Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Many things, and many others

Every time I mean to write this post, I either get distracted or become overwhelmed at the task of mental organization. The last (is it only two?) weeks have been intense enough to nearly floor me entirely, and so the prospect of trying to explain it all cogently is daunting. With that in mind, please try to read for what I want to say, rather than what I might say. Normally, I am with it enough to make sure those are the same. Today, we need that disclaimer.

After being postponed, I came back to Ithaca, for a lot of reasons. The top few were that there are jobs here, and not so much in the hometown, there is a social life here, and there is a lot of autonomy that you do not get in a spread-out western town where you need a car to get pretty much anywhere, or else a lot of bike. Too, I started to notice how lonely I can get without a constant group of people around me--I like it for a while, but having lived in a co-op and dorms, I am not really accustomed to not having people around all the time. Lots of them. So, even though I miss my family and the farm and everything, I came back.

I came back and had a job interview for NYPIRG--New York Public Interest Research Group, the largest environmental and consumer advocacy group in the state. Aced the interview, got a job offer on the same day (standard practice, so don't be too impressed). This was, let's see, Wednesday, two weeks ago. Had my training the next Monday, they did not have room for me in the car on Tuesday, so Wednesday a week ago was my first day of work with them. I did well, convinced some people to give me enough money to beat quota. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically, because knocking on doors and pushing as much energy at someone as you can while trying to keep them from slamming the door in your face and also like you and your cause enough to give you money, well, it is hard. I got yelled at more times than I like to really be yelled at, and I realized that I am not really on board with the idea of door-to-door. They tell you that you are just going to be informing people, which is a noble goal, but all of the training is basically desensitizing you to social niceties enough to feel comfortable and even justified knocking on doors and pushing political agendas. "Not interested," means "Not informed," they tell you. Unfortunately, I also did not agree with a lot of things I was supposed to say at each door, too. On the up side, all the people involved were amazing, and I really wish I had been able to get to know a lot of them better. When I got back Wednesday night, though, I learned that Mauritania had been canceled.

That was hard, but also very intense because although there was the horrible sinking feeling of 'not again,' it was hard to be completely depressed about the cancellation itself. Not when there was a sentiment being expressed (excuse the passive voice--we are protecting the innocent here) of 'having dodged a bullet' and 'won the lottery'. This is not to say that I was simply between overjoyed and utterly knocked over, though. Let's interrupt the narrative flow to bring everyone up to speed on why.

The indefinite postponement hit me really hard, and I think that is one reason I wanted to leave Colorado, just to change the scenery. Being told in February that we were postponed until March, well, that was tough, but okay, it was only a month. Bouncing back was easy, because I had just returned from Kenya and a trip to California and was really not packed well, mentally or with respect to gear. March was harder. Having Madagascar yanked back that way, just when we (okay, Chad, many of us) thought it would be real, that we were beyond the point of no return...that was tough. But we were all there together, and it was inspiring to see everyone deal so well with it. It softened it, and we knew that we would be re-placed as soon as possible, so that helped. Being re-assigned to Mauritania, which I was ready to commit to, was rubbing sand in the wound. Madagascar to Mauritania, well, okay, universe. There were a few of us in the situation, and Katie in particular really helped me decide to keep going with Peace Corps.

New paragraph. The indefinite postponement was hard because we were supposed to somehow keep holding on to the enthusiasm that was threatening to be overcome by nervousness at the prospect of Mauritania (and everything that goes along with that in Peace Corps lore, and for me as an individual). Now, holding that torch for a month, okay. Holding it indefinitely, with only the vague prospect of perhaps being reassigned come the end of September, now that was a load under which I was really staggering.

I began to wonder whether Peace Corps was for me. Waiting, living my life two months at a time, ready with my bags to go where they said when they said. It is not their fault, and with one or two exceptions, everyone to whom I have talked on the phone has been really polite and as helpful as possible. And it really is not Peace Corps' fault that some of us have uncanny destroyer-of-nations superpowers. But waiting like that, it is tough. In Ithaca, I saw some full time jobs hiring. Jobs with benefits, reasonable wages, tasks I would not at all mind completing. I could stay in Ithaca, I thought, and have a job and a social group and autonomy, and apply for grad school this or next fall. Why not? Aside from that I do not know what I want to study.

And so, when Mauritania was canceled (which, by the way, the Peace Corps did at least partially to spare us all the torch-holding above), not only did I have the "Well, if it isn't Mauritania, how bad can [my new reassignment] be?" reaction (I think everyone must have, at least a little), but suddenly not becoming reassigned was an option. And suddenly there were too many options for me to handle well.

I maintain that I have the best luck of any person I know,though. Sure, bad things happen to me, but more often than not, I have preternaturally good luck. I lose people who are important to me, sure, but last time that happened I realized that I had so many truly good friends...I digress. Anyway, the point is, I have either a huge "in" with the governing powers of my universe, or I'm just really good at seeing situations in that light. Either way, that is good luck for me. The next day, I called NYPIRG and asked for the day off in order to spend it next to the phone. Friday morning, I realized that with all the stress of "Do I want to continue with Peace Corps?" and "When is my new invitation coming?" not to mention a bunch of miscellaneous personal stuff, I just could not face a day of slammed doors and tapping energy reserves to push a rap at people. So, I called and quit. Thanks to Jed and Kim, by the way, for providing excellent advice and really welcome perspective and ears. You guys are awesome.

Speaking of luck. Monday, I learned that my new invitation was to Senegal, as a Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent. And Senegal, for those of you who do not live inside my head, is one of the only things that could have breathed enthusiasm back into my Peace Corps outlook to this extent. Why? Because the first blog I read about Peace Corps was a Senegalese Ag volunteer's blog, and it was amazing (Thank you, Clare Major. You do not know I exist.). Because Senegal and Madagascar were my first two choices. Way back when everyone asked me "Where are you going to ask to go?" I would answer, "I do not get to choose, but if I did I would choose Madagascar or Senegal." So, Senegal it is. And Senegal has been stable for the last 48 years, so that gives me a lot more confidence in the probability of my departure, on schedule, on August 10.

Oh, and unless I find a worthwhile job, I am going to just be unemployed and spend a bunch of time down at RIBs learning to do bike maintenance, which I imagine is a very marketable skill in Senegal. Particularly because I will need to repair my own bike frequently.

I was planning to write a lot more extensively on the following subjects, but it has taken me all day to write this much this cogently, so we're doing bullets:

~~Theory of co-operation: Summer residents of co-ops are part of a somewhat forced community (there is an inherent "it's just the summer' mentality) and as such tend to be a little bit unclear on the idea of precedent. If you only live somewhere for a summer, it is not something you think of, apparently, that an action one time and okayed generally, would lead to a problematic policy. This probably also applies to the community housing on West Campus, and the forced community there, but having no experience with that, I don't know for sure.

~~Rules, as they relate to religion and individuality: Mostly, I just need to get my hands on a copy of the rulebooks and spend about six years reading up on different religions. I want to know how you can subscribe to a religion that supports things in which you may not believe. Where does the fundamental lie of inconsistency start and stop, what is a gray area and what is dishonesty with self, church, or G/god(s)? And what does this have to say about individuality and free will? The emotional turmoil through which I have been going has stymied my investigation of the Bible, but I expect to get back on track soon.

~~Why people are cruel to the ones they love. That one still confuses me. Why people are not honest with each other when it is clear that the consequence will be bad--small deceptions I can understand, if they make things smoother. But concealment of a problem of significant size can never go anywhere good, because it makes the relationship a lie, since it is not mutual and bidirectional.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On the nature of responsibility and excuses

To start, a news update: yesterday (I think), an American aid worker who had lived in-country for six years was attacked by would-be kidnappers, allegedly associated with al-Qaeda. When he resisted their kidnapping, one or more shot him in the head or face with handguns. He died. This happened in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Peace Corps has not told the Invitees anything about the situation, probably because it is too early to know anything. It is something of which it is good to be aware, though. If you want more information, do a news search for "Mauritania" in Google or the search engine of your choice. I am not posting my speculations about the situation, because they're not founded on much of anything more than you would find in the news. Plus, I have been through this sort of thing before, although it is more disconcerting than Madagascar's situation. Why? Because in Madagascar, the violence and unrest was internal, directed by part of the population at its president/ruling party. An attack on an aid worker, especially an American aid worker, is not at all internal. It isn't necessarily personal, but it strikes a lot closer to home, for obvious reasons--as such, it is more unnerving than Madagascar.

What I really wanted to write about, though, is the culmination of responsibility that I feel weighing on my mind. I do not know whether it is the Cornell culture of frantic working just to keep up and the eventual (and inevitable) metastasis of that consciousness or simply a result of something me-specific, but I'm sinking underneath it just a little (no, Peace Corps, I am not mentally unfit, just philosophically introspective with a side of metaphor). Let's be clear: I am not sinking INTO a depression, just into a swamp of feeling as though I failed to fulfill some pretty basic responsibilities through an inadequacy entirely the result of poor choices. For those of you who are not used to talking with me about my feelings, this is the feeling of having procrastinated on an assignment for no good reason and to no good purpose and knowing that any day now you will be called out for not having completed it. Additionally, the current circumstances are such that you know you cannot complete it before being called out, so it is a matter of time...for those of you who do not know this feeling, congratulations, you have disgustingly healthy work ethic.

So, we know that feeling responsible does not in fact have anything to do with where the responsibility lies. Otherwise, all the decent people in the world would be overwhelmed with responsibility and everyone else would be totally free of it. For some interactions, there would e no responsibility anywhere, while for others, there would be a double helping. Thermodynamically, this cannot be true (yes, yes, I know, but bear with me). This does not help, though.

I had a conversation with a close friend recently in which we discussed productivity, achievement, and the perceived level of requirement relating to each. We have both known people who, although extremely capable, for one reason or another were prevented from achieving at a corresponding level. For some, this was the result of decisions. For some, it was not. For me, it is not an option to not do as well as I can. Less that seem a tautology (or an outright lie), yes, there have been extenuating circumstances and yes, there have been plenty of times in which I did not demonstrate my capacity, but as a general rule, that is true. Further, "doing as well as I can," means in fact my raw ability, not my ability under certain circumstances.

At what am I getting, anyway? Well, I feel oddly culpable for not having left for Peace Corps yet. As if, somehow, it related to my choices, or my preparation level, or something like that, that this is becoming such a production. Clearly it does not, but it is interesting, and it is there. So, my apology to everyone--I am sorry I have not yet left the country, I swear I'm trying, and for all of those I have put through an absurd number of goodbyes, well, I'm sorry about that, too. There is also more than a vague suspicion that nobody--including me-- is ever going to believe me that I am leaving anywhere ever again.

In other news, congratulations and felicitations to Nick and Sam, who got married this past weekend! If you read the New York Times, you probably saw the beautiful picture of the two of them (I did not see it, but it is online, and I saw it there). Hooray!

Friday, June 19, 2009

The story of why / God banned all the elephants / from all the kitchens

They come at dawn, all
the sandaled elephants rush
down the stairs to eat.

Boom creak slap thump bang
all the way down the stairs they
trample, excited.

They pass my room, all
heading directly for the

Slam bang shout thump whack
they crash dishes and call out
to each other loudly.

They trumpet and frisk:
how perfect to be alive
and in the kitchen!

But suddenly they
all rush at once for the door
calling out farewells.

Shout slam whump thwack bang
It is time to go work, but
they'll return tonight.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Destroyer of Nations

First of all, I'd like to apologize to everyone in the Mauritania (RIM) June 2009 Staging class. Everyone, I'm sorry. I thought I could hold it together, but I couldn't, and now I've caused postponement-for-political reasons. Also known as "Causing political strife in a country to which I was supposed to go with an institution"...It's my fault, I know it doesn't matter that I didn't do it on purpose. I'm sorry, okay?

Everyone else, it may be a result of my sense of humor.

You: "Your sense of humor causes international disasters? Yes, we knew that."

You guys are so funny. Now, lady, gentleman--and all of the rest of y'all--let me present the EXCITING NEW EVIDENCE, the evidence we've all been waiting for--the evidence for interpreting my dark and cynical humor as being too powerful for everyday use. Lights? Thank you.

When I was finally in the airport to leave for Madagascar, my dad said, "Well, now we know you're finally going!" I said, "Haha, no, all we can be sure of now is that I'm going to make it all the way to Philly!" 32 hours later...my goodness, what do we have here? We're going back home!

Sunday, a member of the RIM June 09 stage class sent me a message that said, basically, "I heard rumors of us getting postponed, but I don't think that will happen, 'cuz I'm sure they would've told us by now." I said, "Yeah, well, actually if we don't get calls today or tomorrow, we can be fairly sure that it'll be a surprise to them if we can't go." And yes, we started getting calls yesterday telling us that yes, in fact, we are postponed.

You: "Postponed? Postponed until when?"

My goodness, y'all are a bit impatient, aren't ya? Peace Corps wouldn't like that. Because there's no way for them to know--or at least, if there is, they're keeping quite mum--exactly why the Mauritanian government did not give us the visas, there's no way to know when that will change. But if you make bets, consider the following:

~ There has been enough strife about the upcoming Mauritanian election that they postponed it from June 5 to July 18, with the runoff election to be held August 1.
~ There's not likely to NOT be unrest after the election, to my way of thinking.
~ The POTUS recently sent a letter of support to the ousted-last-August-in-a-coup ex-president of the RIM.
~ August COS PCVs have been given the option of COSing in a week or so.
~ [EDIT] Peace Corps "estimates that we will have at least four weeks of notice before staging."
~ We won't be considered to be moved into other programs until we have gone through September without obtaining visas [EDIT] which have NOT been denied, but merely quite delayed.
~ The RIM wants Peace Corps to continue its programs there. (I don't know its position on Peace Corps programs in other places, so I can't speak to that.)

So, there's a good (I'd say, maybe 60%, but that's just me guessing) chance that we'll depart in August. I hear rumors of August 11th being 'the day,' but I see no reason to suppose it'll be the 11th rather than, say the 10th or the 12th or the 22d, other than perhaps those days are weekends. However, if there's, like, Me-grade political unrest (I hear it's normally too hot to riot in Mauritania, so this may be unlikely), then it would not be at all surprising if they postponed us until September. I'd give that whole scenario maybe a 40% chance of happening, with about 40% once that has happened that we'll be postponed again. So, the rundown on my expectations by probability:

60% chance leave sometime in August
40% chance leave in September, 40% chance of being postponed after that

Another factor in this game is that my Medical and Dental clearances may have expired. If that has happened, it introduces a whole new factor into this game, which is, "Do I want to try to get medical and dental clearance all over again?" Maybe so, maybe no. This is an argument for applying to the Peace Corps very last-minute, because if I'd applied later, I would've gotten my medical clearance later.

Another factor in that is that GradSchool v.2010 is an option, although I'd have to get my rear in serious gear with respect to finding a field in which I'd want a Ph.D. I mean, I can't just do what I did for undergrad.

In the meantime, I'm looking for jobs. In the Ithaca area, primarily, so if you know of any...don't tell anyone else!

That's the news from the Destroyer of Nations--Destroyer of Nations, Accept No Substitute! (For those of you who do not believe me, try this and this.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Pictures and packing...

It's hard to take a good picture of the moon, but this one came out okay.

This is all the stuff. Plus a very nervous dog.

My dog. Doesn't have laser eyes, but hates it when anyone starts packing.

Minus Chayanov, binocs (both of which got booted), razors, external HD, and mandolin. The messenger bag is empty, I just have to figure out a way to fit it in. Nothing is organized in there, but at least it all fits. Whew.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ari's trip to Land's End, CO

"This is as close as I'll ever come to riding a motorcycle!" --Ari, back of pickup truck going 50mph--you can't see it, but he's got a death grip on a rope tied to the truck.

Enjoying the view, but not to Land's End yet.

Ari Rabkin, Intrepid Nature Photographer. Note the expression on the chipmunk's face, please.

OM NOM NOM: an even better chipmunk expression!!!

Yes, it looks like a watch advertisement, but I like it anyway. Greed on the part of chipmunk engenders cute encounters.

[edit1] Fifty ways... (or, In Which I make a List)

Ya gotta practice your patois, sirrah,
Grab your effects, Tex,
Fold your apparel, Carol,
And get yourself prepped.

Get that last shot, Scott,
Don't need to discuss much,
Just shoulder your pack, Mack,
And go to Philly...

...Or Mauritania. Or both, ideally.

This is another one of those "For my benefit rather than yours" posts--see subtitle for further explication. One goal I have for Mauritania (RIM) packing is that I WILL be able to walk while carrying all my stuff, unlike when I packed for Madagascar. Also, unlike when I packed for Madagascar, I will NOT forget my pajamas. That said, here's the edited-once-over list, although I expect to cut things out of it.

2 pairs tevaflops
1 pair patagonias
1 pair sneakers
6 socks
2-4 bandanas
1 buff
1 pair drawstring pants
1 longsleeve t-shirt
1-2 shade shirts
4 ankle-length skirts
2 cotton slips
2-4 t-shirts
1 pagne complet
4 sports bras
20 pairs underwear
2 tank tops
1 hooded sweatshirt
1 pair fleece pants
1 Tilley Hat
bathing suit

Sunlinq 25W (12V) folding solar panel
Tekkeon MyPowerAll and apparati
Solar battery charger and apparati
EeePC and apparati
Eneloop batteries (AA and AAA)
Petzl headlamp
plug converter
surge protector
watch + extra
maglight replacement bulb
2 maglights
clock replacement batteries
travel alarm clock
Canon S5-IS digital camera and ~7 GB of memory in SD cards
mini tripod
pair Nikon Monarch 8x42 binoculars (feeling ambivalent about taking them)
microfiber towels


2 40oz Klean Kanteens
1 2.0L Platypus bottle
36 water purification tabs (emergency)
Backpacker firestarter thingwop, lighter
2 divacups
2 bottles shampoo
soap dish
first aid kit, pads, pills, tape, ace band
hair stuff
1 or 2 deoderants
tooth powder and 2 lotions
spare glasses
cloth tape
3 journals
2 little notebooks
moleskine book-in-which-to-write-lists
pens, pencils, erasers
pictures of friends and family

address book
presents for my host family (dollar store stuff)

mini buck knife
1 paring knife (homemade)
duct tape
sewing kit
lids for platy
700-lb string


Give Me The Brain
1 deck playing cards
mandolin, pitch pipe, picks, and strings


Chayanov's Theory of Peasant Economy (of questionable use)
The Screwtape letters
The Elegant Universe
last two song I&F
frenglish dict
KJV bible


spices (especially Italian spice mix)
clif bars/candy/comfort snacks

letters from kids
travel pouch w/ dox
cash and sneakpouch
voided check
immunization history
2 WHO cards


yellow drybag
green drybag
yellow otterbox with lock
yellow otterbox with lock
black Otterbox with lock
timbuk2 bag
big pack
backpack with lock
1 padlock
various small cloth bags and pouches


sleeping bag patch

[Note 1 from edit 1: Some of you may be wondering why I continue to post this list, and why I persisted in posting the Madagascar list--it's because I know this blog is very googleable and I really enjoyed crawling through everyone else's lists for packing. It's part of the waiting game. Also, I keep hearing about how PC/RIM people recommend bringing pillows, pillows, pillows, because you can't get a good pillow in PC/RIM. I'm not that much of a pillow person, so I'm not bringing one, but I hereby fully accept responsibility for being pillowless...]

[Note 2 from edit 1: The word 'Teççie' is not a real word, I know. But try spelling it with a "ch" instead, and see how wrong it looks. Techie doesn't look right--it needs a doubled letter somewhere in there. Tecchie looks wormlike, Techhie looks like it ran into a wall, and Techchie looks like some cutesy brand name neoprene slipcover--one step from TechChic, into which I refuse to buy. Luckily, the diacritical mark adds a verbal 'h' to the letter (or, it does in Turkey, and that's good enough for me). Thus do I circumvent the awkward word. Which should really be spelled awkword. /explanation]