indy car would pass it 19 times!

I also visited the Benjamin Harrison Home in downtown Indianapolis. Harrison, of course, was the president who rearranged the furniture in the White House between Grover Cleveland’s two terms. I showed up for the 10:30 tour. I was a few minutes early, and while I was waiting on the front porch, a mailman – mailwoman, actually – arrived with a handful of letters to deliver. I said, “Benjamin Harrison still gets mail?” She laughed.

My tour group consisted of me. The docent was a nice guy in his mid fifties, but he was new and very thorough. Very, very thorough. The tour lasted 90 minutes. Every detail of every room was described in great, well, detail. And when he was finished with a room, his eyes would scan it just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. On the bright side, I learned a lot of interesting things about Benjamin Harrison:

--He was the president who converted the White House from gas to electric (probably so none of Grover Cleveland’s appliances would work when he moved back in).

--He was the last president with a full beard.

--After his first wife died (in the White House, by the way), he married his niece (his wife’s sister’s daughter), who was younger than his own daughter.

--He was a Civil War general and, even as president, he preferred to be called “General,” not “Mr. President.”

That’s all for now… Next stop, Cumberland, Maryland.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Drove from Kansas City to Decatur, Illinois, today. Trip took about seven-and-a-half hours, including a lunch stop in Hannibal, Missouri. On the road I came across several pickup trucks with dogs riding in the back. One stood sentry atop a toolbox, his nose pointing straight into the wind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier animal in my life. (I know it’s not a good idea to drive around with a dog in the bed of your pickup. Nonetheless, when I was a little boy, my parents had a pickup and they used to drive around with my sister and me in the back!)

After I crossed the Mississippi into Illinois the landscape suddenly became more, well, boring. Flatter. Less colorful. It didn’t help that the highway I’d been on, U.S. 36, suddenly became a charm-free Interstate.

Around 4:30 I reached Springfield, home of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which I will visit in the morning. Can never have too many presidential libraries on a road trip!

I stopped at a Super 8 – I actually have a Super 8 frequent traveler (or whatever) card. I checked in and went straight to my room. My tummy was rumbling, and I had to go to the bathroom RIGHT AWAY. I opened the door and immediately sat down. Then I noticed that the trash hadn’t been emptied. And that little bar of soap on the sink had been used. When I finally walked into the room I saw that the bed was unmade. For a minute I thought I’d just busted into somebody else’s room and gone to the bathroom urgently. Turns out the room hadn’t been made up. I went to the front desk and got a new room – in which the AC is broken and the TV remote is missing. But at least the bed was made.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Yesterday I drove from St. Louis to Kansas City. Along the way I stopped at the Winston Churchill Muesum in Fulton, Missouri. Why is there a Winston Churchill Museum in the middle of Missouri? Because it was at Westminster College in Fulton that Sir Winston delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" speech. (His friend, the Missourian Harry Truman, had encouraged him to speak at Westminster.)

Anyway, it's a lovely little museum in the basement of a Christopher Wren church that was destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War, then reconstructed in Fulton. My favorite piece was a gray felt top hot signed on the top by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta.

Some random thoughts: Churchill and Truman couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds, but Harry didn’t hold Winston’s upbringing against him, and the two became quite close. … I hadn’t realized until yesterday that British MPs need not live in the districts they represent. … Churchill switched parties twice: from Conservative to Labour, then back to Conservative. … Churchill lost parliamentary elections in 1922, 1923, and 1924! … When his wife told him that losing the 1945 election might be a blessing in disguise, Churchill replied that it was “quite effectively disguised.”

Today I did some research at the Truman Library. I expect to stay in Kansas City until Sunday, when I will resume my journey.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I'm in Merrillville, Indiana, which is about an hour south of Chicago. Staying at a Holiday Inn "Express," which means everything is smaller than it is at a regular Holiday Inn - except the price.

It seems a team of Under-16 soccer players has just checked in. They are currently running up and down the hall screaming. Oh those ruffians!

Yesterday I spent the day in Indianapolis with a delightful woman named Clair Clark. Clair's father, a Democratic Party bigwig named Frank McKinney, was a good friend of Harry Truman's, and Harry and Bess spent the night at the McKinney house on their way back to Independence back in '53. Clair showed me some of the letters Harry had sent her father. In one he says, "You can call me 'Harry'" (instead of "Mr. President").

The trip is going well. I'm getting a lot of research done. But it hasn't been a lot of "fun" - mostly work.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Last night I stayed at the McLure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia. Harry and Bess stayed here on their trip back East. The McLure was also the site of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious political speeches: On February 9, 1950, speaking before a meeting of the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy declared, “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.”

McCarthy, of course, had no such list, but his speech launched the witch hunt that would take his name: McCarthyism.

Before dinner last night, I dug out a copy of the article about McCarthy’s speech that was published in the next day’s Wheeling Intelligencer. It said the speech took place in the hotel’s Colonnade Room. On the way to dinner, I figured I’d ask the night clerk if he knew where that room was.

When I left my room, I noticed for the first time that there was a banquet room directly across the hall from my room: the Colonnade Room. It was locked, but I could look through a window in the door. The room was dimly lit. White tablecloths covered large round tables. The chairs were all in place. It reminded me of something in The Shining and really creeped me out. If not for the Tylenol PM, I would've had a hard time sleeping.

This morning I drove to Columbus, where I did some guerilla research: in and out of the city in three hours. (Me, panting, at the Columbus Public Library reference desk: "Give me everything you've got on the Deshler Hotel - STAT!")

I'm now at the Motel 6 in Richmond, Indiana, where I have some research to do in the morning. Then I'm off to Indianapolis to meet with a woman whose parents hosted the Trumans on their trip.

I still can't shake this cold, but otherwise I'm not feeling too bad. Allyson, meanwhile, has been given a temporary assignment in Conakry, Guinea, where she will be working for the next two weeks. Suddenly, Richmond, Indiana doesn't seem so bad...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I'm at the Red Roof in beautiful Washington, Pa. Been a good couple days. Yesterday I was in Harrisburg, mostly looking up stuff at the State Library. This morning I drove to Washington (Pa.) and spent the day at the local historical society, researching the hotel that Harry and Bess stayed at when they stopped here on their road trip (that hotel is now a retirement home, which is why I'm at the Red Roof).

Tomorrow I'm off to Wheeling, then Columbus and Indianapolis.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I’m feeling a little better today (thanks for asking). Managed to put in three hours at the Library of Congress microfilm room. Ah, yes, the microfilm room: where the socially awkward go to hone their awkwardness. If eye contact’s not your thing, the microfilm room is for you.

Speaking of awkward, did I tell you about my haircut on Monday? I went to this place in Ballston that I’ve gone to several times in the past. It’s Chinese-owned, and the barbers/stylists/whatever you call them are mostly twenty-something Chinese women. Mine was named Rose. After she finished cutting my hair, Rose started massaging my shoulders. “You walk lots today?” she asked. It was really weird/creepy. After a minute or so she stopped and that was that. It was only when I left that I noticed the sign in the window: “Free massage with every haircut.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I woke up on Sunday morning with a sore throat, an ominous beginning to my 24-hour, 10,000-mile journey back to the States. By the time I boarded the plane in Bamako that night, I had a persistent nagging cough. On the flight to Paris, and again on the flight to Philadelphia, I was “that guy" - the sniffling, coughing guy who is giving everybody else on the plane his cold.

Today I’m feeling even worse. I went to the Library of Congress, but only managed about 90 miserable, cough-suppressing minutes before I fled. I didn’t want to be “that guy” at the LOC, too.

Here in Washington I’m renting a room in a condo from some guy I found on Craigslist. I don’t know what he and his roommate do all day, but it doesn’t require them to leave the house much. So here I am, stuck in a stranger’s house, feeling pretty lousy.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Pictures from our recent travels...

On the ferry to Djenne...

Allyson being interviewed on the radio station in Djenne (on the left is the Peace Corps volunteer who translated the interview from French into the local language)...

An early-morning soccer game in front of Djenne's famous mud mosque...

Where we stopped for lunch on the way home (the mutton was good)...

Tomorrow I'm off to the States.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sorry I haven’t posted anything for a couple weeks. I know my faithful readers have been eagerly awaiting an update. It's been a busy couple of weeks. Two weeks ago Allyson and I went to Djenne and Mopti. Had a nice trip. In Djenne we even got to go inside the famous mud mosque, which was very cool. (We also stayed in a hotel with bedbugs, which wasn't very cool. Fortunately we didn't bring any of the little buggers home with us.)

In Mopti Allyson worked hard all day, while I mostly sat in my air-conditioned room and did some research (i.e., reading).

Last week Allyson’s parents were here for a visit (they just left last night). We had a nice relaxing week, saw the sights around Bamako, but mostly just hung around the house.

On Sunday I leave for the States to begin working on the Harry Truman book.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Allyson and I are headed up the Niger tomorrow to visit Djenne and Mopti. The trip (by car, not boat) will take about eight hours each way. Allyson's going on business; I'm just tagging along for the ride.

I'm looking forward to the trip. The mosque in Djenne (pronounced "jen-nay") is the largest mud-built structure in the world (it will be especially interesting to see it in the rainy season). Mopti is a major center of trade. It should be fun.

Friday, August 17, 2007

There's a story in today's Washington Post about the construction problems at new embassies, including the air-conditioning problem at the embassy here in Bamako. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The World’s Oldest Person has died. Yone Minagawa of Japan was 114.

Edna Parker of Shelbyville, Ind. must have mixed feelings about that. Also 114, Edna now inherits the title of World’s Oldest Person – but she’s not likely to hold it for very long. The last four World’s Oldest Persons all died within eight months of becoming the World’s Oldest Person.

Reminds me of a story I did for NPR back in 2000.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

On Saturday I happened to catch a few minutes of the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony on AFN. One of the inductees gave a long-winded speech that included this stirring line: “I’d like to thank my strength and conditioning coach.” There wasn’t a wet eye in the house.

Now, it’s not likely to happen, but if I ever get inducted into a hall of fame or win a "major award," here’s what my speech will be: “Thank you, Allyson. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Drive home safely everybody.”

No one besides your spouse/significant other and your parents need be thanked. Well, maybe God. But definitely not your high school English teacher, or your spiritual advisor, or your aerobics instructor, or the neighbor who fed the cats when you were out of town – even if they all “stayed with me through all the hard times,” “never gave up on me,” “always believed in me,” etc.

Which reminds me: The winners of the Nobel Prizes will be announced in October. Fingers crossed.

Monday, July 30, 2007

I have a soft spot for First World War veterans. When I was a kid, they marched at the front of the parades in my hometown. When I was working at Minnesota Public Radio in Rochester, Minnesota 12 or 13 years ago, I interviewed several First World War vets for a Veterans Day story. As I remember, the youngest was 98. He had lived in the same Minneapolis apartment since the 1920s.

More than ten million soldiers fought in the Great War. According to the Internets, fewer than 30 are still alive. One of them is 109-year-old Harry Patch (pictured), the last surviving “Tommy” to have served on the Western Front. (Click here to read a great story about him in the Daily Mail.)

When Harry Patch was born in 1898, Victoria was Queen and McKinley was President. The Spanish-American War was underway. Veterans of the War of 1812 were still alive.

When the Titanic sank, Harry was a teenager. When the Second World War began, he was in his forties. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

History happens in the blink of an eye. Revolutionary War veterans lived to see the Civil War. Civil War veterans lived to see the Second World War.

What will the Second World War veterans live to see?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

After several weeks of lessons, Allyson and I played our first round of golf today.

Nine holes.

We need more lessons.

Friday, July 20, 2007

We just bought a contraption called a “Rechargeable Mosquito-hitting Swatter.” It’s basically an electrified tennis racket. When you swat a mosquito with it – ZAP! – the disease-ridden pest meets its maker. It’s a good invention, though I doubt it would pass muster with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The swatter is made in China, of course, and the English-language warnings printed on the package are pretty hilarious. To wit:

1. For more safety, do not press the switch or touch the surface of net when swatter is in charge.

2. Please do not finger the medium-layer net.

3. Please shake swatter for cleaning off insect carcasses which remain in net. Be sure don’t wash it with water, so as to avoid shortcircuit.

4. The swatter may become without high-voltage or in low-voltage conditions when it absorbe damp in wet weather, the effect will be declined. Then, it can be dried by blowing with electric blower or shining with sunshine. The effect will be recovered soon.

5. Children must instruce under adult when use it.

(Is that last one even legal in the United States?)

Monday, July 16, 2007

There was a nice column in yesterday's Boston Globe about Bucko Kilroy, the ex-Steagle who passed away last week. ... Skull Pen, a comic book by my multi-talented nephew Robert Algeo, was recently reviewed (quite favorably, of course) on a podcast. To listen, click here, then click the link for the podcast. (They start talking about Skull Pen about halfway through.) ... Quote of the Day: The NBA players union says it might appeal the seven-game suspensions given to two players for off-the-court legal problems. "Based on prior precedent, we think the suspensions are excessive," union director Billy Hunter said. *Prior* precedent? It's my favorite kind. ... It's been raining for two days straight here in Bamako, which means it's muddy - but cool! Yesterday was a wonderful day for sitting on the porch with a refreshing beverage - which is exactly what we did.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Another Steagle has passed away. Francis "Bucko" Kilroy died on Tuesday, July 10. He was 86.

Bucko was a rookie when he played for the Steagles in 1943. He never left the National Football League. After his playing career ended, he moved on to front-office jobs with the Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys, and Patriots. In all he spent 64 seasons working in the NFL - more than anyone else, even George Halas.

Life magazine once identified Bucko as the dirtiest player in the league. (He sued the magazine for libel and won an $11,600 judgment.) Off the field, though, he really was a nice guy. One of the nicest you'd ever meet, in fact.

I met Bucko at a Steagles reunion in Pittsburgh in 2003. What a character. He was 82 then, but still built like a tank. He was kind and supportive, and he laughed a lot, a laugh that sounded like machine-gun fire: Ha ha ha ha ha.

Bucko was in poor health the past couple years, yet he never failed to return my calls when I had a quick question or wanted to check a fact. A true gentleman he was.

Bucko is the fifth member of the Steagles to pass away since my book about the team was published last fall. Now just three remain: Ray Graves, Allie Sherman, and Al Wistert.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Much to my surprise, there were two offers for my book last week. The proposal had been circulating for more than two months, and I had practically given up hope. Fortunately, my agent hadn't.

I have accepted an offer from Chicago Review Press, a small publisher with a good reputation for publishing "quirky" books - the kind I want to write.

Now, after convincing myself that I didn't want to write the damn thing anyway, I am throwing myself back into the project. I will return to the States soon to begin doing research.

For those who don't already know, the book is about a road trip that Harry and Bess Truman took by themselves shortly after leaving the White House in 1953. Unaccompanied by Secret Service agents, bodyguards, or attendants of any kind, they drove from their home in Independence, Missouri, to the East Coast and back again. Along the way they stayed in a cheap motel, crashed with friends, ate at roadside diners - even got pulled over for careless driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. More generally, the book is about life in 1950s America and the development of the modern ex-presidency. I'm looking forward to writing it.

Monday, July 02, 2007

First Lady Laura Bush came to Bamako last Friday. She was here for about five hours, the last stop on a four-nation tour to promote the Administration’s initiatives in Africa. I saw her at the ambassador’s residence, where she gave a short pep talk to embassy workers and their families. (She said she might tell the Secretary of State about the broken air conditioning at the embassy. This elicited much applause.)

Allyson got to ride in the motorcade, which was pretty cool. (She also looked fabulous in her white jacket and skirt.) As “gifts officer,” she had to keep track of all the gifts the First Lady received (and make sure nobody handed her anything unexpected or unscreened). Everything went off without a hitch, and Friday night there was a big “wheels up” party at the deputy chief of mission’s residence.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

There’s a nice story in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer about the unexpected discovery of Pearl S. Buck’s long-lost original manuscript for The Good Earth. Buck, who died in 1973, lived on a farm in (well, very near, anyway) my hometown of Perkasie, Pa., which makes me the second-most famous author from Perkasie. (OK, third-most after W.D. Ehrhart.)

It’s always mystified me that Buck, one of the great writers of the twentieth century, is practically forgotten today. Winner of the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, she was also active in the civil rights movement and a remarkable philanthropist. Maybe the discovery of this manuscript will renew some interest in her work.

When we were back in the States last winter, Allyson and I visited the Pearl S. Buck House in Perkasie, which is now a National Historic Landmark. It’s a classic eastern Pennsylvania farmhouse, with stone walls, hardwood floors, and lots of fireplaces. Beautiful. It also has a wonderful collection of memorabilia, including the typewriter on which Buck typed the original manuscript for The Good Earth – the manuscript that has just surfaced. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here in Bamako. Well, for Allyson anyway. I’ve just been watching TV all day as usual.

The air conditioning at the new embassy is broken and probably won’t be fixed for a few more weeks, so Allyson is going in to work at six o’clock every morning, before it gets too hot. She’s still doing visa interviews, which is pretty remarkable given the circumstances. She usually gets sent home around noon, when it gets too hot to even keep the computers running.

Meanwhile, First Lady Laura Bush is coming to Bamako this week, and, in addition to everything else, Allyson is arranging media coverage for the visit. She will also be the First Lady’s “Gifts Officer,” which means she has to handle any gift exchanges that occur, keep track of who gives what, etc. The rules for that are pretty funny (e.g., NO LIVE ANIMALS), but I’m sure it will be a neat experience.

In less exciting news, I got the dreaded “we need to talk” e-mail from my agent last week. It looks like I need to come up with new book ideas. As usual, suggestions are welcomed – nay, encouraged. The best will be stolen.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

On the Niger, Spring 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

not much to report ... we had a quiet weekend at home, lots of drinks by the pool (of course!) ... the rainy season has arrived, with cloudy skies, strong winds, and torrential downpours most days. it's a refreshing change from the unrelenting sunshine of the past, oh, eight months. ... last friday i went to the local "fetish" market, where animal parts used for magic/juju are sold. i plan on writing more about it sometime, but for now suffice it to say that i'm glad we don't let our cats go outside! ... i'm planning to go to nigeria to do a couple stories later this summer (is it summer yet? it's hard to tell here) but, to get a visa, i need a "letter of invitation" from somebody who's already there. preferably somebody trustworthy. if you know such a person, please e-mail me!

Monday, June 04, 2007

The only TV we get here is the Armed Forces Network. AFN carries the most popular programs in the States, as well as all major U.S. sporting events. It’s been a godsend to us. I don’t know what Allyson would do without America’s Next Top Model, Lost, and Amazing Race. (And I don’t know what I would do without Judge Judy and Dr. Phil.)

AFN doesn’t carry commercials. Instead it shows public service announcements and military news. It’s been said that AFN is what TV would be like if it was programmed by your mother. Based on what I’ve seen on AFN, the greatest dangers facing our troops are not Islamic insurgents and IEDs, but smokeless tobacco, motorcycle accidents, and STF (slips, trips, and falls).

One of my favorite AFN spots is one for the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit. These are the people who disarm bombs. Not surprisingly, there are always a lot of openings in this unit. The spot is meant to encourage soldiers to volunteer for EOD by reminding them that the unit offers “extra pay” (which seems only right), “marketable job skills” (not sure about that one: “Hey, there’s a bomb on aisle six that needs disarmed”), and, my personal favorite, “a high potential for promotion."
Allyson and I hosted a big party Friday night. It was for several members of the mission community who are moving on to new posts this month. About seventy people attended (including the ambassador), and everything went off without a hitch. It’s kind of funny, Allyson and I have been here for only a little more than a year, but we now qualify as “old timers” at the post.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Our gardener Amadou, who was featured in a story I did for Marketplace earlier this month, is a proud papa – again. His wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Cora on Friday, May 18. It’s the couple’s fourth child – all girls!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My month (so far):

1. My book proposal didn’t sell.

2. American Heritage, the magazine I hoped to sell the story to (in case the proposal didn’t sell), went out of business.

3. The doves nesting on our porch abandoned their eggs.

4. The seersucker shirt I bought from Lands’ End last year for $29.50 was listed in the company's overstock catalogue for $9.99.

5. I have a toothache.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Major bummer: American Heritage, one of America's great magazines, is going out of business. Click here to read a New York Times article about the magazine's demise.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My French teacher, Monsieur Barry, is a short, bespectacled, professorial man, with an impeccably trimmed moustache. He is also a student of various West African folk practices, including traditional medicine, juju, witchcraft, and magic.

Recently, M. Barry introduced me to his friend, Dr. Toure, who practices traditional medicine and claims to have discovered a cure for asthma. (“It doesn’t relieve the symptoms,” M. Barry told me, clapping his hands for emphasis. “It cures it!”) Dr. Toure gave me a sample of his concoction, an orangey powder that resembles Tang and tastes like dog shit. M. Barry and Dr. Toure would like me to forward this medicine to a laboratory in the United States for testing. Eventually they hope to sell the recipe to a drug company (Dr. Toure claims the Malian health department has already offered him $6,000 for the cure, a sum he deemed woefully insufficient).

Dr. Toure says the powder consists of nothing more than dried wild fruits – “100% natural,” he claims – but I am reticent about sending it through the mail. Still, if anyone would like a sample – or, better yet, would like to actually test it – please e-mail me.

M. Barry, meanwhile, has another plan for striking it rich. He claims to have seen a magical helmet that, when worn, makes its wearer (and, presumably, the helmet itself) invisible. (Apparently this is especially useful when hunting in the bush.) M. Barry says “the Arabs” have offered him a lot of money for one, but he'd rather sell it to an American. I'm trying to convince him to find me one.

If he does, I’m gonna put it on eBay.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Allyson took this picture (from a moving car!) on the outskirts of Bamako a few weeks ago.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

There are two kinds of people: viewers and voyagers.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

My book, Last Team Standing, has won the 2006 Nelson Ross Award, given by the Professional Football Researchers Association for “outstanding achievement in pro football research and historiography.” Basically, it’s the PFRA’s Book of the Year. Pretty cool!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

One of my stories ran on Marketplace Monday night (click here to listen to it). Another story ran Tuesday night (click here to listen).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Found this over at It's a Negro League monument in Philadelphia. Check out that typo! ... In a similar vein, my brother Howard overhead a great misuse of "literally" recently: A guy on a cell phone tells his friend, "You are literally going to laugh your ass off." Call Dr. House! ... Authors have a saying: The only thing worse than seeing your friends fail in publishing is seeing them succeed. Well that most definitely does *not* apply in this case: My friend Colin Woodard's new book just came out. It's called "The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down." It's getting great reviews, and I couldn't be happier for Colin. (Click here to purchase a copy.) ... Tomorrow is election day here in Mali, and I will be monitoring the balloting as an "observateur international." I will tell you how it went next week.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Mormon Temple

Ten years ago today, on April 24, 1997, the Mormon Church held an “open house” for the media at its then-new temple in St. Louis (pictured). At the time, I was working at KWMU, the NPR station in St. Louis, and was keen to go, since non-Mormons (such as yours truly) are not permitted inside temples after they are dedicated. My news director, Lester Graham, was skeptical about the newsworthiness of the event, but I convinced him to let me cover it anyway.

There was a large tent set up outside the temple where the reporters were divided into small groups before being led inside by Mormon guides.

Walking into a Mormon temple is not like walking into a grand cathedral. It’s more like walking into an apartment building. Mormons divide their temples into a series of rooms on different levels, where various sacraments (e.g., baptism, marriage) are performed. I found this very interesting… but not as interesting as another reporter in my group. She had red hair and freckles and was wearing a green dress. Her name was Allyson.

As the tour continued I casually sidled up alongside her. I don’t remember the first thing I said to her, but it was almost certainly a sarcastic remark of some kind, intended to be intelligent and charming. Whatever it was, I guess it worked.

When the tour was over, the Mormons invited the reporters to stay for a light lunch. I had a longstanding policy of refusing such offers, fearing even the slightest hint of impropriety (a fear, incidentally, that sportswriters don’t have). But Allyson was staying, so I made an exception on this occasion. We sat at a small table with one of the guides. As I recall, we had cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off.

After lunch we walked out to the parking lot together. A moment of truth was rapidly approaching. How it came about exactly, I don’t recall, but we ended up exchanging business cards (how romantic). She drove off in her Toyota Tercel. It’s the car in which I would finally learn how to drive a stick shift. I noticed that she had very good posture: I’d never seen anybody sit up so straight while driving a car!

A little more than 18 months later we were married. We may be the only Gentile couple in the world to have met inside a Mormon temple.

Thank you, Lester, for letting me go to the Mormon temple that day.

Thank you, Allyson, for being there that day – and every day since.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I’ve filed a couple stories for Marketplace, which will probably run this Friday (April 27) and/or next Monday (April 30). The stories will be pegged to Mali’s presidential election, which takes place on Sunday. … Speaking of the election, I have volunteered to serve as an international observer at the polls. … The week before last I went to a small town called San to get tape for a story I’m working on. It’s on the Niger, about five hours from Bamako. Very interesting place. The people up there are Bobo (as opposed to Bamako, where everybody’s Bambara). They seemed friendly enough, but apparently they have a reputation for having short tempers. When I told my French professor I’d been there, he said, “Oh, The Bobo are very dangerous! You must never offend them.” Glad I didn’t (apparently). … Incidentally, my French professor, the very professorial Mr. Barry, wants to introduce me to a traditional healer he knows who claims to have found a cure for asthma. The healer wants to connect with American drug companies to share his cure. I’m hoping to meet him this week. ... Also this week: My agent is sending out my book proposal to publishers. Please keep your fingers crossed for me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

I’ve received some great suggestions for helping the lonely, bored chimpanzee in the Bamako Zoo (see previous entry). The really sad thing about the chimp – and the rest of the unfortunate animals in the zoo – is that there’s really nothing that can be done for them. You could either try to improve the zoo or have it shut down. But the Malian government doesn’t have any money for improvements, and if you tried to raise funds privately, most would be lost to corruption. And if you force the zoo to close down, the animals will either be sent to equally pitiful African zoos or euthanized – probably the best option, come to think of it.

But there’s good animal news to report today: About two weeks ago, a dove built a nest on the outside of our porch and laid two eggs. She and (presumably) the father have been sitting on the eggs round the clock since then. Well, the eggs hatched this week, and two seemingly healthy chicks emerged. They’re tiny – each could fit in a thimble – but if all goes well they will be flying in about two weeks. Pretty cool.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My brother-in-law Rob has sent us some pictures from his visit last month. Remember how I mentioned visiting the Bamako Zoo, a.k.a. The Most Depressing Place on Earth? Anyway here's a picture of the forlorn chimpanzee.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

When we moved from Los Angeles to Washington in mid 2005, all our stuff was put in a State Department storage facility somewhere in Maryland (I think). After a few months in Bamako, Allyson realized there were certain things in storage that she wanted to have here, mainly dishware. There was only one problem: We have about 200 boxes of stuff in storage, but we had no idea which boxes the things Allyson wanted were in. So we guessed. Basically we picked 20 boxes at random and had them shipped here.

Yesterday the boxes arrived.

For the most part we were lucky. For example, the dishes are in one of the boxes. But we’ve also received some pretty random stuff, to wit:

--A bound copy of 1893 Philadelphia Press newspapers.

--Our wedding ring boxes. Apparently these have sentimental value.

--A little shoe brush.

--Assorted refrigerator magnets.

--The plaque I got for winning a spelling bee in sixth grade.

--A remote control for a TV we no longer own.

The funny thing is, when we leave Bamako, all this random stuff will be packed up and sent to another State Department storage facility – in Antwerp.

Friday, March 30, 2007

This photo was taken on a recent hash just outside Bamako.
I was a substitute teacher at the American School here in Bamako again this week. Yesterday morning I was assigned the preschool physical education class. Preschool phys ed is pretty much a euphemism for recess. I was supposed to organize a T-ball game, but everything quickly descended into chaos, complete with wrestling, tripping, crying, running, screaming, pushing, hyperventilating, etc. Since my experience with preschoolers is limited to my own time in preschool, I didn’t know what to do (short of crying myself). So I didn’t do anything. I let them do their thing and prayed for a low body count. At the end of the period, no one was dead or even seriously injured, which I considered a moral victory.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Here’s the cover of the paperback version of my book. Astute observers will note that the subtitle has been changed from “How the Steelers and the Eagles Saved Pro Football During World War II” to “How the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles Saved Pro Football During World War II.” This, presumably, will prompt residents of those cities who don’t know the name of their local football team to purchase multiple copies of the book.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, I have to submit corrections for the paperback version by April 9 (your dear correspondent’s 41st birthday, coincidentally). So, if you found a typo in the hardcover version, please let me know ASAP. Your help is greatly appreciated and will be rewarded with an acknowledgement in my next book – provided there is one.

Friday, March 23, 2007

This is a photo of me, Allyson, and our friend Adair outside the March 26th Stadium here in Bamako. March 26th – this coming Monday – is a big day in Mali. It’s Democracy Day, a holiday that commemorates the popular uprising that brought down dictator Moussa TraorĂ© on March 26, 1991. Incidentally, the Malian national soccer team will play a big game against Benin at the stadium Sunday night. We can’t go, though, because the embassy believes there will be violence “before, during, and after the game.” Guess we’ll just have to stay home and watch House instead.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

There’s an article in the New York Times today about finding cheap airfares between the U.S. and Africa. It includes such helpful hints as “shop around” and “avoid traveling in the busy June-to-August vacation period.” But my favorite is “use your frequent flyer miles.” One travel agent, the story notes, “recently helped one of her clients design a trip using United miles for round-trip business-class tickets on Lufthansa from Chicago to Addis Ababa.” Great idea – if you’ve got, oh, I don’t know… maybe a trillion frequent flyer miles. Thanks New York Times!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Last Wednesday I went to the Bamako Zoo – one of the saddest places on earth. The lion just sat forlornly on a concrete pedestal inside a small (and filthy) cage. There was barely enough room for him to walk in a large circle, and there was nothing in the cage to stimulate him – no toys, no ropes, nothing. The chimpanzee was even more pathetic. He was sprawled out on his pedestal with a glazed-over look in his eyes that bespoke mind-warping boredom. It’s how those supermax inmates who spend 23-and-a-half hours in solitary confinement every day must look. Outside the warthog’s cage was posted a handwritten sign: “Please do not give cigarettes to the animals.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

Here’s one from the you-learn-something-new-every-day file: John McCain was not born in the United States of America. He was born in Panama – the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, to be precise. Article II of the Constitution says, “No Person except a natural born Citizen … shall be eligible to the Office of President.” So, is McCain a “natural born Citizen”? Most Constitutional scholars seem to think so. But I have my doubts.

Friday, March 09, 2007

R.I.P. John Vokovich

John Vukovich, a member of 1980 world champion Phillies, died of complications from brain cancer yesterday. He was 59. Curiously, three other men who played in the 1980 World Series – Ken Brett, Tug McGraw, and Dan Quisenberry – also died of brain cancer. That means the incidence rate of the disease among the 50 participants in that World Series is eight percent. Nationally the rate is less than .02 percent.
Did you see House this week? There was this guy with a really bizarre disease and nobody could figure out what it was. But then Dr. House limped along and, after a brief struggle with his personal demons, voila! – he figured it out! Gotta love that Hugh Laurie!

Actually, I didn’t see House this week. But I’m assuming that was the plot, because that’s the plot of every single House ever produced. Gilligan’s Island had more interesting and varied plotlines than House.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The mosquitoes are horrible right now. One got inside the netting around our bed last night and bit me a couple times before I finally woke up around four a.m. with two huge welts on my arm. I moved to the couch, but within minutes I heard that high-pitched buzzing in my ear – another mosquito. It was like some kind of sleep-deprivation experiment. Actually, it was more like torture. We asked the State Department’s exterminator in Washington – yes, the State Department has an exterminator – about the problem, and he e-mailed back and said we should remove all standing water from around the house. Fair enough, but we live on a river – the Niger River, to be precise – which at this time of year is basically a swamp. Kind of hard to remove that.

Meanwhile, our extremely neurotic cat Copernicus (a.k.a. Mr. C) began obsessively licking a spot on his back over the weekend. We have no idea why. He’s just weird. So we put one of those cones on his head (which we’d saved from the last time he obsessively licked himself). Well, he kept trying to lick the spot and eventually rubbed his chin raw on the cone. So now he has a sore on his back and one on his chin. The vet (Dr. Boubacar - pronounced "boob-uh-car" - love that name) is coming over on Friday to take a look at him. I’m hoping he prescribes some feline tranquilizers or something.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Did you see the eclipse last night? It was pretty awesome here in West Africa.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Our “consumables shipment” arrived last Friday. (We are permitted to have a certain amount of groceries shipped in once a year.) When I opened up the crate I thought, hmm, that seems to be a lot of cranberry juice – and cat litter. Turns out we accidentally received twice as much of both. We’re going to have the healthiest urinary tracts in Mali. And the cats will exercise theirs in only the freshest litter.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Around nine o’clock Friday night Allyson learned that her next post will be Rome. Our first choice was Berlin, but – believe me – we’re perfectly happy with Rome. We spent the weekend celebrating and daydreaming, but, fact is, we still have to spend another full year here in Bamako. Allyson’s tour ends in February 2008. Then she’ll go to Washington for six months of language training. So we won’t even get to Rome until August 2008. … I’ve already decided which soccer team I’m going to root for in Italy: Lazio. Sure it’s one of the neo-fascists’ favorite teams, but I just love those powder blue jerseys! … We’ve hired a part-time driver named Adama. He’ll work Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s a bit of an extravagance, but at eight dollars per day we can probably afford it. … Here’s a bit of friendly advice: When in West Africa during mosquito season – which means all the time – it’s a good idea to check the toilet bowl for mosquitoes before sitting down. Trust me on this one.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

So, when I was substitute teaching at the American school last Friday, the seventh graders were in the middle of watching The Diary of Anne Frank. They'd started watching the DVD the day before and I wasn't sure where they'd left off, so I asked them, "Did you get to the part where you find out which one is the robot?"

Blank stares.

Man, when I was in seventh grade that would have cracked me up. Still does, in fact. It's a classic! Kids today...

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Today the Marines sponsored a “photographic scavenger hunt.” It was pretty fun. We got a list of Bamako sights and had two hours to take digital photos of as many of them as possible. There were five teams. We drove all over the city, photographing various monuments, landmarks, and slices of life (the football stadium, donkeys, goats, foosball tables, etc.). Allyson and I teamed up with our friends Brad and Adair. We thought we’d done great but, of course, ended up finishing in last place! … Yesterday I was a substitute teacher at the American School here. I’ve offered to fill in when they’re in a pinch. Of course, I have no training, expertise, or even interest in teaching. But hey, it’s a hundred bucks a day. Yesterday I “taught” high school English, which is to say, the kids watched a DVD. My goal, however, was achieved: At the end of they day they were all still alive. And so was I. … I am putting the finishing touches on my book proposal and sending it to my agent on Monday. Fingers crossed, everybody. … Allyson will learn what her next post is by February 26 – and probably sooner. Keep those fingers crossed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Allyson is going to submit her bid list tomorrow:

1. Berlin, Germany
2. Rome, Italy
3. La Paz, Bolivia
4. Vilnius, Lithuania
5. Athens, Greece
6. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
7. Belfast, Northern Ireland
8. Taipei, Taiwan
9. Brasilia, Brazil
10. Mumbai, India
11. Sarajevo, Bosnia
12. Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
13. New Delhi, India
14. Paramaribo, Suriname
15. Nicosia, Cyprus
16. Brasilia, Brazil
17. Sofia, Bulgaria
18. New Delhi, India
19. Hanoi, Vietnam
20. Shanghai, China

Brasilia and New Delhi appear twice on the list because she is bidding on two different jobs in each city. There is a very strong likelihood that she will get one of the Top 5 jobs on her bid list. But there is also the possibility (however remote) that she (we) could be sent someplace that’s not even on the list.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I would like to call for a moratorium on the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” (and all variants) in stories about Lisa Nowak, our crazy diaper-wearing Astronaut stalker (e.g., “Houston, we have a love triangle problem”).

While I’m at it, it’s always bugged me that Ron Howard changed the line to “Houston, we have a problem” in the movie Apollo 13. What John Swigert (and, later, Jim Lovell) actually said after the explosion on Apollo 13 was “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” which really means something different altogether. At least he didn’t change it to “Houston, we literally have a problem.”

By the way, wouldn’t it be cool if Lisa Nowak married Steve Jobs and became Lisa Nowak-Jobs? Ironic, too.
True story: I went into a McDonald's once and detected some kind of commotion back in the kitchen – or that place near the microwaves that passes for a kitchen in a McDonald’s. Two young women were engaged in an animated discussion. I couldn’t make out the nature of their Socratic Dialogue, but at one point I clearly heard one of them blurt out to the other, “But girl, look how pink it is!” This, to me, raised all sorts of uncomfortable questions. I don’t know whether they were talking about something on the menu or a delicate matter of personal hygiene, but, whatever the source of said pinkness, it was the kind of thing you just don’t want to hear in a fast food restaurant – or any restaurant, for that matter – especially from the employees responsible for food preparation. It made me glad I’d only ordered a cup of coffee.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

On the way to Ouagadougou last month we stopped for the night in Banfora, a quaint (by West African standards) town in southwestern Burkina Faso. There was a really mean dog in the town, walking around growling and barking at everybody. The locals kept yelling at it: “Boosh! Boosh!” We thought it was the indigenous word for “dog” or maybe “go away,” but it turns out that, because it’s so mean, the dog has been named Bush. …

It looks like we won’t be going to Segou for that big music and arts festival this weekend after all. Too much work to do. We need to figure out Allyson’s bid list and I need to get my proposal done. …

Insect of the Week: Very tiny ants. Every afternoon (usually around three o’clock) hundreds (thousands?) of them march in a column from a light fixture, across the ceiling, down the wall, and into the cat food. Needless to say, it’s pretty gross. Not much we can do about it (besides hiding the cat food), but I’m sure they’ll all be gone next week, only to be replaced by much bigger ants or those huge roaches that fly or those tiny bugs that seem to come out of the shower drain or those really wispy insects that are practically invisible until they die and cover the kitchen counter by the hundreds (thousands?)…

Friday, January 26, 2007

My friends Scott and Deb Westcott e-mailed me this picture of their son Ben reading my book (which they got him for Christmas). Very cool! Incidentally, I learned this week that the book will be coming out in paperback this fall. … When you hear that someone “literally lost their head,” you can be pretty sure that the word “literally” is being misused. But not always! (Thanks to my friend Gary Andrew Poole for that one. By the way, Gary’s got a great blog called In the Fray. Check it out.) … Did the 1980 Phillies wear jerseys that zipped up or buttoned up? It’s a controversy that raged on this blog last fall. Well, new evidence has surfaced that the jerseys had zippers before 1987 and buttons thereafter. … Next weekend Allyson and I will be attending the annual Festival sur le Niger, a three-day African music and arts festival in Segou, about three hours up the river from Bamako. Accommodations in Segou are almost impossible to find during the festival, but friends who are renting a house have offered to share it with us. It’s supposed to be a pretty amazing festival, and we’re really looking forward to going.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Allyson and I just got back from Ouagadougou last night. What a trip, 600 miles/15 hours each way on some of the worst roads imaginable. One stretch had so many potholes we could barely go 10 mph.

On our way home yesterday, about 150 miles from Bamako, we had a blowout. We were going about 70 on a reasonably good stretch of road when we suddenly heard a very loud banging sound and the car started shaking. The tire was shredded. We were in the middle of nowhere. West Africa nowhere. It was kinda scary, but everything worked out. We flagged down two teenagers passing by on a motorbike, and they helped us change the tire. Actually, they didn’t help us change the tire – they changed the tire while we watched. I was so grateful that I gave them each 10,000 francs – about $20, probably as much as they make in two weeks.

While we were in Ouaga, Allyson got the “bid list” for her next job. There are hundreds of jobs on it, but only a handful in “public diplomacy,” the area that she wants to work in. We have to whittle the list down to 20 and submit it by February 15. Right now the Top 5 are, in no particular order: Skopje, Sofia, Jerusalem, New Delhi, and Bishkek. Of course, that could change. In fact I’m sure it will.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The weather in Bamako right now is actually quite pleasant. It’s the “cool season,” which means daytime highs are “only” in the 80s. But that’s still considerably more comfortable than it was before Thanksgiving, when highs were still approaching 100. … On Saturday, Allyson and I are driving to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. She has a two-week temporary assignment there. (The drive takes about 12 hours each way.) It’s our first big overland trip in West Africa, and we’re really looking forward to it. I just hope our vehicle holds up!