Monday, June 28, 2010

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

(photo: Uptown New Orleans, March 2010)

"The abject poverty revealed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans exists in every urban area of the United States. It's poverty so severe that it kills people."
- Robert Edgar

"The past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it; all this shit matters. Like at the end of the book, ya' know, boats and tides and all. It's like you can change up, right, you can say you're somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story. But, what came first is who you really are and what happened before is what really happened. It don't matter that some fool say he different 'cause the things that make you different is what you really do, what you really go through.
- "D'Angelo Barksdale," The Wire, Season 2 Episode 6

My New Years' Resolution was distilled down to a bumper sticker slogan.

In grad school, I had a professor who celebrated the bumper sticker slogan school of thought. Every major theory, every complicated idea, everything that any philosopher or theorist or great thinker had ever thought of could be, somehow, distilled down to a bumper sticker slogan.

Descartes: "I think, therefore I am."

Hume: "A wise man proportions his belief to this evidence."

Hegel: "Nothing great has been and nothing great can be accomplished without passion."

The Life's Work of philosophers, some might say narrowed down or diluted. The details purged, the importance scoured to a sound bite.

But, in the end, the human brain will do this work anyway. We work in classifications, in categorization. Stereotypes exist because the human mind seeks to create order.

My New Years' resolution: finish what you start.

Initially, this was aimed towards creative projects and Jackal came on board as well. We made a promise to one another to practice "follow-through" in 2010. That was my entire resolution, based on the premise of "follow-through." Put your money where your mouth is.

Yesterday, I ran the Baltimore Women's Classic. My goal was simply to finish in an average time: I did better. Not only did I train, not only did I push, I set a new personal record. If you had told me, a year ago, that I would be running races, I wouldn't have believed it. I am not a runner.

Well, now I am.

I have another 5k in two weeks, and I intend to beat my new personal record.

I am signed up to run a leg of the Baltimore Marathon in October with a relay team.

Ultimately- I want to run a half-marathon. This is my ultimate goal.

And I'll do it.

And, in other news, Glitterati got a job.

A 9-5.



Because I have to follow through.

In New Orleans, I made a promise to dedicate myself to social justice. I saw how poverty exists everywhere, and it took me flying so many thousand miles away to see it, first-hand, to realize that change starts in my own city. In my own neighborhood.

After months of job-searching, months of interviewing, I have landed a job with a non-profit that seeks to serve social justice. That provides choices and opportunities for the disadvantaged. I am returning to the 9-5 working world because I am following through on the promises I made to myself and my city to help in any way I can.

I've spent the last two years soul-searching, distilling, figuring out what is most important to me. I have held and abandoned many beliefs in that time, I have embraced and set free many ideas of who I am and who I want to be. And the only thing that sticks, like strands of finally-cooked spaghetti against a wall where I've been throwing raw ideas for two years now, is that I need to be contributing in some way to society. I chose non-profits, and I found a job in one that does significant good for the impoverished, disadvantaged, and beaten-down populations of the inner-city.

And, selfishly, I started running and lost ten pounds. The two are related in the sense of the follow-through, and I'm all for it.

New Orleans taught me a lot. About hard work, dedication, poverty, the complex issues of cities, natural disasters compounding all of this, and also a lot about my personal limits of what I can and cannot do. I was pushed. I responded. I followed through. Eventually, I ran a 5k and got a job that I hope will segue into a career.

For those of you who have stuck by this blog over the last two years, for those of you who have seen the seemingly impossible ups and downs, the "break-ups and breakthroughs," as Stephanie Klein calls them, and all of the many ridiculous moments I've had, take note: ultimate break-throughs require a great deal of personal confidence and pushing oneself very far beyond the limits of what you thought you could do. Knowing now that I can do these things is an immensely powerful thing. It opens up new questions, most notably: "Hmmm...what else can I do?" and, not to be ignored, "Hmmm...what can't I do?" The former is a bit more productive than the latter, but both are interesting perspectives to ponder.

So, Glitteratis, my advice to you is this: do it. Whatever it is you sort of have a vision of, do it. Tell everyone you know that you intend to do it (because making your desires public is one very sure way of putting a fire under your ass), and then follow the steps. Make a plan. Draw a calendar, and spend everyday doing one small thing toward this goal. Start by running one mile. Run it faster. Then run two. Then three. Get some new sneakers. Push yourself. When you're tired, when you're feeling beaten down, keep going. There's no room for tired here. Do the extra lap. Up your weights. Close your eyes and meditate for a moment and feel yourself doing it.

"I have an irrepressible desire to live life until I can be assured the world is a little better fo rmy having lived in it." -Abraham Lincoln

What's your bumper sticker resolution? Don't wait for a new year. Start now.

And finish what you start.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Der Austausch: Part II- "Boogie, Woogie, Woogie"

The summer before my senior year of high school, I studied abroad in a small village in central Germany. This installment: "Boogie, Woogie, Woogie."

(If memory serves me correctly, there are photos coinciding with all of these events. I shall have to unearth them.)

Someone had the brilliant idea of shepherding nine high-strung American high schoolers (most of us cracked out on high-octane German coffee) and their foreign host counterparts on an excursion down one of the placid streams in central Germany. We were grouped into threes and given a boat that appeared to be a cross between a kayak and a canoe. Life-jackets, bagged lunches, a brief explanation of geographical importance, and off we went.

Whenever adults expect students to group themselves, they invariably group according to cliches. I'm certain that the idea was for us to mingle ourselves with the German students and exchange vocabulary lessons whilst navigating the rivers and streams with our map. What happened, instead, was that they gave us free reign. Which meant three kayaks of German students shooting off ahead of us, and three kayaks of American students giggling and speaking nothing but our native tongue.

While this may have completely circumvented the entire point of the excursion, I will say that the bucolic setting was not lost on us. We were city kids, all of us, and we appreciated the nature aspect. We rolled lazily downstream, paddling alongside beautiful serene pastures and rolling hills. It was late June in Germany, a particularly beautiful time more like spring than summer. The sky was a perfect blue, the grass that piercing new green. Cows (whose low "moo" even sounded slightly more German; more like a "mmmmaaaoooooo") grazed in fields and drank from the stream as we passed. And, of course, being the typical American teenagers we were, we had to break the serene silence of nature with our own cow noises.

I do not know if the German high school students were so compelled because, as I mentioned, they were far down the stream beyond us at this point. They seemed to be primarily concerned with speed, something that seemed right to me, given the penchant for luxury cars and the Autobahn. We were more concerned with trying to get the cows to respond to our advances.

At some point, it was decided that we would choose one such grassy knoll upon which to sit and eat our hearty lunches. We chose a bend in the stream that had a little pebbled beach upon which we could put the kay-oes (as I am choosing to refer to them), and while there was a fence separating the pasture from the bank it appeared to be nothing more than some wooden posts between which was strung shreds of tarp. A half-assed fence, perfect for ducking under so that we could sit in the grass and eat.

I was at the front of the kay-oe, and so as we launched ourselves up onto the beach I was the first to dig my feet into the pebbly sand. On attempting to stand, however, I lurched forward and reached out to the haphazard fence to for balance.

I don't recall exactly what happened next, just that one moment I had my feet in the watery sand and one hand reaching for the shreds of tarp between the fence posts and the next I felt someone punch me square in the stomach. All of the breath went out of me, blackness took over, and as soon as I felt the impact of the punch in the front of me, I almost immediately felt something wallop me from behind. Blackness. Confusion. A weird noise.

I couldn't open my eyes, but I somehow understood that the hit from behind had, in fact, been the ground. Because, as I oriented myself, I discovered that I was lying on my back, on the beach, and that I'd hit the ground fairly hard. I couldn't breathe. No air.

I coughed and, painfully, sucked air into my lungs. One breath. Two. Ragged, painful, but then slowly it came more regularly.

"Are you ok?!" one of the American students asked. I could hear his concern, could hear the fierce whispers as everyone was trying to figure out how I could have been climbing out of a kay-oe one moment and flat on my back the next.

I opened one eye, and then I saw it. The tiny yellow sign affixed to one of the fence posts, warning stupid people (probably Americans) like myself that the fence was not to be touched.

"The-the....the- fence," I gasped. "It''s....."

"What? What happened? What's wrong?!"

"It's electric," I groaned.

"Boogie, woogie, woogie?" one of the students said, much to the entertainment of the rest. I was so pissed about that comment, that I don't think I spoke to him for the rest of the day.

I had been electrocuted by an electric fence surrounding a cow pasture, while standing in a puddle of water. And he was quoting that freakishly awful song played at every prom, Homecoming, and wedding I'd ever been to.

I couldn't decide whether to be humiliated or just grateful to be alive. I still walk that line.

Years later, recently in fact, the story would follow me. I was kayaking in Annapolis a few weeks ago and, quite gracefully I'm sure, flipped the kayak within moments of leaving the dock. After jokingly posting something on Facebook about it, Mr. Spaz resurrected the horribly embarrassing story by commenting, "Boogie, woogie, woogie?" Even though there were no electric fences in this particular story, the moment of choosing between humiliation and survival was potently the same.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Der Austausch: Part I, "I Think We're Drunk!"

The summer before my senior year of high school, I studied abroad in a small village in central Germany. It was my first time being truly away from home (unless you count the devastating week my cruel parents sent me to music camp when I was eleven) and it was my first time in a foreign country. The German I'd learned the previous three years in high school seemed woefully inadequate to prepare me for spending a month living with a German family, and for the first two days I don't think I spoke at all.

FRAU: (In German) What do you think of our country so far?
ME: (silently, frantically, in my mind) Ummm..ummm..konnen Sie...ummm....bitte....mochten Sie etwas wie Hackfleisch? (Translation: Could you...please....would you like something like ground beef?)

After a short while, however, it became clear that my German Vater and Schwester both spoke fluent English and were eager for practice. Our days became a game of them asking me questions in English and pushing me to answer in German. They were endlessly kind and patient, incorporating me into their family life and feeding me as though I were a starving child. Mutter was convinced that I was far too skinny, and she made it her mission to fatten me up. I think I ate about six hearty meals a day while I was there.

There were multiple incidents that occurred on that trip that I will be describing over the course of the next couple of posts. The first: "I Think We're Drunk!"

There were a handful of other American students from my high school scattered about the neighboring villages also residing with other German families. One afternoon, all of our German host siblings had some sort of colloquiem to attend after school, and so all of us Americans sequestered ourselves one host family's house.

The girl staying there was a good friend of mine, and she was fortunate enough to have landed not only a spacious room with its own bathroom and balcony, but (gasp) a small refrigerator stocked to the brim with German beer.

"They said it's for me!" she said, proudly. At this point in my life, my experiences with alcohol were limited to the small sips my parents allowed me from their own beverages from time to time, and I don't think anyone else was all that steeped in knowledge about it either. All we knew is that we were in a country where our tender ages still made us legal to imbibe, we had a refrigerator full of beer and no adult supervision. It was time.

We cracked open the cans and invented our own games with a deck of cards (this being long before any of us would learn the classic drinking games; Asshole, Kings, Circle of Death, etc.) We opened a second round. And a third. I felt nothing. I was embarrassed to admit it.

Everyone seemed a little giddier, a little louder, a little more red-in-the-face. I was mortified. Maybe alcohol had no effect on me! This could either be very good or very bad. Perhaps I would go through life drinking whatever I pleased and never getting drunk. Maybe I was immune. Or maybe, worse, it was all about to creep up on me and I would be humiliatingly flat on my back in seconds and everyone would know that I'd never drank before. Because nearly everything at this age was humiliating, this experience was quickly filling me with dread.

A fourth round was opened. And then one of the Americans opened her mouth: "I am wasted!" she said. A quick vote of concurrence. Doomed, I was doomed. I felt nothing.

Or did I? As soon as she said it, I felt the giddiness of so much giggling rush to my head. It was exceedingly warm in the room. Maybe these were the signs. I did feel a bit of a sway coming on.

At that moment, my friend's host sister poked her head into the room.

"Hallo! We are home now! Are you having a good time?" she said. There was no frantic move to conceal the cans, we all just simply watched as she swung the door open wider to reveal that she was standing in the hallway with some of our other host siblings. And they looked at us. And they started laughing.

"You are drinking the beer?" she said, covering her mouth to attempt to hide her laughter. "How do you like it?"

"'S-awesome!" one of my friends slurred. This provoked another round of giggles from the Germans. (Yes- Germans giggle.)

"Wasso funny?" another beer-drinker demanded, nearly knocking over a pyramid of spent beer cans.

"The beer is piss-water," the Germans crowed.

"'S not so bad!" we insisted.

"No, no!" my friend's host sister said. "They mean that it is,, look!" She pointed to a tiny line of script on the side of one of the cans.


Awkwardly, we gathered up our decks of cards and quietly disposed of the cans of Alkoholfrei beer. We would not speak of this incident again.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Blessed Are the Unaware?

Among my most potent of faults (interrupting others, dropping things, forgetting peoples' names at crucial moments and a complete inability to walk in a straight line) lies one that may one day either save my life or kill me: I can be completely and totally unaware at times.

It's no secret that I sometimes live in my head. I zone out of this world completely, and I'm sure the look on my face makes it appear as though I'm doing complex mental algorithms. This especially happens when I am out walking or running, hence the tendency to trip over things. I have walked right past good friends without saying hello, I have been completely oblivious of oncoming traffic (not a Smart Survival Move in the city of Baltimore) and I have, on now two separate occasions, failed to notice something spectacular until it was damn near upon me.

Most recently, I was walking to work when I happened to notice (because this time I wasn't COMPLETELY unaware) a helicopter circling. Quite low. Right over my head, in fact. I started trying to see the markings on it, to discern if it was news or emergency or some politico out for a joy ride. So intent was I to investigate the nature of the low-flying aircraft (which, by the way, is certainly not an anomaly in Baltimore) that I failed to notice the police cars screaming past me or the throngs of people running down the sidewalk or the store owners throwing open their doors to try and see the commotion.

It was only once I got to work, amidst a bubble of frenzied activity, that I was told there had been; occurring right in front of me, right down Charles Street; a high-speed car chase that ended in an accident and a police chase on foot. I'd been so focused on the helicopter, I had failed to notice the rest of the activity.

Which reminded me of another such incident.

I was in Rome, I was twenty years old, and I was studying abroad in Europe for a spell during the summer between sophomore and junior years of college. It was late at night; a tropically warm evening with tourists fanning out amongst the cobblestones; and I was following a group of fellow Americans back to the hostel after a very long day of sight-seeing and history lessons for which I was supposedly earning college credit. I can't recall exactly what happened, but memory tells me I was rummaging through my bag looking for my camera or some Euros or maybe looking through the souvenirs I'd bought that day, but whatever I was doing, I was Preoccupied.

(I was also, during much of that trip, Preoccupied with two other things: another American student on whom I had a crush, and the constant and fearful worry that gypsies were always about to rob me, as I had been warned by a cautioning professor. These two activities; trailing my object of affection and clutching my bag; took up a large portion of my time in Rome. I regret neither: he was cute, and I was not once accosted by gypsies.)

It's entirely possible I was engaged in one of these activities but, regardless, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a throng of people and separated from my group. I felt myself being pushed to the outside of the sidewalk and closer to the dangerous cobble-stone highway down which raced the tiniest of cars and razor-sharp motorcycles. I tried to push back, but was met with wave after wave of excited humans, pushing closer and closer to the street. I checked back into reality immediately and suddenly noted that these weren't tourists flocking about me. They were nuns and priests of every order and hierarchy (or however nuns and priests organize themselves) and they had their hands raised high.

I was pushed all the way to the curb and stepped one foot out onto the street to regain balance when a storm cloud of Italian police erupted, gesturing the crowds back. I was right there as the limousine drove by slowly, the screams of the crowd now a deafening din, the back window lowered and the wizened old man sitting inside raising one hand feebly out the window.

As soon as I got over the immediate shock and could negotiate the crowd, I ran back to the hostel as fast as I could, and I called my father who, back home in America, would have been in his office, late in the day.

"Dad! Dad!" I said, unable to catch my breath. (Which, I'm sure in retrospect was slightly unnerving for my father, receiving an excited phone call from his daughter thousands of miles away in Italy.)


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oil Slick

Photo courtesy Associated Press.

People seem not to see that their opinion of the world
is also a confession of character.

Several of my friends have asked me recently what my reaction is to the Gulf Oil Spill, and my inclination is always to answer: "Visceral."

My anger towards the responsible parties, my bleeding heart that cracks open at the sight of every bird that cannot fly or fisherman who cannot make his wage, and my now-personal (however small) investment in the Gulf coast after contributing my own sweat and tears (and a tiny bit of blood after banging my thumbs numerous times putting up siding) are all palpable sensations for me.

And yes: I have looked into volunteering. But all of the literature I've so far come across has stressed two major things:
1. The bulk of the work that currently needs to be done (outside of plugging the f*&%ing leak in the first place) has to be handled by Haz-Mat or other professional clean-up teams.
2. The burden of the presence of volunteers in the coastal area, at the present time, would outweigh the benefits. This means a drain on already-taxed local resources, a surge of tourists that cannot be accommodated, and a presence of bodies with little to do but wait out the situation.

So, no, I will not be flying back to Louisiana just yet.

But the more I read, the more I discover about BP, the more I am convinced of the notion that radical change must be enacted from within. Attempting to think too far outside the box denies the current system, and all of its far-reaching complications. People are quick to dismantle big business, to crucify the responsible parties (as well they should) and to point to our gluttony of oil. But, the thing is, it goes beyond that. We, as all progressive countries, have become dependent on a limited resource whose readily accessible reserves have dried up thus pushing us to pursue trickier measures to gain access. And by "trickier," I am referring both to the physical practice of said pursuance as well as the political/ethical/social landscape of such measures.

It is true that we need to seek alternative fuel sources. But, more than that, an even more radical viewpoint needs to be established: besides fuel, we need a replacement for petroleum products. Everything you own, from the computer you're reading this blog on right now to the Lean Cuisine you might eat for lunch, is derived, at least in part, from a petroleum product. Our dependence on these reserves has gone beyond mere need to frantic existential reliance.

I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. I don't live on an ashram, eating food that I cultivated myself out of earth I myself tilled with all-natural tools. I live in a city, I recycle when bins are readily available, and I eat a lot of Lean Cuisines. I'm just as much a part of The System as anyone else.

The guilt, however, spurns me not towards making clothes out of the hairballs I comb off of my cats, but towards a general thoughtfulness of where we are at this space in time. I am conscious of our gluttony as a nation, of our consistent and horrendous urges to spend disgusting amounts of money on luxury products. But I am also conscious of our dependence on these finite sources for everyday objects as well. Pens. Napkins. Cup holders.

Hell, even recycled materials have to be processed in some plant SOMEWHERE. And I guarantee you, that plant runs on electricity. Which runs on....finite fuel sources.

It never ends, this chicken-or-the-egg philosophy of environmentalism.

So, to answer everyone's questions, I don't have a particular standpoint on the Gulf oil spill. I have seventeen of them. And they rotate. The problem, much like the perfect storm that was Hurricane Katrina, is so manifold that any distinct conclusion that anyone is trying to draw will undoubtedly be uninformed, unfeasible, or both.

In the meantime, I am just saddened and enraged and perplexed by the continuance of the situation. And that's about all I can say at this point in time.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Find An Hour

Disclaimer: While I have a subscription to The New Yorker (which I realize sounds pretentious- and rightfully so; one of my New Years' resolutions was to get through a years' subscription reading it every week, and I'm up to June and still going strong, so I'm quite proud of this accomplishment), I must admit that I am not overly fond of the poetry. While occasionally something strikes me as particularly genius, most of the time I skim over it and, upon seeing anything that smacks of pastoral description, move on to the article about plastic poisoning and the link to ADD or some hilarious manifesto about Heidi Montag (Pratt? Montag-Pratt? I can't keep this crap straight.)

But this one caught my eye, and I read it in full and it hit me in such a way that I actually tore it out of the magazine and have taped it to the wall beside my desk. Therein lies more than a modicum of truth; rather, I believe it illustrates the balance with which I have chosen to live my life. An embracing of the moment, a quiet gratitude for what is, and a peaceful hope for what is to come.

A Maxim

To live each day as if it might be the last
Is an injunction that Marcus Aurelius
Inscribes in his journal to remind himself
That he, too, however privileged, is mortal,
That whatever bounty is destined to reach him
Has reached him, already, many times.
But if you take his maxim too literally
And devote your mornings to tinkering with your will,
Your afternoons and evenings to saying farewell
To friends and family, you'll come to regret it.
Soon your lawyer won't fit you into his schedule.
Soon your dear ones will hide in a closet
When they hear your heavy step on the porch.
And then your house will slide into disrepair.
If this is my last day, you'll say to yourself,
Why waste time sealing drafts in the window frames
Or cleaning gutters or patching the driveway?
If you don't want your heirs to curse the day
You first opened Marcus's journals,
Take him simply to mean you should find an hour
Each day to pay a debt or forgive one,
Or write a letter of thanks or apology.
No shame in leaving behind some evidence
You were hoping to live beyond the moment.
No shame in a ticket to a concert seven months off,
Or, better yet, two tickets, as if you were hoping
To meet by then someone who'd love to join you,
Two seats near the front so you catch each note.
-Carl Dennis