Archive for April, 2012

Mulling

April 20, 2012

Stuff I’ve been thinking about; clearing my head.

In 2003, we made a career decision that we’ve regretted ever since. It’s too tiresome to go into all the details – it was a job offer for Gimli at a university in DC, but it meant backing out of a commitment we’d made at the university he’s been teaching at since 2000, and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it (there were other reasons, too, but this was a big one).

The commitment was to take a group of 30 students on a semester abroad to South Africa in the fall of 2003. It was a devastating experience for me – not so much because of anything that had to do with South Africa, which I loved, and would love to visit again (or live there, that would be cool too) but the inter-personal conflicts with the American staff of the organization that hosted us. These conflicts became so bitter I was almost destroyed in the process. I remember one meeting where I sat crying with my head bowed and resting on my arm, snot and tears dripping out my nose in a long thread because I couldn’t even muster up the will to get a tissue and wipe myself up. We went back to the US and I couldn’t work, I couldn’t even get out of bed some days. Supposedly I was giving creative writing a try but most days I lay on the couch watching Sex and the City or the Sopranos, knitting a bit off and on.

I came slowly out of the fog – long walks into the woods behind the house we were renting, on the edge of national forestland – tending a small flower garden as the snow melted and tulips came up all around the lawn – picking Japanese beetles off the rose-bushes – doing counted cross-stitch while listening to NPR – light and color came back into my days, and the dark clouds receded. (The therapist who saw me through those days is gone now; she died of a brain aneurism just days after she cut short our last session due to a splitting headache. I feel like I need to make a profound remark about that – but I guess all I can find to say is just to acknowledge how much she helped me, and how sad I am that she’s gone.)

We bought a house and moved into town; I got a job; then a couple years later went back to graduate school for a PhD so I could feel more equal to my husband, and so I could do more university teaching.

Through all of this, there was the baby question. Before that cross-roads in 2003, I had been pestering Gimli about starting a family. Then my plan was to ditch the birth control as soon as we got back from South Africa. But in the emotional aftermath of that trip, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It took another year before I was ready. And then three more years before we finally did conceive.

What if we’d taken the other road? We would most likely have started trying sooner… I would not have gone through that devastating semester abroad (Gimli was affected by it too, but not as much as I was – the dynamics of the situation were such that I placed myself in the middle, very deliberately, and I took all the pain of that conflict into myself. I think I spared the students from having to deal with most of it – although in the end they were drawn into it too, of course)… and then shortly after we got back the proverbial shit hit the fan at the university – another long story of intra-institutional drama – and Gimli lost most of the joy he’d had in that job.

So we always think, what if? What if?

It’s not a productive way of thinking, but it’s hard not to do it.

In our current crossroads, the way I feel about it is that we already made the wrong choice, back in 2003, we made the big mistake, and now any decision we make doesn’t really matter. It’s kind of freeing, to me, to think this way – there literally isn’t a right or wrong decision. We’re on a path we weren’t supposed to be on in the first place, so whatever we choose doesn’t actually matter any more.

I know, I know; had we gone the other direction, in 2003, something equally awful – or even worse – might have happened, and we’ll never know; we never can know. Which makes it easy to imagine it all would have been perfect. The job, the baby, the life, maybe I would have started working towards a PhD sooner, as well.

Clearly, there are a lot of things we would have missed out on, too. Our best friends are people we didn’t meet until 2004.

But another fall-out of the 2003 mistake was that we don’t fully trust our decision-making capabilities (which is why, I think, I end up going in the direction of fatalism – it’s partly a coping mechanism). But Gimli, Gimli just second-guesses himself all the more. And it’s driving me a wee bit nuts. 

What do you take into consideration when making a life decision? Do you think through every angle, make lists of pros and cons, talk to lots of people, pray, meditate, or just go with your gut? Do you trust your gut on things like this? 

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Internet Diet

April 19, 2012

Thanks for the sweet comments. At the moment, I’m thinking more in terms of a social media “diet” than an all-out fast. So you’ll still see me around, just maybe looking a bit abstracted and probably with my nose in a book. But if someone yells for help – I’m here.

On Monday I started testing this “Waste No Time” thingy you can add as an extension to Safari; it lets you block whatever web sites you pick, and you can set yourself a time limit either globally or site-by-site that kicks you off with a “Shouldn’t you be working?” message and an inspirational quote. I like it, but it’s not fool-proof – I can still manage to find ways to waste my time. However, it’s a step in the right direction. I’ve cut waaaaay back on Facebook, Twitter, and a few random celebrity gossip/fashion sites I enjoy. Do I really need to know whether Brad and Angelina have set a date, and how Jennifer feels about it? (Yeeeee – NO.)

As far as blogs go, I’ve eliminated the multiple check-ins per day to just one or two visits to Reader, running through quickly and making mental note of what needs attention the most. Sadly, I’m skipping all the great food-for-though discussions and just going to the critical moments posts – the red flags, if you will. I’m still ready and alert with the life vest for you, should you need it, but probably not ready to jump into an awesome discussion on third wave feminism or sex vs. chocolate. 

So, you may not even notice the difference between this “diet” phase and my regular internet life at all! But I’m hoping to see a big difference at this end here.

Thinking

April 15, 2012

I’m thinking about taking a 40-day fast from social media, but I’m still thinking how exactly I want to do it. I’m thinking that May is going to be a hard-core dissertation-focused month, and I’m going to completely cut out celebrity gossip and other time-wasting internet activity (I’m looking at you, Facebook). I’m not exactly sure what to do about blogging. This is a very helpful space for me here, for processing my thoughts – and I have a lot of them right now – but I really, really need to be focused at the moment. And I don’t want to abandon all my bleeps, especially those in the proverbial trenches right now, but also all of you who are just… living life, and all that goes with that.

I’m feeling a bit like Bilbo Baggins at his one-hundred-eleventieth birthday, about to vanish in a little thunderclap to the consternation of all his friends and relations, off on another adventure. Feels a little rude.

I will keep you posted.

Minor Annoyances

April 12, 2012

Next year I want to do a March Madness bracket* of Minor Annoyances. When I can’t sleep for whatever reason I start brainstorming possible entries:

  • stone in your shoe
  • mosquito bite
  • crumbs in the sheets
  • pimple
  • hangnail
  • hair-trigger car alarms
  • fingernails on chalkboard
  • people who make noise when they chew food (I’m looking at YOU, Gimli!)
  • SPAM
  • [your ideas here]
What are your pet peeves?

*For readers outside the US, March Madness is an annual basketball tournament. For fun, some people create competitions that mirror the structure of the basketball tournament (worst dressed celebrity, favorite Muppet, etc.) – this is one of my favorites.

Being the Change

April 9, 2012

My mind has been spinning all weekend, thanks to your requests for recommendations on charitable giving – global inequities are so huge, the legacies of wrong so deep, disparities seem so insurmountable. I’ve been writing bits and pieces of blog posts in my head, then consigning them to the mental trash bin because it’s all just too big.

So rather than take on the problems of the world, I thought I’d try to unpack some of the vague recommendations I gave in the last post, and also provide some links.

There are two principles in addressing socioeconomic inequalities that I think are pretty sound: 1) support local initiatives (aka “charity begins at home”), and 2) work together.

1) Charity Begins At Home. When I worked in Bolivia, I often had crises of legitimacy – who was I, as an outsider, to waltz in and tell these women – I worked with rural women’s groups – what they were doing wrong and what they needed to do differently? My very presence – supported by Mennonite churches in the US and Canada – seemed artificial and unsustainable. I came to terms eventually with the positive role an outsider can have, both to bring in fresh ideas and to provide a somewhat neutral sounding-board for people working out interpersonal conflicts – but I never had this legitimacy crisis working in the US, with federally-funded and United Way-funded programs. I felt like it made sense that society had decided to collectivize some of its surplus (through taxes and through charitable giving) in order to redistribute it to people who found themselves in times of crisis or need. There was local ownership and local accountability for how funds were spent.

I wholeheartedly advocate supporting your local United Way, public radio, public library, women’s shelters, food banks, animal shelters, scholarship funds. One of the coolest projects I got involved in during my field research in the US was a scholarship fund for local Latino students, where the emphasis was very strongly on recruiting funds from Latino businesses and families. All they asked for was $20 a month, so that even Latino families working on the slime line at the poultry plant would be able to contribute to sending one of their own to college.

(…there’s a caveat here, that I haven’t quite finished formulating yet, about global responsibilities, because like it or not our economies and societies are linked in intricate ways, and that needs some parsing out yet. Future post.)

2) Working Together. I think a lot of times, as Jjiraffe pointed out, we feel overwhelmed by all the badness in the world, and it  seems impossible to think that I could make a difference. Which is why I think a lot of the save-a-starfish kind of programs are appealing – at least I made a difference to this one person that I sponsored, or mentored, or tutored, or sent a Christmas package to. And that’s cool. Yet I worked for a mentoring organization that had as their slogan something along the lines of “one child at a time,” and was glad when they changed it, because it made me want to scream, “that’s not fast enough!”

Even organizations that do take that approach – building one house at a time, loaning one goat at a time – are realizing that the needs are growing at a rate that far outpaces the one-at-a-time giving and building. Most organizations are taking broader, systems-wide approaches, seeking to work with governments or at the very least with coalitions of organizations that can partner together on a larger scale.

This is what I used to tell my husband’s students, when he taught international development to undergraduates and they’d get all depressed and hopeless and he’d ask me to come in and cheer them up: Join something. Find a network, an organization, a movement, and join up. Your individual efforts won’t do much, honestly, but multiplied by 1,000 you can collectively move mountains. So really the “social media for social good” approach is absolutely spot-on, it’s taking a platform you have and using it to increase the love, the compassion, the humanism, and the goodness in this world.

~::~

I started wigging out yesterday afternoon while mentally spinning my wheels over all of these issues – and I don’t feel like I’ve finished saying everything that I have to say on this topic, but I don’t want this post to get too long – I started seeing all the things I do and aspects of my life that are NOT in line with the principles I believe in. The environmental piece is part of this, for example, and how we drink bottled water and all our kitchen waste goes into a dumpster. I’ve cut back drastically on our consumption of meat, thanks to a vegan FB friend, and we don’t currently own any kind of motorized vehicle – we can be almost completely pedestrian here – but I’m still not at ease in my mind over how we live.

~::~

And now some links:

Coincidentally, just this week Jezebel had a nifty little guide on charitable giving. Skip to the comments for a great discussion on giving cash vs. material gifts.

The Global Journal also put out a list of their top 100 non-government organizations here; some that I have first-hand experience with and can vouch for personally include Habitat for Humanity, Heifer Project International, CARE International, and Save the Children. Habitat and Heifer are both forms of microcredit (affordable mortgages, and animal loans, respectively). Microcredit programs directed specifically towards women are very popular, I don’t know a whole lot about them, they’ve been quite successful in India, less so in some other parts of the world. Any kind of credit represents a risk, so there is that.

What are your thoughts? What organizations or initiatives do you support, and why?  

Biting the hand that feeds me

April 6, 2012

Is this biting the hand that feeds me?

Probably, yes.

I’ve been reading all these posts about bloggers using “social media for social good,” and while I applaud this endeavor, it also makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a case of knowing too much.

~::~

Here’s a conclusion I’ve come to: relief/aid/development veterans need the fresh eyes of newbie idealists, who dwell profoundly on the human worth of the “single starfish,” because it doesn’t take long to become a crusty, cynical, and bitter veteran of the field.

Because the development/aide industry is… well, it’s an industry (this link is satirical). I’ve also come to the conclusion that this industry exists largely for the benefit of those it employs. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing, right? I mean, where else are altruistically-inclined young professionals going to be spending their time and energy? This is the question Zana asked me once, when I was waxing cynical about the agency she and my husband work for. She used to run her own business, but it began to feel meaningless and self-serving to her. She wanted to do something more, for her country, for children, something that would have meaning and lasting value. So now she works to promote child protection in her own country.

And who could possibly be against child protection? Right?

~::~

Here’s a fact I’ve been contemplating sharing with you, and hesitated, for a number of complicated reasons, and then decided to tell you anyway: my husband makes eight times the salary of his Albanian colleagues working in the same organization. (I know that telling you this breaks all kinds of taboos.)

This is enough money for us to support two families at a modest level – ourselves, and our nanny. She’s the sole wage-earner in her family, and what we pay her (which is above the average market wage here) is putting food on the table for a family of four, buying school supplies for her two kids, and taking care of the assorted medical needs of her extended family.

But it still boggles my mind, how much money there is in aid work, and how it’s distributed. Apparently eight times the local salary is what it takes to attract foreigners to work here – and they need the foreign expertise for certain specific things, to run the organization. Which works for child protection.

~::~

So, am I saying that the purported beneficiaries of these aide and development projects aren’t actually helped? Well, yes and no.

Here’s a story.

Many of the children in the village where I lived and worked in Bolivia had sponsors, but not all of them. Sometimes only two or three of the kids (out of six to eight) in a family had sponsors. It was very well known which kids had “good” sponsors and which ones had duds – the ones who regularly sent large gifts (clothing, books, flashlights, toys) versus those who sent their monthly check to the organization and never thought about it again. There was intense jealousy in the families where only one child received gifts, and the mother was put in a position of having to divide these gifts somehow among all her children. There was often suspicion that the agency staff were stealing money or toys from the packages, when really it was about what was lost in translation – for instance, a mom once asked me to translate a letter written in English that her child had received from his sponsor. She recognized the words “toys” and “cars” in the letter, and wanted to know if the sponsor had sent toy cars to her child? Because he hadn’t received any. I read the letter and translated it for her into Spanish. It said, “what toys do you like to play with? My grandson likes to play with cars.”

Another day, I was visiting a mom – who had a plastic bottle cut in half wired to the side of her bamboo hut, filled with toothbrushes and toothpaste – when her children returned from their weight-and-height monitoring meeting, each with a “hygiene package” in hand. Each package contained a small hand towel, a bar of soap, toothpaste, toothbrush – and she said as they unwrapped their gifts, “Wow, someone must think you are a bunch of stinky dirty kids if they gave you this!” She was joking, teasing them, but it made me think about the meta-messages involved. I’m sure she was glad not to have to buy soap for a few weeks, nonetheless.

And I know, first-hand, that WV is working to mitigate some of these tangled issues that can result from the way sponsorship has been done in the past – working at the level of the whole school, the whole village, the whole neighborhood – while trying to maintain the humanizing individual connections between sponsors and registered children –  and I’m not going to tell you not to sponsor a child – just know that it’s not necessarily as simple as throwing a starfish back in the sea (because what happens when the next wave comes, and washes it back out again?)

~::~

Aid and development can be done in ways that respect the dignity, worth, self-determination, and self-respect of those living in poverty and dire need (and, for the record, I believe the bloggers I linked above are approaching it in this respectful way), but it can also be done in a way that undermines those very things. There can be a hidden cruelty in charity that puts the receiver in a one-down position, and keeps her there. Aid and development can be done in a way that promotes the very colonial power structures that created the poverty in the first place.

So yes, sponsor a child, put her picture on the fridge, remind yourself to be thankful for the excesses and distractions that fill your life. But please don’t stop there. Educate yourself about global poverty and injustice. Reduce your carbon footprint. Don’t waste food. Buy local. VOTE!!!!! “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Above all – and I think this is the most important thing, and this is what aid blogging can do for us – remember that it’s about human beings.

~::~

p.s. I’m really nervous about posting this – I’ve seen some ugly controversy emerge before on these very topics, and I want to go on record here saying that this is not a criticism of Eden, nor a blanket criticism of bloggers who use their platform to highlight social issues, nor criticism of the humanism and love and compassion that move people to want to help others. All I want to say is that “helping” can be very complicated, difficult, opaque, and have unintended consequences down the road. So we, who are privileged and powerful, need to remember to tread carefully in these matters.

An update of sorts

April 4, 2012

I think next week I might have more progress to report on the home-maker front. In the meantime, we’re this close to making a decision about what to do with our lives. In the context of those conversations, Gimli has been pressing me to think through and articulate what exactly my thoughts and feelings are about pursuing an academic career, and it’s been a difficult but good process. I can only resort to the cliche of peeling an onion – lots of layers, and a few tears. There’s so much self-doubt, so little confidence, and parsing the roots of that has been work. But good work. The journal has come in handy. And Gimli has come through with some great affirmations (and a great deal of patience). I’m really glad that I’m married to the 46-year-old version of him, and not the 26-year-old version, right now!

One thing has become crystal clear – my academic self is very close to the core of who I am, and I have to protect and nurture that part of me. Even if I don’t end up with a career, per se, in academics, I have to keep my intellectual lights alive. So that’s good to know.