Everybody has their ‘Obama argument.” This is when one person holds a view, a theorem, a speculation, about Obama and the other person counters it passionately because we all feel invested in the man. But this wasn’t even an Obama argument, it started as one but then it became a Michelle Argument which is always even worse because it then becomes a gender argument.
The Blue team was like, surely Michelle must have some regrets about ‘shelving’ some of her dreams and aspirations to support Barack. Surely she must look back at her life and wonder what happened to some of her dreams, things she wanted as a person. The Red team was like, are you mad? She was the First Lady of The US of A! Everything she wanted had definitely been eclipsed by any other ambition she would have dreamt of. By far. Do you know her influence and power then and now? Do you know how many doors her name flings open? She can pick a cause, any cause…plastic or even orchid conservation…and it will be a raging movement tomorrow midday.
Blue Team: Fine, but maybe she didn’t necessarily want to be a First Lady, it was a consequence of her husband’s ambition! Maybe there is something she wanted for herself as Michelle, not as Michelle the First Lady.
Red Team: She talks about these things in her book ‘Becoming’ but then isn’t that how life works. You walk into a room and you find a new purpose. A better purpose.
Blue Team: I don’t know, man. I’m sure right now she must be looking back and thinking about Michelle who worked at the law firm and what she wanted and how this avalanche that was Obama just came and covered it.
Red Team. Oh, I also think she might not dwell on that too long, that she understands the good fortune she has had.
Yeah. That kind of argument. The type which isn’t resolved because someone always says, ‘you don’t know what you are talking about, you can’t speak for what a woman wants’ and then they go to the loo to powder their nose. Anyway, we agreed that we couldn’t agree on this one. When they came back they sat there and we sipped tea in brief silence before, totally unprovoked, she said, “You are turning 46 this year.”
I turned to look at her. My feet were up on a low wooden table. The type you fold and it turns into something that doesn’t look like a table anymore.
“Is this still about Michelle?” I asked her.
“No.” She chuckled, “But it just occurred to me that you are turning 46.”
She was born when the Berlin Wall went down, the end of the Cold War.
“It doesn’t feel like it, actually.” I said. “Just yesterday I was a boy wearing Bata shoes. I often still feel like that boy.”
“I think men really remain boys until they die.”
Yeah, it was still about Michelle. I did what Obama would have done, I ignored that statement.
“In fact, I don’t even think about age until someone mentions it. Often someone younger. Apart from my runner’s knees, I feel ageless for the most part. I feel like I can start over again. OK, I don’t, I wouldn’t want to but I feel anything but 46. In fact, my inside age is 31.” I paused to reflect on the 31. Next to me, a dying plant seemed to be taking deep breaths.
“What will you do?” She asked.
“About my age?”
“No, on your 46th.”
“Whatever it is, it will be smaller than what I will do at 50.”
“And what will you do at 50?”
“Even smaller. I like the idea of going to live in a village in Asia surrounded by rice paddies. Not too long, like two months or so. Maybe learn something vital about life, about people, about culture, food, religion. Or maybe learn a skill. I like the idea of wood, of carpentry. Or maybe I will just learn that I have been breathing all wrong all my years on earth. Maybe breathing will help me remain calm when incited…”
She chuckled and leaned way back in her seat.
“…maybe learn how to pray. I will spend my days riding a bicycle through small brown patches of road running next to mushy grounds, home to frogs that croak during the day. Maybe go about in something like a sarong, you know, just tie it around my waist and fr*k off. No underwear. Maybe not shave my armpits…sleep on a mat, no screw that, a thin mattress on the floor. Eat rice and drink tea that tastes like your attitude when you are losing an argument…”
She laughed. “I wasn’t losing any argument! I don’t think Michelle regrets anything. I think it’s ridiculous to imagine that there is anything she might have pursued that can be more important than being the First Lady of the United States.”
I said, “I disagree. There are tons of things that are more important than being the First Lady of the US.”
“Like changing the definition of ‘important.”
“Hmm.” She cocked her head. “You should write something about that.”
“All these, being 46 and your rice paddy and not shaving your armpit. Perspective.”
I said, “yeah, maybe I should.”
So here, random reflections about this stage of my life.
- School events/ fatherhood
I dislike them. Unlike Tamms, thankfully Kim doesn’t swim which means I can now miss the swimming galas. However, I have to attend all other school events that happen in big tents in wide fields and open skies. Plastic chairs and samosas. Water in very small bottles, like those feeding bottles for toddlers, which is great because it means you get an excuse to tear yourself from the proceedings and get a refill, you know, stretch your legs. Great for avoiding blood clots and to give your eardrums a break because for kids to perform they have to shutter your eardrums by screaming and squeaking in the microphone. Their shrill voices, projected by the microphone, can be heard all the way to heaven’s door. It often feels like a Banshees mating season under those tents. In fact, days after the event I will always still hear the very squeaky voice of a child screaming about global warming in my head. It’s terrifying.
I have a mild case of ADHD, so my concentration is usually so screwed after the first hour and half. I always wish for a helicopter to fly right over the tent and blow off the tent, fathers running helter skelter, children cheering up in glee and mothers in dresses screaming and pulling down their dresses as the helm of those dresses flap up their faces. Because that’s the only thing that can have the headmistress call off the event.
Maybe It’s a factor of age but I have increasingly grown very weary of those school events by just how long they take. The long endless speeches! It’s like eating soap.
I always sit there (at the back) thinking sardonically, how did I escape the long SDA services to suffer here in my later years in life? I normally look around the tent at the other parents who clap and cheer and sometimes raise their hands to speak and wonder guiltily if I’m not a good parent. Why are these parents enjoying this so much and I’m not?
I only go because it’s important for him. That he will remember when he’s an adult. He will never say, ‘my dad never came. He always had meetings.’
The reward for me in these long dreadful events is seeing my son in the school band in his baggy red and black uniform, like the Kenya Army Band, his big lovely eyes now twice their size as he blows the hell out of that shiny saxophone. During the last school function, I watched him on stage, standing behind a taller boy, cheeks puffing and collapsing, big eyes falling off his face, and thinking ‘Oh look at my adorable artistic boy, I need to buy him new shoes. His favourite sneakers looked like shoes you wear to maandamano.’
As saxophones and trumpets and other lung-filling instruments rent the air, I was aware of how fast he will grow up and leave and I will remember this moment, him on stage, me digesting two samosas. I wondered what kind of person he would turn into with his big trusting eyes and a heart that bruises easily. I wondered if I would be alive to see him chase his dreams and fail and try again and again, if he will make it, if he will be well adjusted. If he, in his community of artists or musicians, will meet and plunge heavily in an abyss of love with artsy girls with nipple piercings and tattoos of scorpions on their thighs. “Kim, your girlfriend, why are her eyes so red!” “It’s contact lenses, papa. It’s what’s in now.” “Oh, right, right, very bohemian. Do they come in other colours, perhaps?”
I watched him walking out on stage in a line of other boys and girls and wondered if he would ditch his piano and sax and say, “Papa, music is no longer for me, I want to try magic.”
“Yeah, you know, like bending spoons with my eyes.”
“Oh yeah, of course, of course. Let’s try that out, then. Yeah, let’s do the spoon thing.”
I worry that the world is too cruel and too cold for his pure heart. That soon his innocence will be snatched by the brutal hands of life. That he will be tainted and populated. I hope that he finds his God, whatever form. And I wish for a lifetime to see him cross difficult roads. Mostly, when I think of my age, I think of him. He’s too young and the road is too long and fraught with monsters and he needs a father for as long as he can.
Then there is Tamms…
Fifteen already. A young woman but also still a child.
One day over the school break she went for an evening walk around the estate. Later I asked her how the walk was and she said it was ‘okay, relaxing. But some random old guy said hello.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ “Yeah, but I ignored him,” she wrote. I said, “Well that will happen a lot now. You are a pretty girl, men will start saying hello. Just know who you are. Don’t be intimidated.”
She’s already so tall and so beautiful, almost passing off as a woman until you look at her face and realise Oh shit, she’s still a child. I pictured some sleazy, old man, who might have even been 28 or 32, slowing down his car to say hello and I felt something like fear curl into me like some, helplessness even, that her world is about to open so widely, and she’s about to face such scary choices and scary men and questions that will seem unfathomable and I will not be able to stand in the way of some of her choices and decisions. I know that in three years she will be gone. The world will swallow her. She will swim away and find her own school of fish. And that’s wild because just yesterday I was holding her hand to cross a road.
I interviewed a lady called Vicky Karuga and she was telling me about trauma and children. How raising a child now in his 20s turns out to be more daunting than a much younger child who is still at home and you can see all the time. When they leave for university, you don’t have control. How one time her phone rang at 3am and it was his son, he had been beaten by a mob of boys. Now she can never sleep when he is out. How the trauma of the first phone call, the one about the beating, still lives in her body. And it felt scary listening to her. Because when they are out there they could get into cars driven by someone drunk or they could be in an apartment with people with guns or drugs or a tattoo of a snake on their neck.
But what to do? They are like ship; you build the best ship and you let it sail off into the sea where it will meet great weather and bad storms and you hope it finds its way.
II. On Death
My blood sugar and BMI are normal. I have always had a little bit more bilirubin than the next guy but someone has to have more bilirubin, right? Otherwise how do we expect bilirubin to live its life? I do a Prostate Specific Antigen test every year. My sugar is fine. My pressure is normal. I swim. I run sometimes. I don’t use a pillow. Apart from chapos and burgers I don’t eat too badly. And if chapos are to kill me, then I guess chapos should kill me. Because I’m not giving up on chapos.
I never go over 110km/hr on highways. I don’t drink and drive. I don’t get in cars driven by drunks. I don’t go to concerts or soccer matches in stadiums because I hate crowds, which means nobody will ever trample over me, or stone me or put their hands in my pocket.(Not fatal, just embarrassing) If I get a pain in my knee, I will see a doctor. If a cough doesn’t go away in two days I will see a doctor. If I can’t stop blinking too much, I will see a doctor. I don’t Google symptoms, I just see a doctor. The disease that will sneak up on me deserves to kill me.
However, I realise that a tree might fall on me. Or I might not wake up from a nightmare about a whole gang of fruits chasing me, wanting to make a smoothie of me. A rattlesnake might bite me outside my simba. A drunkard might ram into me as I wait at the lights at 11pm. A Nightrunner might pee on me, mistaking me for a tree. Death might come in many forms that I can’t even fathom. I am aware of all these. I know I will die. I just don’t think about it.
My mom had varicose veins then she died from complications brought about by a blood clot. I have a varicose vein on the back of my right leg. It aches sometimes. When I fly for over fours I wear compression socks like a 90 yr old and take aspirins during the flight. I also occasionally see Professor Ogola, my mom’s cardiologist, every so often for tests. Still, I will die.
I suspect that a blood clot is the bugger that will finally kill me one day. I can’t do anything about that. However, if I keel over and die after writing this sentence, the only regret I will have is not seeing my kids as adults. Because I’m living the life I wanted. I’m not half-assing it. I’m not living in fear or regret. Sure, I would love to meet Kagame and Obama but come on, there are more serious things in life. Like hair grafting.
Elixir of Life.
Quite often someone of interest, an industry champion, I’m interviewing invites me to their home for an interview. These are homes that journalists love to describe as palatial. They often feature massive grounds, looming homes with winding wooden staircases. Rugs so thick you can hear the animals they came from sigh when you walk over them. I’m usually led into darkened studies, not living rooms. There is always a scented candle burning in these homes. Or a cat napping on the thick arms of a settee. These are cats that can tell you don’t belong from how they raise their heads slightly when you walk in and turn away, defeated by your mere plebeian presence. Rich folk decor seems to be neutral colours. Once I walked into a home and found a fire actually going in a fireplace. A real fire! I just stood there staring at it until a uniformed domestic manager came and I asked her dramatically, ‘Is it real?’ and she laughed. Three weeks ago, I went to interview this guy in Runda – the original Runda, not this other Runda with imposters. While I sat in my car waiting outside his gate I briefly wondered if I should hoot but also knew in my bones that in such a neighbourhood you don’t hoot. However, the gate suddenly slid open like Ali baba’s cave [Of course he’d seen my car in the CCTV) and I drove him to find him seated outside his garage, the gate remote in his hand and a long luxurious W220 S Class, the colour of deep envy, idling in the sun amongst other cars. “I have to warm her engine every morning,” he explained. I ask all of these people about money and almost all of these people talk introspectively about the value of less. I never miss the irony, of course.
Here is another thing. Never have I left those homes thinking, ‘Oh I wish I had a home like that. Or I wish I had a car like that guy I have just interviewed. Or I wish I had a cat with a neck that white and that thick.’ There is no one single person I have interviewed who I wished I had their lives. Not because I didn’t admire their lives, I did. I loved the W220 S but it’s not even the car I loved but the very idea of it. I don’t admire a massive house with six bedrooms and seven baths. If I can’t hear a cup fall in one of the bedrooms I don’t want that house.
I know where that comes from.
A few years ago I joined other journalists and some blue chip types for an elaborate seven-course lunch in some ritzy restaurant in Paris. When I say seven-course I meant that we were not eating food, we were eating art. Food came in small globs and leaves served in mad synchrony by gloved waiters with faces that looked sculptured. You waited between courses and during that time you were expected to engage in stimulating conversation. Guess who sat to my right?
The Chairman and CEO of Schneider Electric. He was in his mid-fifties, very French, very trim, sleek suit, very white shirt, no tie. Very unassuming fellow.
We somehow got talking about the excesses of buffet as a concept. How we don’t eat more than our fists. He told me that his three kids had left the nest and they had sold the home the kids had grown in and moved to a smaller house. He went everywhere on a bicycle. During winter he drove a small electric car because men like that care about carbon footprint. I asked him, “So what do you use your money for?” And he said philanthropy and buying skiing equipment. He said skiing gave him joy and he didn’t spare the cost of the best equipment. He told me how, like the concept of the buffet, we don’t need a lot as humans. That most of it is wastage, thrown away after a meal.
“Live a small life, not a life of abundance.” He said and that’s probably the most important thing I have ever been told in an interview. Well, apart from, “eat your beetroot, Jackson.” His words rang in my head on the flight back and when I waited for my luggage at the carousel in JKIA. I realised that he was also talking about contentment. And I truly think that’s the secret to happiness.
Have a wonderful Easter, Gang.