Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Promise of Javier Bardem was the only thing that kept me watching that egotistical ATV ride through other cultures they called "Eat Pray Love"

(Heather, releasing some tension at the tail end of the 2011 Mardi-Gras extravaganza in the Episcopal church of Salem. And yeah, she pretty much fed 80 people in one manic swoop.)

First of all, I want to apologize to my blog for a record-breaking period of neglect I've inflicted upon it. Not since my home in Gambia was broken into and my computer stolen while I was sleeping next to it have I gone so long without posting. Shit, I posted more often when a computer was a 20k bike ride and a bribe away with a 50/50 shot of actual connectivity. When I look through the past six years of blog action, I see a few gaps, usually during the times of intense transitions. These usually fall in the fall for some reason- Peace Corps training in 2005, the homelessness/computerlessness period of 2009, not to mention a certain Ramadan ('07 I believe) where riding my bike to the ferry crossing and taking the dusty road to Ferrafenni to beg some guy to spark up the generator for a an hour of internet that mostly consisted of my trying to log in while six guys stood behind me felt like a bit too much trouble to bother with when a perfectly good nap on a concrete slab felt like creative expression enough.
The thing with transition (transformation?) is that we can't really see ourselves. We are just kind of selfing our selves around like we know what that is, but I don't think we do. That's the problem with being ourselves. If we are truly great, it's hard to see (and what a spoiler if we do.) And if we suck, well, it's hard to know. Seeking self consciousness also seems a little arrogant, no? Isn't there something on Hulu instead? People tend to bounce certain notions off of us (you seem to get along with Patrick, I like the way you handled that catfight, you make killer dumplings, etc. ) but that's no mirror, really. It does weird us a little, and feedback probably keeps us in line to an extent, especially those of us who've inherited even a molecule of the McHugh people-pleasing gene. You want dumplings? I'll give you dumplings. But it doesn't change an innate thing about us, not that we'd be able to tell anyway.

Before I get to the "lesson" portion of this dispatch, I share with you two possible rules for self-consciousness, really the only consistent ones I've heard. Unfortunately, they are generally not applicable, as you'll see. I can thank my friend Blair via her dad for this first nugget:

1. There is a Michael Scott in every work environment. If you don't know who it is, you should probably be worried.

2. If you really, really, really have a strong urge to run for public office, don't.

So yes, I must be done pupating for the moment. A lot has gone on this year. I'm halfway through a master's, off to Ghana for the summer, excited about a bunch of things that I never actually share in this format as my 3-8 dedicated readers well know, and I am stressed with the good stress of, you know, learning.

As usual, as per my experience several times in the past, as I wiggle out of my crusty old chrysalis with the anticipation of whatever me six months in a bivouac of my own spiritual goo might have produced, and as I hustle to the mirror, (the metaphorical Wonderland/Narnia/Never Ending Story, Harry-freakin-Potter kind of mirror) I am kind of shocked to discover that I am still a stumpy green caterpillar. Same yellow spots, same undulating love-handles, same little suction-cup feet. Obviously this could piss me off. I could kick up a really tiny bit of dust, get mad, get drunk, demand a refund.

But, if you know anything about me at all, you know my narrative form. I tend to reject the Hungry Caterpillar/Ugly Duckling/Cinderella/Karate Kid plotline in general. I don't get to become exceptional just because it's a story and that's how story characters learn to love themselves. And I don't have to. I suspect, even though I can't see myself, that being a stumpy green caterpillar is possibly great, and at the very least, innocuous. I mean, whatamIgonnado? Eat a leaf? It becomes a comfort, a relief even. I suspect I'm a slightly improved caterpillar, a little more sensible, more apt to listen, etc. Maybe. Can't really spend much more time reflecting on this, because I'm hungry, and the leaves are way up high, and I've got stuff to do.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Blooming in the moonlight

              Announced on NPR this morning was the fact that first lady, Michelle Obama, is working with CARE and Peace Corps to promote girls' education. The familiar reasons for this push cited, (economic benefits, better health knowledge, and so forth) I think of three of my own.

      It's 2007,  I'm assisting in facilitating an adult literacy group mainly for women in rural Gambia. By assisting, I mean that the guy who comes to Paka to instruct this group doesn't really feel like it any more, and has handed me some Mandinka language readers and assumed I had a relevant skillset. I don't, but I want one. Everyone's complaining about holding a pencil for the first time and they have begun to read syllables in Mandinka and copy these into their notebooks. Suddenly Fatou gets up and goes into the house, we're at her house- I assume she's fed up. She returns with her three children's health cards. She points to the name, "La... Lamin?" she says, pointing to the name on the card.

      A man is traveling from Banjul, presumably he used to be from some village up in Central River Region, Our bus rolls into a Kiang village that looks like it's exploded with giant green mangoes. A dozen girls are pushing their bowls of fruit up to the bus windows, hoping for a sale. The traveler selects a bag from a girl, handing her a bill she cannot identify. He chuckles, lifts her money pouch from the bowl, selects his change, and hands it back to her. "Kiang!" he laughs, as he chips a bit of skin off the first mango and spits it out the window. The girl sits back down by the side of the road to wait for the next bus to come.

     I gave Betembo an old Nokia phone. I've literally had to write the numbers on the worn-out pads with sharpie and the thing looks like a homemade toy at this point. She wanted the phone, but she only received calls from the two relatives we gave the number to. One day, she's standing by my door with the phone in one hand a little torn off piece of cigarette carton in the other. She instructs me to teach her to dial. We go through reading the numbers on the paper and the keypad, and she makes her first phone call to her brother in Kiang. She yells at him for a couple of minutes, insisting that he visits, hangs up, and tucks the phone into her skirt, grinning.
                          Of course it's about the bigger picture- women entering the formal sector, girls delaying marriage to a healthy age, passing knowledge of health and habits onto ones' children, gaining access to the parts of the world that require literacy. It's also about something so much more personal, too. With each little piece of power, you gain another choice in your life. It could be as small as handing the right health card to the doctor with dignity. It could mean knowing the value of your small enterprise, or the freedom to communicate by phone like any other person.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Contemplating a bug's life

When you've smacked the 15th insect on your outstretched ankle, you have to go ahead and relinquish your claim to be relaxing on a summer's eve with a glass of wine on your porch. You are merely asserting the little you can claim as your human territory, pondering how insects haven't managed to completely overtake the earth by now. They have in fact doomed the Maine moose, reportedly infesting the austere mammal's population to the point of infertility via tick bites. That might actually be a tick in your cheval blanc right now, or a May fly six weeks late for the party. Gardening has brought insects back into your life, long after the Peace Corps days of whacking cockroaches with the more useful end of a Chinese-made hunting knife or spraying the dreaded scorpion-spider with an entire can of "Bop", only to see it literally lick its little legs off and keep on haunting your abode with its horridness. And it's a complicated relationship, bugs to us, and they help, and they hurt and they will and do win in the long run anyway. Take, for instance, the disgusting little black larvae I was personally squishing between my fingers for the infraction of adoring the same parsley leaves I happen to want to turn into a delicious pesto some day. A little internet research instructs me that they are swallowtail butterflies in the making, a helpful pollinator in their next life-stage, a bringer of peppers, tomatoes, peas, and all things good. We humans, I tell you, cannot win.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Blog "Gap Year" written off as a creative gestation period

In what appears to be a logical fusion of various life processes that tended to operate in isolation, you are now on the brink of yet another transition. Thank god you are completing the task of graduate school upon the season of your community reinforcing itself once again.

The literal awe ("awwww") of your closer friends and cuzins and their incredibly recent deliveries of healthy little persons leaves you kind of speechless. After all, what an incredible array of tempting selfishnesses are averted by taking the deliberate step of assuming responsibility for another life.
And what you've come to understand is that you too are responsible to these and other persons in your capacity as auntie, friend, teacher. Now someone whose significance you cannot possibly ignore has to live in the world you consent and contribute to. God how Charlie impresses you with her curt deliberateness and oddly sophisticated humor. What a great older sister she will make to newborn Sage. And doesn't Roland remind you of a waddling diapered Jay with big honest eyes standing in your doorway summoning your dog so not long ago? And I can't even speak yet of Calder W, at this writing something like 3 days on the outside,whose little head you can see from the photograph, is rounded like Violet's. He will come to know of his sister through the absolute openness with which he is loved, through the understanding of his big brother's mutual healing and helping in ways he himself doesn't need to understand.

You have a lot of ground to cover still. There are probably at least a few more weeks of staring at computer screens and trying to force your brain into functioning at its peak when all you've fed it is coffee and processed snackfood. You still have a few more weeks of what look like endless piles of undergrad papers who always deserve a little better than what you can possibly afford energy-wise. But anyway, hi blog, how are you? It's been a while.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Headlines (Fall 2011)

  • Contagion movie oddly less scary than real global health situation. Director graciously kills off Gwyneth Paltrow early enough for movie to still be enjoyable, if not great.
  • Fight with hair-club victim at center fundraiser narrowly averted when he followed his "Education is a wicked easy doctorate to get..." comment with a small charitable purchase of a book that he probably can't read.
  • "Hot Dog" creative theme for craft night event fails to manifest to full potential: further mediums will be explored soon.
  • Somehow recipes online are more interesting when cussing is involved.
  • Genealogy investigation reveals that Grandpa purchased his high school diploma, far ahead of the current for profit university trend.
  • Another failed cell-phone exorcism attempted, long after return from Ghana, where spirits are suspected of possessing phone and randomly disabling various features for inconvenient but impermanent lengths of time. That it might be the ghost of Steve Jobs' career tempting me to buy an i-phone a possible theory. More likely it's mold from the Global South.
  • Once again, I'm doing anything I can to avoid my schoolwork.

Monday, June 20, 2011

You pay for what you get

(Cow on the beach at Beyin, June 2011)

"Where are you going?"

"Accra, Ghana."

"Oh, is that in South America?"

"No, Africa."

"Oh yeah. So that's... Is that its own country?"

"Yes, it's a country."

"Well what bags are you checking in?"

"Just this one."

"You know you can have two, right? You can have up to fifty pounds. Unless you were going to Brazil. They're the only ones that allow sixty pounds. It used to be more but now it's fifty...

I just have one...

Primed for agitation, the possibility of my bag arriving in Gabon, Guyana, Guinea, Gambia, Greece... Georgia or Akron Ohio suddenly seeming more realistic a fear, I am not surprised when she informs me that I cannot fly today.

"You need to present the credit card that was used to purchase the ticket."

"I didn't buy the ticket. Some guy in Ohio did. That's not going to happen."

"I'm sorry then you can't fly."

I am disappointed that this woman, who can't figure out which one is Ghana Visa (there was no snarkless way, I'm sorry, to inform her that it was the one that said "Ghana" on it) will be the one to prevent my travel. I want my foes to be worthy obstacles, fleets of rifle-toting militants, rabid hyenas, a boat with a hole in it in a lightning storm, not some middle-aged woman who slept through sixth grade social studies.

Somehow I'm sitting in the New Haven hotel in Asylum Down in Accra anyway, watching my laundry dry while the Beautiful Gateway Ministry next door makes a Sunday out of loud and live marathon worship. Somehow I got on that plane after all, the battle less dramatic than it could have been and driven by what I hope was a routine common sense intervention.

"No, she's all set. They showed the card already."

Frankly, Ghana, which is a country, has been nice. We've had helpful encounters at travel junctures (like local airports, which one moves through like a hot blade through fufu) and slow but effective exchanges with the genuinely simplified travel process here. Despite a reputation to the contrary, things work here at face value. While I might wish my students could be spared the solicitations of 30something police officers at checkpoints, at least this is a harmless if inappropriate gesture, and we'll be moving along without a hitch in a moment. Perhaps even a "farewell" or "enjoy!" When the lights go off, they go off, and when the coffee takes an hour, it takes an hour, but you get the coffee eventually, even if it is the chewable kind. And if you have to sip it in the dark, at least you can rest assured that someone will still find a way to heat up the water, which is a lot more TLC and problem solving than you can expect at a certain Delta kiosk at Bradley airport on a certain day.

I have, at many times I'll admit, bemoaned the lack of quality education that Education for All has brought to this region, and I'm not about to drop all concern for the masses of children who bide their time in classrooms without teachers or spend their days chanting and copying things in a language they barely comprehend.

But I won't go bragging about the purportedly superior system in the US either. After all, in my country, you can get a job sending people all over the world if you know how to click through a menu.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


(Ducks in a row, New Orleans 2011)

"I just wanted to know if there's something I did wrong," the employee asks. A carrot, previously dangled, has been removed suddenly, and she wants a reason. Your face tenses, you are calculating which smile and which tone to respond with. You choose confusion and empathy, the kind of empathy they train you in once the stress of ill-fitting management necessarily wears away your attachment to the humans on the other end. You are willing to bet that she won't go much more direct than this- because most of the people who work for you should be grateful they have a job and you'll remind them of this every time they bring up an issue with their contract, or their benefits gone missing. Eat your peas because there are children starving in Africa. When I was doing your job, we had no benefits. You remember that it's time to write encouraging notes of positive reinforcement that sandwich a small criticism to foster improvement. Your day is like round two of Ms. Pacman, there's a ghost around every corner and you can't relax, but you can outpace them all by a bit, and you can pause the game for a covert mission in your office. You've done great things, the numbers are up, people need to see this and you need to promote yourself because no one's going to do that for you in life. Philosophy of practice is not in the past so much as an unrealistic side issue, and they can't see that because they don't know all the things you have to deal with. You became the mom who swore she'd never put her kid on a tether at the county fair. Kid doesn't think so now as he pines in vain for curiosities just beyond the cord's reach- but he's better off.

Friday, November 26, 2010


(Photo of Heather at the Wagon Wheel, fall 2010.)

Uncle Roger has a New Yorker with a cartoon of "The Last Thanksgiving" where everyone at the table has a prohibitive and incompatible dietary restriction- a joke you're already tired of and living out in the land of gastro-provisos. Thankfully our meal has no tofurkey glutardenous raw and superior feeling substitutes and the stuffing has organs and the gravy has lumps. It's a bachelor's turkey- roasted in a wok and safety-pinned together, but this more than works. I feel a genetic bond surrounding this turkey, a totally Macgyver'd endeavor with an endemic logic that pairs nicely with the bat pie and brussels' sprouts. We are here for the wine, the scrabble, and the jokes about how fat all our heads are. Yes, there is something otherish about our handling of Thanksgiving, at odds with the Martha Stewart ideal and seasoned with our own perplexed awe that we are even doing this, and yet the ritual surrounding this bondaged bird is still done in earnest. We are each of us holiday hacks, skillfully faking our way into the big time with a dash of salt and a safety pin.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


(Arieh's Cat: How best to anthropomorphise her expression, forlorn?)
  • Up to five blankets and counting; pondering possibility of being crushed by weight of bedding simply trying to keep warm.
  • Receive an inquiry over whether time in Africa impedes blood-donation on second party's part- not flattered but better able to relate to lepers.
  • Hoping to be indoctrinated by the "ideology of hedonism" purportedly brought on by colonialism as referred to in student's paper.
  • Also in related news, discover that the reading of student papers is best left to the latter part of the caffeine-alcohol rotation.
  • Thankful to conservative talk radio for continuing to bridge the literacy gap.
  • Anxious to see the enlightened math and economic principal that will magically create 33,000 jobs by cutting sales tax in half.
  • While unimpressed with recent fashion developments, am happy that the men continuing to wear their girlfriends' pants have opted to balance their looks with beards.
  • Search continues for a culturally relevant Halloween costume that isn't Snookie or Lady Gaga.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Other lives not selected

(Deren's Show and Tell chick Photo courtesy Gillian Sohna 2010)

I am in love. He is beside the tarp we've covered in books, panting from the heat inside his deep mass of white fur. I can barely accept the realness of this dog, his wistful black eyes, feather-duster tail and fuzzed-over ears - but since I'm not a pet-crazed seven year old, I didn't know about Samoyed dogs until today. I am politely extracting intelligence from his owners while I plot how I'm going to steal this lovable polar bear and make him the cuddly solution to surviving winter, loneliness and in fact any other tragedy that life devises. He'll have to outlive me of course, but science has come a long way since I've been gone.
I was recently told, as a sort of compliment, that I am "way too selfish to have even half a child," a reflection, no doubt on lifestyle choices that have hindered any advancement towards fulfilling my biological destiny (which I'm assured by many I will fulfill.) While I might have, at one point, rejected a certain paradigm (the one where I marryandbuyahouseandhavesomebabiesandstuff) that is only the accidental result of chances, some of them quite tiny at their time if not their timing in history.

But longing for a huge fuzzilicious friend conjures other possible outcomes, and the thinking of where the slightest nurturing of other possibilities might have led. I cannot have a Samoyed, at least at no point soon, achingly adorable though he was. Is this regret, dissatisfaction? More, it's the pondering, how many degrees separate me from my alter outcomes, wherein I decide to buy that house in Ecuador, marry that guy with the crispy hair, focus on making money, build upon the material rather than the ethereal. But what I'm wondering is if other outcomes die. Were they ever? Would I feel this kind of longing, this love, for things that aren't, if they in fact, were? Or would I rest my head on Koda's snowy side with the bored assumption that something else could have been more meaningful and complete? Would the rise and fall of his sighs underneath my ear be the comfort of a warmer, more familiar life chosen, or a sad disappointment of possibilities never considered?