Easter with Bonga

Jennifer and I got to Lisbon on Easter Sunday. We thought everything would be closed but there were several discount shoe stores doing a brisk business and a guy in a three-piece suit levitating above Rua Augusta.

That night we checked into This is Lisbon (awkwardly but not inaccurately referred to on their website as a “charm hostel”) where we were treated to (paid a nominal fee for) a dinner of traditional dishes and a performance of Brazilian music by a trio of guys the hostel employees were friends with. After the concert we talked with the musicians for a while and wound up accompanying them to a bar in the Alfama neighborhood, a labyrinthine remnant of Moorish times and one of the only areas in the city to survive the 1755 earthquake.

We stopped outside a door where a few people were smoking cigarettes but that was otherwise unremarkable. After Gonzalo pounded on the door a visibly drunken woman opened the door and ushered us in to a packed, steamy room where people were drinking and dancing to the sounds of some of the happiest, most uplifting music I ever heard. Two guys playing guitar and singing, another playing bass and a fourth playing percussion, if I remember correctly.

After they were finished the singer told me it was the music of Bonga, an Angolan who came to Portugal as a track star in the sixties but later turned to music, which got him in trouble with the Portuguese regime at that time. The next week I found a copy of his album Angola 74 at the Thieves Market, and was able to identify the song I heard as a cover of his song “Marika.” When you listen to it you might be able to get a taste of what for me was one of the most enjoyable Easters since the good Lord rose from the grave.


Napping… without any church bells to mark the hours. Waking up and hitting the wordpress after seven months in Chateau D’If.

Now I’m back in Kansas and it’s time to get back to business. I have not posted here in the last few months for two main reasons. One, I did not have routine Internet access. Two, I was not sure exactly what to post in the first place.

In the past I have written about my life and travels in an amusing and somewhat journalistic fashion. This is what I did, this is something you should listen to, here are some photos and captions. All the time writing what are likely much more interesting or at least experimental things in various notebooks, loose sheets of paper, the walls of my sequestered, high-security compound.

It’s time to come out of the closet.

What I mean is there is no point in posting personal writing if it’s not going to be somewhat personal, no point in squirreling away the only nuts that might be worth hatching. But personal as in what I had for lunch is quite boring, and you can always get that on twitter. Persona as in the various modes and moods we all pass through each day, the in-between states in which actually interesting writing arises.

Of course blogging is all an experiment, and I must admit to being currently under the heavy, heady influence of the likes of Bernard Soares (whose city and dream states I just visited) and Joe Joubert (whose writing and nasal bridge I admire). I plan to vary the length of my posts but remain consistent in the frequency with which I post — daily, at least during the week, and sometimes probably more. The photos of Natalya Bond aka Jennifer Wetzel will still play a big part.

Please post comments, and feel free to be as contentious, uncomplimentary or long-winded as you like. I’m not posting on behalf of my ego, so you don’t need to comment just to tell me something is well-written if you don’t feel like it. On the other hand, I’m posting almost entirely on behalf of my ego, so I plan to be as arty and pretentious as possible when the occasion arises.

In conclusion, it’s good to be back in the Midwest, to be working in newspapers and publishing again, to have a high-speed connection between the inside and the outside worlds. I’ve always compared blogging to peering into and looking out of windows, so I’ll most likely be talking and linking back to you as well.

Love from Westwood, and good to see you again.


Postcards from Europaplatz

Monday mornings I teach lessons at an office park in Erfurt that always seems to be covered in fog or frost. To get there you have to ride all the way to Europaplatz, the end station on tram lines #1 and #3. Going to work at an office complex in a foggy valley at the end of a small East German city probably sounds depressing, but I enjoy it. The free coffee helps. And also knowing that even though I start at 8:00 on Monday morning, my work week there lasts only a few hours.

Across from the building I work in is a field, and on the other end of that field is a McDonalds. The McDonalds is just off a highway exit and seems fairly inaccessible by foot unless you go crashing directly through the field — a misty, frosted terrain full of burger wrappers and what look like tumbleweeds. I was pretty hungry one day and thought about making the trek, but the idea of stumbling into the foggy wilderness to get to the golden arches seemed too obvious and poignant a symbol for a lost American boy trying to get home. In those conditions the giant “M” might as well have stood for “Mirage.” So, I turned around, caught the tram back into town, and ate at the McDonalds in the central train station instead.

On the way there I saw this juxtaposition of buildings — a boxy modern structure behind a timbered house. Not a bad summing up of the architectural coexistence of the middle ages and the DDR.

And to close, a more classic shot — the Cathedral Square at a moment of extreme fog and sun, birds flying over the monument and a line of people at the Thüringer Rostbratwurst stand.

Brocken Harz club

Charging to the top of the Brocken / Where what once was broken / Can be forgotten

This fragment is my contribution to the wealth of literature about Germany’s most mysterious mountaintop, the Brocken. Most mentions include depictions of the witches’ revelry on Walpurgisnacht, such as in Goethe’s “Faust,” but I didn’t see any witches myself. Just a bunch of tourists stumbling through the freezing fog.

Jenn and I decided to visit the peak on my 30th birthday, ascending via narrow-gauge steam railway, a 19 km ride from Wernigerode that took almost two hours. Most of the journey offered clear views of the surroundings, but when we got to the top we found we couldn’t see anything. The red-and-white television tower — home of a Soviet spy station in the cold war times — was almost completely hidden from view, which was amusing considering you can usually see the thing from dozens of miles away.

Instead of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, I reflected on Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus,” which I finished reading last month. The book contains very little overt occultism, instead raising some disturbing questions about the artistic process. Must one really sell one’s soul to complete a work of true genius? Such is the case for Mann’s composer character Adrian, whose speech at the end is so tragic and ridiculous it makes the preceding 500 pages well worth it.

Me? I’d rather be a minor poet, slugging Hasseroder Pils from the platform of the rickety old train, speeding toward a dinner of farmer’s potatoes and bacon in a cosy restaurant near the town’s famous rathaus.

Thanks everyone for the kind birthday wishes (especially Private Cho calling from the Korean Border!) and I will be in touch with more e-mails and posts soon. In the meantime, you can see more pictures of the journey here.

Tear them down and paint them over

Though Berlin natives and resident ex-pats often write it off as a schmaltzy tourist attraction that hasn’t held up over the years, The East Side Gallery is still a lively, colorful representation of the city’s divided history. Last week Jennifer put together a slideshow of some of the paintings, which were created by artists from all over the world. As she said on her website:

The photographs displayed in the slideshow are not a complete representation of each section of the gallery, but instead a selection of a few personal favorites, chosen because of a particular composition or color pattern. The former presence of the wall, mentally and socially, becomes less and less apparent over time…

It’s neat to look at this over 20 years after the wall came down, especially in light of the revolutions currently taking place in the Arab world. It’s as if the same peaceful populist spirit that brought the iron curtain down has shifted to the Mideast, and I’ve noticed that people here share the excitement and are paying close attention, as are so many others around the world.

Hope this brightens your Monday, and more later in the week.

Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure

Although I resigned my post as editor and co-founder of KCFreePress.com back in May 2010, I never took any real opportunity to explain why. But being away for a while has given me some perspective on the experience, so I thought I’d take the time to talk about what happened at KCFP and what I learned from the whole thing.

For those of you who didn’t visit the site during its short tenure, KCFP was an online publication launched by Jeff Henry, the owner of BigShot marketing and a former Pitch sales guy who always wanted to create something similar on his own terms. I was introduced to Jeff through a colleague at Universal Press and quickly went about outlining the site and recruiting different people to take part, including executive editor Jay Senter (who now publishes PVPost.com) and Emily Farris, a talented freelance writer for several national sites.

With the help of about two dozen freelancers, we launched a site that focused on a wide range of local news and events, publishing about 20 stories a week along with photo galleries, video features, polls and an extensive events calendar. Though the initial efforts were met with enthusiasm, solid readership and a genuine belief that we were doing something new, financial issues and lack of resources caught up with us rather quickly. After the last of the initial crew quit last summer, the site stayed up under Jeff’s leadership until someone finally flipped the switch in October 2010.

Though KCFP was unsuccessful on many levels, the experience was highly educational, and it’s with that spirit that I’d like to offer these 15 hard-earned guidelines for anyone wishing to enter the wild world of local online publishing.

Continue reading “Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure”