Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Logan: Post-Christian, Anti-Pelagian Film

Saw Logan the newest movie about the character known as the The Wolverine whose origin is found in comic books, and the last film with Hugh Jackman playing the titular role. It's going to leave me thinking for days, and I think people will be talking about this film for some time.
The movie, which was quite good, is a refutation of the basic worldview of the other superhero movies, which is essentially Pelagianism, an early Christian heresy that taught we could achieve salvation through our own efforts. But as it rejects Pelagianism, it simultaneously mourns, from the filmmakers' viewpoint, that there is no other source of hope—especially the metaphysical hope of Christianity—to replace it.
A short aside to the main points that I want to make. There is a scene early in the second act that cemented that this was not "another superhero movie." During the first act, our protagonist is drunk, the violence gory, lots of f-bombs are dropped, and we see a naked breast. But Deadpool already did that, and that only says "see, we can make 'adult' superhero movies." Boring. In the scene that grabbed me, our protagonists are making an escape by car, and Logan turns the car toward a fence and floors it. Yawn, I thought. We've seen this in almost every action movie. We get a shot of Logan concentrating and gripping the steering wheel creating false tension that they might not break through, then BAM, exaggerated sigh of relief, and they escape.
Only they don't. They seriously damage the fence, but they can't make it past; the strength of the fence is too much, and there's too much wire for them to make it through, so they have to back up. Entire action movie genre subverted all at once. I think we're going to see a lot of comparisons between Logan and the "death of superhero movies" to Unforgiven (to which Logan owes a lot) and the death of Westerns (in an extended comparison of movies, Deadpool=superhero parody::Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles=Western parody). Now to the more philosophical musings:
The movie takes place in a future a few decades beyond our own, at a time after the heroes have failed, and all are dead and gone, remembered only from the pages of a few remaining comic books. The only familiar faces left are Logan, "the Wolverine," and Charles Xavier, "Professor X". You don't have to have seen the other X-Men movies to understand the characters, but it does make Logan all the more elegiac if you've seen Patrick Stewart play, at some point, the idealist mutant who though physically disabled and wheel chair bound has at his control enormous telepathic abilities (and intellect), along with the team of other mutants he's assembled, the X-men, to help him pursue his dream of mutated humans and baseline humans living in peace. In Logan, however, though Charles retains his idealism, he has Alzheimer's and can no longer control his powers, often putting himself and those around him in danger. Without that control and intellect at his command, the dream is impotent.
It is telling that of all the mutant superheroes Logan, who has always been a character skeptical of Xavier's dream, is the only other of the X-men to survive, barely. Logan, too, is feeling the ravages of age. His rapid healing ability and retractable metal claws, which he can extend to use as weapons, have both slowed to a crawl.
The driving conceit of the film is that an amoral corporation, using DNA collected from the various mutants of yore, have bred in a laboratory their own army of mutants, and one of them was manufactured from Logan's DNA, a daughter of sorts. I think it's intentional that in the movie the purpose this manufactured army is never made clear. It doesn't matter—there is no evil villain in this movie, no secret plot for world domination—evil is not grand, it's petty. The "daughter" mutant has been smuggled away from the corporation, and placed in Logan and Xavier's hands to protect and transport to "Eden" a supposed safe haven for mutants.
The plot is standard superhero fare, but the movie rejects what would normally be the Pelagianistic response to the plot. In superhero movies, by having the right tools (powers), will, and dedication, evil will be defeated, though evil exists on fairly equal terms with the good guys (so we also get hints of Manicheanism). This is a fair reflection of the worldview held by the majority: with enough technological progress and good political systems/social engineering, we can defeat social evils and create paradise. By placing Logan in a future where superheroes have failed (and not coincidentally, science and social engineering are being used for evil), the film clearly states that superheroes, even at the height of their power, are not enough to overcome evil. Evil persisted and won. In Logan, Pelagius was dead wrong.
But in the movie, this defeat of goodness is mourned. In other movies in which the world is dystopian and amoral (eg. Mad Max), the "heroes" are equally amoral and fighting not so much for good or virtue but neutral values such as liberty or survival. The lack of virtue in the protagonists of these movies is neither celebrated nor criticized. Logan, on the other hand, has given up on virtue, but this is clearly mourned in the film. Charles Xavier pronounces Logan a failure because he lives only for survival and is no longer moved by Xavier's dream for peace; and we're meant to sympathize with Xavier. Logan is also poisoned from within by the very tools he used to fight evil with but cannot die due to his healing ability. He's not looking for a solution, however, unless you count the "silver" adamantium bullet he carries around that he believes is the only thing that can truly kill him. Logan has given in to despair, and the film and audience pities him for it.
What makes the film truly bold and interesting is that after rejecting the Pelagianism, Logan holds forth Christianity and asks if it can possibly still offer hope to the world in place of a Manichean war against evil fought by Pelagius's army. The answer, surprisingly, is not an indifferent, stark, nor sarcastic "no" but a wailing keen.
Hereafter lie spoilers ... so be forewarned.
There are two and a half peaceful moments in this film which is otherwise bloody, violent, and unrelenting. One is when Logan, Xavier, and the "daughter," Laura, are resting in a hotel. Xavier and Laura are lying on the hotel bed watching the movie Shane. Four scenes from Shane are shown to us: the villain shooting down an innocent, a funeral at which the "Our Father" is prayed, Shane defeating the villain, and Shane's farewell. The second peaceful moment is with a family of farmers who offer a night's rest to the trio as they flee the company that manufactured Laura. There they share a meal together (which the family prays over), reminisce about the X-men, and have a night of genuine rest, that our idealist Xavier tries to get Logan to appreciate for the sake of itself, and later calls it "the most perfect night he's had in quite some time." The last half-moment of rest comes when Logan and Laura come at last to Eden, a blatant Christian allusion, but find that it is a not a final safe haven, but another way-station before Laura, reunited with the other manufactured mutant children, will make their way to political asylum in Canada.
Each of these moments of rest offers Christianity as a possibility of hope, and each is denied in turn.
Super spoilers ahead.
Logan dies at the end of the movie, and the children bury him under a cairn where Laura speaks at the foot of the grave. She quotes Shane here, but instead of praying the Our Father as she saw at an actual funeral scene, she quotes the farewell scene:
"A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can't break the mould. I tried it and it didn't work for me. Joey, there's no living with a killing. There's no going back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand. A brand sticks. There's no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley."
No redemption, no salvation, and no hope in God. And while there "aren't any more guns in the valley" at the end of the movie, both Shane and Laura know there are still guns beyond the valley, and always will be, and they will likely return with time.
At the family dinner, as I mentioned, the family prays over the meal, but our protagonists trio doesn't answer "Amen" with the family, but just smiles tolerantly, even the idealist Xavier. Xavier's hope is not in God but in his own dream. The family, who is Christian, has hope and joy in their family bonds and this is presented as both genuine and good. Xavier recognizes this, explicitly pointing it out to Logan. However, both the family and Xavier are brutally slaughtered at break of dawn, just as Xavier has called it his "most perfect night."
Returning to Logan's funeral and the final shot of the film. One of the children, likely not from any faith but tradition, placed a cross at the head of Logan's grave. As the children leave the grave, Laura, the daughter, takes the t-shaped cross and turns it so that makes instead an "X". While, the more superficial reading of this is nothing beyond either "Logan was truly an X-man" or acknowledging his origins as "Weapon X", I think it's also meant to be a final rejection of Christianity in the film: the saving Cross is transformed into an X, null—there will be no Resurrection. But again, this rejection of Christianity in the film is not just blithely assumed, ignored, or celebrated. This happens, after all, at a funeral. The film sees our world as post-Christian, mourns it as such and even eulogizes its death, but doesn't propose a return to Christianity as the solution either.
The film lingers for a few seconds beyond this rejection of the cross to watch the children still walking toward Canada. They have not made it; we don't get to see success, but only the slow march on. The only hope is to keep moving, there's no assurance of making it to something better than the journey of life we're living.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Shell of an RPG system?

Blogger Aaron Parr's "Choosing from what Remains" muses on narrated consequences for actions in an RPG and player choice from a list of consequences created by the other players. His version of this would have the specific outcomes created for each action of consequence as it happens, the number of those outcomes reduced, with the acting player choosing the outcome from the remaining choices.

I like the idea but it seems like a lot of creative energy to put into each action of consequence especially when most of the created outcomes are "lost" once the decision is made. So I created the shell of a RPG system with the onus of creative narration reduced to one player, occurring after player's choice from among a presented set of generic outcomes (and no need to write out the specific outcomes):

Each player gets a suit of cards (if more than four players, hopefully someone has a deck with non-standard suits to add to the mix). Each card represents a generic possible outcome of an action:

Generic Outcomes
A) action succeeds with unexpected bonus
K) action happens as player intended
Q) action succeeds but not as well as hoped
J) Jack's are wild, player narrates outcome
10) action succeeds but with negative consequence for character (e.g. found the lost tome, goes insane on reading it)
9) action interrupted to character's advantage
8) action interrupted without consequence
7) action interrupted to character's disadvantage
6) action fails - no consequence
5) action fails - character can't make more attempts but no other consequence (eg. computer locks out on failed hacking attempt)
4) action fails - negative consequence to character (or allies?)
3) action fails with terrible consequences to character
2) action fails, but goal achieved (eg. missed shot ricochets to hit target)

When a player takes an action of consequence, all other players may "play" up to three cards of their choice from their suit. The combined cards are shuffled, a number of cards based on the player's skill level (I'm imagining a 1-5 scale of abilities/skills) are flipped face up. Player picks card of choice from face up cards; the player whose suit is picked gets to narrate the outcome.

Cards played for that action are discarded. When a player plays all their cards, they retrieve their discarded suit, randomly remove one card, and then may use the remaining cards as before.

Players who play more cards up front get fewer chances to effect narrative as play goes on. Players who offer too many success outcomes get left with only failures to play as the narrative continues. The ideal here is for cooperative play, and

One area that I know needs work is the inherent potential for players "playing their cards right" so that at really important actions, especially the climatic conflict, they can all play just successes. Which could be part of the cooperative play goal; cards are played not so that *I* win, but when the stakes are high we're all able to help each other succeed. If the agreed goal is to get the troupe to succeed at the story objective—we're playing only comedies—I suppose that's fine. After all, we go to comedies to expect a happy ending. The challenge for the players then is to know that even ending on success there should be the illusion of challenge; which when we go to a comedy, we suspend our knowledge of the outcome even when we know it will be positive.

However, this still doesn't sit satisfactorily; I feel like there should always be at least some chance for failure, otherwise there's no stake. I think the reason most role-players play with dice is because there's always the chance for failure, no matter how maxed out your character is. This creates tension, which is part of the experience of story.

Mr. Parr, responding to this "system" first posted on Google+ offered that "even" players (in relation to the player declaring an action) could only play successes while "odd" players can only play fails. This does increase narrative creativity, as then each turn of play, a player has to anticipate a different type of outcome to narrate, which I like. I could also see narrator players can always play 2 or 3 cards and one of them HAS to be a failure, the remaining card is their choice.

Anyway, still working on that bit. But maybe I'll try to drag some people over to play out this strange idea ...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Ta'Narack

An old story dredged up from almost a decade past; it's pretty bad, but entertaining.

The Ta'Narack
By David M. Mayeux

I traveled to the pubs where sailors sat and drowned memories of their mistress the wine-dark sea her terrible siren call. Libations were made to mother earth in hope that she might cradle them once more in her arms and shield them from the temptation of the fickle sea. I listened for tales of sunken treasure and the fearsome kraken, or advice on how to keep one's heart form desolation when separated by endless leagues from those they love and cherish. But this night, all the travelers of the whales' road held their tongues and made their silent prayers of drink.

I feared that nothing would come of my night's excursion when one sailor, gaunt and chin flecked with a sea-salt beard began to speak, the glow from the solitary candle on his table dancing in his eyes. His voice whispered, and yet it was heard all too clear above the wind, and even when the wind howled with fury, he did not raise his voice, yet still he could be heard and this stilled our souls in fear and wonder.

"We had traveled to the edge of the world, to the places marked 'Here be Dragons,' and dragons we saw, and much beside. We traveled as far as the Isles of Kathoon, for we'd heard rumor of spices and oils whose very scent and sight of shifting colors in their smoke could transport men to the lands of dreams, where all desires might be fulfilled.

"And the strange dark men, dark from tattoo and the dream smoke they were ne'er far from, gladly traded with us, took our stores of silks and opals in exchange for their queer herbs and incense, and yet they did so with such a leer and frightening glance we were given pause and wondered at the deal we'd made.

"And yet their hospitality could not be rivaled as they brought us to their feasts and filled our stores with good meat and barley and jars of fiery wine, all spiced and pungent with the spice of dreams.

"A week we stayed there, and under their calm direction they showed us our fantastic dreams. We traveled to the kingdoms of Tabrinth and Laize whose cities are carved into the living rock of the Mountain of Shadow, and saw the kingdoms of cats and gryphons on the far side of the moon. We traveled with the prophets of Time on the river of souls and saw the places where the Lord of Rule and Kaos meet once every eon to dine and sing songs that keep the universe on its eternal whirling dance.

"But the winds changed, and the time was ripe to return to the sea. The men of Kathoon gathered on the shore and with zither and hors of ivory, played haunting songs whose notes hung on till we lost the sight of their glittering city.

"For three days we had fair winds and peaceful nights, and our spirits were bright with the journey and the amber spiced wine that warmed our throats. Each night, the spice returned us to the wondrous lands we had been shown and we wandered the realms of dream seeking out its treasures of story and song.

"Then, on the fourth day out to sea, the boson dreamed that he was walking in the perfumed gardens of the Kaliph Al-Hazrad, and he picked on of the silver Lunesca flowers. When he was startled awake by the ship's bell, the petals, slightly crushed were still in his hand. He showed the crew, and all were amazed to see the dream stuff solid in his hands, its blissful odor filling the cabin. Then you could see the gleams in our eyes and had we not all been infected with greed, we might have seen what evil would be wrought. What we saw before us were the untold treasures of our dreams--the gold and silver plate of the countless courts, the jewels, sapphires, rubies and opals, that served to adorn the idols of the endless small gods, the exotic spices, the finest silks, all could be brought back from our dreams.

"For nine days our ship wandered like the Flying Dutchman, and a ghost ship we might as well have been for no one on the ship stayed awake for long. If woke we did, it was merely to store our treasures, stolen, hoarded and robbed form the realms of Morpheus, and then return to the narcotic sleep of the Kathoon Spice. We had turned pirate and highwaymen, robbers of the phantasms, while our corporal bodies wasted away, but we grew rich and richer still and told ourselves we'd wake when we had enough. And so we plundered, and as we hoarded we drained the lands of those who'd served as hosts and had offered us nothing but hospitality, and to avoid their newborne wrath, we drifted farther from the bright civilized lands of Oneiros, toward the greyer, darker borders.

"It was on that thirteenth day at sea, though years had seemed to pass in dreams, that the first mate's screams woke us all. Unused to the waking world, and our bodies week from atrophy, we stumbled to his hammock but could not make out what was wrong till we were right upon him. I will not describe the horrors that were done unto his body, and truth be told, the madness of that night has ripped it blissfully form my memory.

"But the smell of the dead I'll ne'er forget and the realization of our feet stuck fast to the planks by his blood. His arms were flung before him as if he'd grappled with some horrible foe, and his eyes were frozen wide with terror. As the cabin boy turned to be sick, though none of us had eaten for days and had not stomach to lose, he noticed that which made our souls sick with horror. On the planks were footprints marked with the first mate's blood that went off into the hold. Footprints no mortal man could make, but only from a creature of Nightmare's realm.

"Scarce few of us—minds and bodies still weakened by the Kathoon's spice—thought to grab up pistol and sword to guard against whatever hid in the shadows of the ship. Many were lost to shock, eyes staring at the distant abyss, and others began to gibber and quail--the sound of their maddened keening filled the ship and wore at all our nerves and fears.

"Finally, a dim grey light filled the lower decks, Dawn had risen with rose-tipped fingers to shine again on the cursed sea. We took the first mate's body, wrapped it in plundered silks for a shroud, and by the light of the rising sun cast the first of our dead into the wine-dark sea.

"With the horror of the body committed to the ocean's depths and the risen sun came a hope that with the light, perhaps the nightmare had returned to the Land of Nod. There was no sight of it, nor sound, though none of us dared venture too far into the hold, and with gladdened hearts that we had survived many set to restoring the ship and charting our course to home again.

"But no sooner had the heat of the noonday's sun began to fade than the terrible report of gunshot rang out followed by the yet more terrible scream of man, inhuman in its terror. Once more men began to break down and weep but those of harder hearts screamed for their silence--the cries of distress tearing at their sanity. Finally, the captain and I, armed futilely with pistol and sword descended down into the Hell that was the lower decks.

"The cook we found and one other of the crew, both slaughtered, both mutilated as they had gotten food to prepare for dinner. Twelve of us now were left upon that cursed ship.

"Before we could stop them, two of the crew screamed they would not die here and gorged themselves on the Kathoon spice to escape to dreams. I myself slit their throats and cast their bodies in the sea for we all feared what terrors they might return with.

"The steersman and one sailor we lost to babbling madness; we bound them gagged to the mast for their safety and our sanity. Their screams, those terrible insane screams still ring within my ears. We eight who were left, we closed and barred the doors to the hold and sat in alternating watches, hunger gnawing at our bellies, sleep clawing at our eyes and mortal dread keeping us from satisfying both.

"Those not on watch holed up in the captain's cabin our eyes red with tears and exhaustion, fear and sickness brought by lack of food and drink. As they sun began to set, darkness grew in our hearts. The hours, minutes, seconds sped to fast with the suns last rays dying from the earth. The sun set. It must have crawled out of the cannon ports for the hold's doors were still barred when in a moment of bravado I rushed to save my fellow crew from whatever drew their screams.

"But no bravery, no courage served me when I saw the creature bent o'er the bodies of the cabin boy and the navigator. Though the moonlight shone upon it, I could not make out its features, but I could see all too clearly, the image burns my eyes, that boy and mate were still alive as the creature feasted. Terror welled within me and oblivion took me as I fainted on the deck.

"When terrible consciousness returned, the nightmare was nowhere to be seen. I turned my head form the bodies of my mate and the boy and returned to the captain's cabin. Of the six, I drew the short straw. To return to dreams, to find what ways could kill the monster the first mate had unleashed upon us. The captain held the gun that would kill me should I seem to be faced with yet another horror that might threaten to return with waking, and still we did not know if the hidden thing would find us there. And I slept.

"In the dark and shadowlands, I found myself, and over months of Nightmare Time, I followed rumor and signs of where the first mate had been. I was pursued by many a faceless thing, confronted versions of myself and loved ones that were always wrong and searched many haunted realms, when at last I am to the Tombs of the Emperors of the Desert Waste of Nuhl. There the first mate had been plundering the tombs to fuel our greed for dreamland treasure.

"I descended to those shadowy crypts with flickering torch to find whatever clue might save us from that creeping Death. There in the gloomy dark I found those ancient kings, fierce and mighty warriors they had been, now laid upon their biers, taken by that cold Death that comes for all. Each was surrounded by the fantastic treasure, treasure that had drawn the first mate here those many . . . what? years? months? Had it only been last night in the distant world of men? Even now I was tempted by that wealth, even in face of horror. But a sharp cry from deeper in the crypts focused my mind and fear and I searched about till I found the inscription.

"'Here we lie, the warrior kings of Nuhl
vast and mighty was our Empire
terrible and swift our sweeping armies
here we lie with treasures got from distant lands
and wrought by magic in dwarven halls.
Know you who might steal our treasures
intended for the Lands beyond Life
that guarded they lie and cursed you'll be,
who disturb their place, by the Ta'narack
the Barrow Wight, who feasts upon the living flesh
and yet leaves the dead as the soul doth flee.
Across Time and Space our curse will follow
and none escape the Creeping Dread.'

"I fell to my knees and wept. Hope all but fled my heart. I cursed those fallen Kings of Nuhl and raged against their greedy pride and ours. And as my curses faded in the darkness, in reply came a low holing that drew louder with each wail. I bolted to my feet and up the long passageways to the desert surface not daring to look behind. My legs and lungs burned and yet the howls grew nearer in the dark and I could feel the barrow wight’s presence at my back. In final desperation I drew my pistol and racing in the inky black I shot my hand.

“Screaming and sobbing with pain, I woke facing the captain’s pistol. My hand was bleeding, and its bones shattered. The captain released the hammer and said, ‘two hours. Three more dead.’ His eyes grew dark when I told him what I’d seen. His face grew hard, and he left the cabin for the deck silently. There was no scream, only a gunshot and a splash.

“Beside the men insane, who’d been left thus far untouched by the barrow wight, there was only myself and one other. Carter his name was, Carter and I sat, and Carter told me of his wife and child back on land. He’d wanted treasure so that his lad, but newborn, might never have to sail the lonely sea, or break his back working the docks of their town. He had their daguerreotype and wanted to show me, but I begged him no. I could not stand to see something borne of love and joy just then.

“As Carter stared at their picture, soft and low the howl began. So tired, I didn’t even lift my head though it chilled my bones, that herald of Death. Carter merely looked at his family. Then his eyes steeled and he grabbed a pair of pistols. He would not die like the captain, yet nor would he wait for Death; that was not the father wished to be. On all my voyages, I had not met a braver man, and when he died at the hands of evil, I prayed his soul would find his family.

“And I was alone with the dead, the mad, and the Creeping Dread. And on the ship, in the middle of the sea, there would be no place to hide. Blood dripped to the floor form my hand. My bandage could not staunch the wound, and I began to go into shock as the low howl began again.

“The barrel of the gun felt so cool against my fevered brow, and my last lucid thought was that at least the horror would find no living flesh to feast upon . . .

“At that the madness born of fear and animal survival kicked in. I remember only flashes; getting the two madmen, the moving of the bodies, and through it all the sickening, plaintive howl of the barrow wight, the Ta’narack, growing louder and louder still till I remember no more of that night or the days that followed. And I blacked out hearing the shambling, approaching steps . . .

“As best the crew of the Santa Dymphna could tell, they found our ship three days later drifting in the seas off the coast of Chile. The smell of death was so strong they feared the plague. But as they were setting fire to the ship, one of the crew heard my ramblings, and they pulled me and the two madmen from beneath the cairn of bodies I had made to hide our smell of living flesh.

“The nuns tell me that I did not sleep, but stared in unnatural stillness the month I was under their care, and still I do not sleep for perchance I’ll dream, and it has been a year since I left the convent. I travel, though ne’er by boat and never stopping; for the maddened sailor, he died of fever, but the steersman . . . the steersman was found after a night when the wind was heard to howl, and yet there was no storm. The steersman was found in a pool of his own blood with wounds inhuman.”

The wind outside, thank God it was the wind, howled as we all fled the pub and the accursed man, and I go no more to hear the sailors’ tales.

07 January 2007

Monday, February 2, 2015

Another "Lasting Impression in Chad"

Jeremie kissing his "guns"
Jessica's professor, McDowell, wrote to us today to let us know that he was talking to Jeremie in the Bloc/the operating theatre (Jeremie who gave us "the cock") and His wife had their baby girl yesterday!

Guess what he wants to name their daughter?


Jeremie told McDowell, that Jessica was so nice & gave the first cadeaux—the traditional gift of soap for a new infant & a headlamp for Jeremie. His wife still has to agree but that's his plan!

savon Azur, a traditional gift for newborns

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jan 08 - The Compound: Hospital Side

Jan 08 - The Compound: Hospital Side

Just through the gate that separates the hospital from residential parts of the compound is the garden, a place of brick paths, some of them unfinished or broken, some landscaping with flowering bushes or plants bunched together to resemble bushes, and a couple of young trees, that has spots of beauty, but that few patients or staff visit because it's not in the shade. By 9 o'clock, it's frequently too hot to seek comfort or peace by walking the paths, or resting on the couple of concrete benches which are through most of the day in direct sunlight. I didn't make note of the temperature too often, but I did notice, one afternoon, a thermometer in the shade reading 90 F°.

The right side of the compound is devoted to the hospital itself, which could then be further divided into the old buildings and the empty shells of the new buildings, which just sit with tired hope. The old buildings, the only ones really worth describing, consist of Administration with the Pharmacy, the Cashier, Dental and Lab; "The Bloc" which contains the Operating Room, Pre-Op, and storage; Pediatrics; Obstetrics which has the outdoor worship chapel/waiting area; and Patient Beds. In addition there are a few latrines and "The Garage" which is a storehouse for equipment, tools, diesel for the generators that power the whole compound (which are just behind the Garage), and bats.

Most patients wait outside under the trees to see medical personnel, and their family may wait with them. Some of them camp for days for a referral, or if they're surgery is delayed, or their treatment simply takes time. It is a constant minor medical refugee camp full of Gumbai, Nanjirai, Arabs, and the colorfully dressed Fulani who are further distinguished by their tattooed faces. Women wash clothes at the outdoor spigots, men wait expectantly talking to someone on their cell phone, children cry in their mothers' arms, someone might be sitting with the chaplain on the old hospital bed under the tree by the latrines.

The pharmacy and cashier windows are right next to each other, and there's always a crowd in front of each window. At either, you might present your fiche, your paperwork or your carnet, health booklet. The health booklet is a portable medical record that each person holds onto. It is crucial in the Chadian health system, so of course most people don't have one or tend to lose track of it. In it a doctor, physician or nurse will make notes of treatment, write a pharmacy scrip, record a consultation, make a referral, or write out a course of treatment for a patient to follow. They are glorified notepads, but you can't get certain treatment without an official Chadian carnet.

So you might see your doctor, and she'll write out a scrip in your carnet to take the cashier and pharmacy, but there's a little bit of a language barrier so you accidentally stand in line at the pharmacy waiting/pushing through the crowd to the front, and the pharmacy tells you to go to cashier first, then you wait/push through to cashier, pay what you hope is the fair amount (sometimes a problem …), then you're sent back to wait at pharmacy where they look at your scrip and tell you the hospital doesn't have any more of that medicine and to go back to the doctor. It is anyone's guess whether you will see the money you already paid for the medicine you never received. In addition there are tragically necessary signs around the hospital translated roughly as: "Pay ONLY the cashier; do not pay ANYONE else."

Down the hall from the pharmacy and cashier is the "dentist's" office. As previously mentioned, Zach, with no previous dentistry experience (his dentist father notwithstanding) is the local dentist. The only dental service the hospital currently offers is Zach looking into a mouth, and if a tooth (or teeth) is rotten it is pulled. Occasionally, he'll call over someone from the Bloc to do a quick local anesthetic, but not usually. Zach can also offer advice about dental care (which also features prominently in his public health lecture), but that's where his limits lie. Naomi serves as his assistant, providing suction—so "they don't choke on their own spit" as Charis puts it—and translation.

The Bloc will get described in greater detail when I write about the case I observed, in a blog entry I'll title "Barefoot in the OR" but it's a one bed Surgery (two if Drs. Danae and Bland decide they're behind and need to cram) with a Pre-Op where additional surgery might also occur if the hospital is slammed. Dr. Bland truly does the lion's share of the surgery, but Dr. Danae works there quite frequently sometimes alongside her father. Mason's at the head of the bed; first assist to the surgeon is often the Chadian doctor who lives on the compound, but Charlie the visiting resident has been taking turns there while he's here, and then there are three male nurses, including Jeremy: provider of the chicken.

The patient ward is best described in Mason's words: "unlit parking garages." Mason and Dr. Danae often have to fight to get the nurses to provide the necessary follow up care to surgery. There are no blankets for patients unless the family provides them. Other than to spend a moment praying at the foot of the bed of Jessica's first patient in Bere, I spent little time in the parking garage. Considering how the importance of prayer and that "visiting the sick" is one of the corporal works of mercy, I should have spent much more time there and in Pediatrics. I imagine and hope that on future trips, that will be my priority, but it took me until about the end of our trip to realize it's where I should be focused and that anything else was secondary.

Pediatrics may be more depressing for it is likewise dingy and dirty, but it is perhaps more obviously so with the dust and stains over someone's attempt to brighten the place with wall murals of smiling bees and flowers and happy clouds on blue skies, while flies buzz around the children's faces; and while the sounds of suffering adults is saddening, the sound of so many children in pain is heart-breaking. However, there may be more hope in the sight of a child recovering, even smiling, in Pediatrics. It was there that my most heartfelt prayers went out, and I've missed so many moments of grace by not spending more time there.

Jan 08 – The Compound, Residential Side

Jan 08 – The Compound, Residential Side

Our first day in Bere was pretty laid back, starting with coffee and cinnamon toast with peanut butter at the McDowells.  Bread and peanut butter are a bit of a staple on the compound as there aren't a lot of sanitary protein choices to be had: peanut butter, eggs and beans are pretty much it. You can get meat—goat and chicken—but you want to make sure that the animal in question was killed that day, in front of you, to truly assure that it's fresh. For the McDowells, this job falls to Solomon their cook, who pretty much showed up on their doorstep looking for work the day after they arrived, as he had been cook for a previous couple who had lived on the compound.

I don't know if any jealousy ensued on the compound, but it's generally agreed that Solomon is the best local family cook, and I'll say his cooking his excellent. Part of our stay included lunch everyday at the McDowell's, and after the first lunch Jessica declared Solomon's food as good as any restaurant's. All of his bean dishes were great, but his spaghetti sauce (called Sauce D'Emmie, after the McDowells' younger daughter) and pizza are superbly excellent.

We also received home-baked bread from the McDowells, one loaf from the wife of Dr. Bland on the compound, and a couple almost baguette-esque loaves from Moundou, the nearest large town, two hours away. They were all tasty, but with zero preservatives tend to get stale pretty quickly. This meant eating the bread quickly, keeping it in the fridge, and making French toast with it toward the end of the loaf's life.

Instant Nescafe can be bought here, but not grounds or whole beans, so those are a regular part of care packages for the McDowells, and I was definitely glad we brought some. Jessica had brought some single-serve creamers for coffee, but the local option is a spoonful of powdered milk, the only real dairy option here since hardly anyone in Bere has refrigeration. One can get cheese and butter in Moundou. At home, I can take my scooter to Ingles in about five minutes there and back for decently fresh milk, butter and cheese in such variety that it should make anyone's head spin; here you travel four hours for cheese and butter that is what you get. 

After breakfast, Kim took us on a tour of the compound. Facing the compound from the road, it is divided left and right into residential and hospital sides, respectively. On the residential side live the American missionaries: Dr. Olen and Dr. Danae, husband and wife, general practitioner and obstetrics respectively with their three kids Lyol, Zane, and Addison; Dr. Rolland Bland, a GP who is the primary surgeon here, and his wife Dolores who are Danae's parents; Mason, Nurse Anesthetist and Kim (our hosts) with their daughters Maddie and Emmie; Zach our trusted guide from N'Djamena who is part-time dentist (no previous experience, not counting that his father is a dentist in the U.S.) a public health worker alongside Charis, another public health missionary. Two other American student missionaries, Mickey and Zachary, live off compound with local families who live almost adjacent to the compound walls. Mickey serves primarily as a nurse and Zachary is an engineering student who helps out with all sorts of projects, but seems focused on building up the computer systems here. Charlie, who came in on the bus with us, is also staying off compound with a family, so he can get the full Chadian experience during the month he's here (and boy did he!).

Three Chadian families live on the compound as well, who, admittedly, I did not get to know as well separated as we were by the language barrier. One family is a doctor nurse husband and wife team, another the husband is a doctor, and the final Chadian family is the hospital administrator. It has been hard to tell how the power structure of the hospital goes, as the Americans, especially Olen and Danae, seemed to be where the buck stopped, but the administrator holds frequent morning meetings with the staff, but whether to disseminate the Americans' orders, or somewhat independently, I was never completely sure.

A good number of Chadians who don't live there can be found on the Residential side of the compound with any number of other reasons. Wa'ye and Mohammed were the night and day gate guards; Mohammed we of course saw anytime we went in or out of the gate, but he was also often seen playing with any of the children who happened to be on the compound at any given time.  Solomon is Kim and Mason's cook, of course, and Bebe is their housekeeper who Kim hired after Bebe with her daughter came in for the Infant Nutrition Program and her daughter died. Selene is a laundress for several of the families, and graciously added our laundry to the mix, which she cleans at a cement trough with bar soap and a hose (soap provided by the patron).

The soap la savon Azur, by the way, is a four-inch cube, and is used for laundry, dishwashing, and hand washing here. It's pretty neutral smelling and pretty effective at cleaning, though without hot water and machine agitation, it's cleansing properties are limited. This soap, it turns out, is now a traditional gift among Chadians on the occasion of a birth. We bought for Jeremy, Jessica's friend in the OR who got her the cock, 3 bars of les savons because his wife is expecting shortly after we leave.

One might also see on the residential side, the Adventist School administrators and teachers; Naomi (the ten strong polyglot) who works as dental assistant to Zach and translator when he and Charis go out to the villages; the teenagers Allah and Appolinaire, "Appo," who have been associated with the compound one way or another for years (Allah is especially prominent in the life of the compound); and the constant stream of people who come to the families asking for cadeaux "gifts" to form friendships (asking for a gift is a perfectly acceptable way to start a friendship here) or just for the help which so many need.

Jan 07 Last bus to Bere

Jan 07 Last bus to Bere

After Zach collected Charley, another Seventh Day Adventist volunteer, from the airport, we headed to the bus depot to catch the bus to Bere. Charley's a med student in his fourth year of residency. Next year he goes to Hawaii to work for the Army. He likes to ride motorcycles, gets Star Wars and Monty Python residences and seems to be a fairly decent guy. So it seems a little unfair that the guy's arrived to find out his luggage got misplaced somewhere between the U.S. and Chad.

But trooper that he was, he got through immigration, the police and banking without a word of French (he's spent more time in Latin America so his Spanish is decent, but he's been very willing to learn bits of French here and there to smooth the way in Chad), and he was much lighter in traveling on the bus than we were with our four pieces of luggage and two carry-on bags. The wait at the bus depot was longish, for in Chad the bus waits until it's full. There's an approximate time when it's "scheduled" to leave, but if the bus thinks more passengers will arrive, then it will wait until they come.

The bus depot was just as lively as any other part of N'Djamena, with merchants walking up to passengers to hawk their wares: toothpaste and toothbrushes, clothes, flashlights, and food. Jessica bought some bread to have with us for dinner or breakfast the next day, and I bought some crickets. At first I thought the woman was selling some kind of hot pepper out of her basket, and when I asked Zach, he laughed and told me they were fried crickets (and told me they were supposed to take like popcorn, not that he knew from personal experience), but Charley pointed out they were as large as grasshoppers, really. They were fried, spiced, sprinkled with lime juice and wrapped in a piece of newspaper. The first five were okay, though I learned not to eat the back legs--too tough and pointy--but the sixth one was just too much oil and I had to stop. Jessica didn't even try one. In Bere, I learned there was a spot where one could leave decent uneaten food where it would get taken by the boys who played nearby, so I donated the last of my crickets to a better cause.

For about twenty minutes we were spoken to by a man who was either very drunk or suffering from some sort of mental illness, or both. His French was so muddled that Zach couldn't make it out, tough it seemed to have something to do with religion as Zach thought he asked us if we were Muslim at one point. He just kept talking at us though there was nothing we could do to reasonably respond. He wasn't asking for money or any other favors it seemed, but what he had to say, whatever it was seemed very urgent. During his time with us, an older blind man walked up to our group, his hand on the shoulder of a young boy who led him. Our drunken orator stopped his speech, reached into his robes and placed a coin in the boy's metal bowl. We did nothing.

About this point, Zach noticed the man's temple was bleeding, which the man seemed to take in stride, but someone, perhaps a station agent of some kind, came up and removed the man from our group, and we decided to get onto the bus.

The bus was much more like a Greyhound bus than I expected, and we were assured that we were on the cushy bus, and coming back it was unlikely we'd be afforded such nice transportation. The seats were comfortable enough, but the speaker system was on the border of torturous. At the front and midway down the aisle, about where we were sitting, were television monitors that showed videos of bloody Hong Kong action flicks, music videos--some of them quite scandalous for the usually conservatively modest Chadians--what appeared to be selections from auditions for Nigeria's version of The Voice, and even a Western action movie about soldiers fighting Muslim terrorists who appeared to be led by Osama Bin Laden. The last definitely caused me to raise my eyebrow, but no one else on the bus seem surprised or offended, considering the number of Muslims on the bus. The audio for these videos was loud, full of distortion and hiss and never turned off. I mentioned it was torturous, and actually on the bus ride, I told Jessica that I had read that some places will put prisoners in an uncomfortable room with the lights always on and terrible music playing 24 hours on blaring speakers as a form of torture and/will breaking before interrogation. Because of those infernal speakers, this was the only form of longer public transportation that we took that I simply could not sleep on, even when I desperately wanted to.

I mentioned the high volume of Muslims on the bus and our first stop after leaving N'Djamena was actually a combination call to prayer and bathroom break. All the women, children and non Muslims stayed on one side of the road to stretch or squat, some without shame within sight of everybody else (conservatively modest in SOME ways that is) while most of the men crossed the street to the mosque while "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" poured from speakers attached to the mini-minarets. We made two other stops, one to get dinner, which we passed on, and another bathroom break. It was at this last stop that Jessica went the to bathrooms, "Ou est la douche?" and was handed her own plastic kettle of water in case she needed it for left-handed business. Alas, she did not need it, and so missed a rare cultural opportunity. I did not experience this toilet, though I heard it was pretty bad, even worse than the toilet at the bus depot which was the most rancid hole-in-the-ground pit I have ever encountered. I have been spoiled for most of this trip in terms of indoor western-style plumbing, and I've been okay with being spoiled so.

At one point the bus attendant handed out sodas to every passenger, which seemed an interesting gratuity or cadeaux on our trip, and Jessica and I got a try a rather tasty local orange soda. For most of the trip we watched movies on our own and tried to bear through Satan's Sound system.

We arrived in Kelo, the next town over from Bere, where Dr. Olen of the Adventist Hospital picked us up in his Toyota king-cab pickup. All our luggage went into the bed, and we crammed into the front. Two men from the bus were also going to Bere and hitched a ride with us, riding on top of the luggage. I can't imagine how they did it, for if the dust was bad in N'Djamena it was worse here, and I can only imagine magnified to what degree swirling up from the road across the men in the back.

The ride back I glimpsed within the headlights many a mud brick house, goats and cattle unattended, unfettered and unfenced, small fires just outside or inside the mud homes, people walking on the road, and a lone moto. We could barely see the river where the hippos live, though we saw no hippos that night, and heard they were the only wild animal left in the area for all the others had been eaten. 

Dr. Olen has quite a sarcastic sense of humor, so it was hard to tell how much of that last statement was true, but I have seen no wild animals beyond lizards and snakes, birds and bats here. People have(? unless it's tied to a tree outside someone home, which is quite rare, I can't tell how or if anyone really owns any of the livestock that wanders around) chickens and pigs, horses, donkeys and cattle, dogs and cats. Actually, our hosts had us bring along a cat door from the U.S. for their cats, which was one of the more amusing purchases to my mind.

Finally, after we'd been bumped and swerved around sand and hump-backed cattle, been passed a lot of what seemed to be barren land and too many broken mud hovels, and Dr. Olen said we'd made it halfway, we were suddenly at the compound, pulling into the gates in very solid brick walls surrounded rather nice houses with electricity and running water. We were greeted briefly by Kim, Jessica's professor's wife, shown to our quarters and we collapsed into bed, hopefully to rest enough to face whatever tomorrow, our first day in Bere, Chad, brought.