Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Opportunity, come and gone

I've been kicking myself for the past half hour. No, no, not because I did something and it turned out poorly or otherwise than I'd hoped - because I failed to do something. Speak. Darn it all. 

I can go to school where I know no one, intern in DC for a semester, again knowing  no one, or fly to Ghana for the summer, yet again potentially not knowing anyone (in the entire country.... or continent.), and now checking flights to head off to Denmark for next summer, in which case, again, I've met briefly a grand total of two people in the whole of the country - and I'll be living with one of them. But here I am in Carlisle, step into the cafe on campus to grab a quick dinner, and I find the 22 year old Spanish poet I'd watch perform last night sitting at a table by himself, slowly making his way through some sushi, and could I work up the mental power to say something to him? No, no I couldn't. Or didn't, rather. #lame.

In Dickinson's (sometimes obsessive) spirit of global connection and for sheer interest's sake, last night I attended a Semana Poética reading by two poets: David Leo García, 22, of Spain, and Tatiana Shcherbina, 56, of Russia. García, not surprisingly, could blend right into the Dickinson population, and I'm guessing that a fair number of the students in The Quarry when I came upon him this evening had no idea that he was not on campus to take classes. So why on Earth was I so completely incapable of simply dropping by and saying "Hey, I really enjoyed your reading last night," or "Hey, I saw you lighting up outside of the Stern Center last night and I'm concerned about your health".... ok, not the latter, but the former? Really, Kate, how old are you? Argh. Prime opportunity, missed.

Honestly, it's moments like that that bother me most. The "what if"s of life really are the scariest features, aren't they? The most troublesome, the most frustrating, the must mind-numbingly unavoidable. What if I'd had the courage to do this, say that, approach that person, try that? Even the smallest things - say, trying alligator when you find it on the menu in a New Orleans restaurant - can result in some level of regret. Some say it tastes like chicken, the waiter said it tastes like veal... but when will I next have an opportunity to decide for myself? It could taste like goat, for all I know (at least I know what goat tastes like). The potential scrumptiousness of carnivorous jaws with four legs and a tail is besides the point, though.

That which we don't know often scares us the most... but what if it's something we could know, or rather, could have known? Darn it all. Can you imagine if everyone walked around literally kicking themselves when they'd missed out on something? What a sight that would be- highly entertaining, but, at root, incredibly depressing. Sometimes, of course, I see the logic in thinking "Why worry about it now?" Perhaps more often than not, though, I can't help but be bothered anyways, even if there's nothing that can be done to change it - heck, all the more so if there's nothing I can do to change it. Peter Pan flashback as we realize that, ultimately, we risk running out of chances to come back through that window if we keep passing them by.

The conclusion of this self-rebuke, this opportunity missed? Well, a determination not to miss it again, should the occasion arise. Let's be honest, though - I'll miss other opportunities in the future. A lot of them, probably. It's an unavoidable fact of life, isn't it? Sure, I'm fortunate to come across many other opportunities I would never have expected... but I'll still miss some in the mean time, and it's something I'll just have to live with sometimes. Other times, though... well, I'll be darned if I can't lower that rate of missed opportunities, or at least repair it when missed.

[Yep, I've just realized that the above is in nearly direct opposition to the previous post- part of the frustration/ lameness (indeed.) of it. C'est la vie.]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Leaping into the unknown... again

When I packed for DC last winter, I had little idea of what I was getting myself into - an internship for the spring in a city I'd only visited briefly, living in an apartment with three girls I knew nothing of, working with a paper that I, frankly, knew little of, taking the metro in to the city for a 9-5 as though I were an adult rather than a 19 year old girl from small town Pennsylvania. ...and I loved it. The roommates were a bit nutty, truth be told, but I fell in love with the city and value the people I met there and experiences we had more than I could have imagined.

When I signed up to volunteer with the Association for India's Development - that is, found them online and emailed a current volunteer to express interest - I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew TWC asked its interns to perform some kind of "civic engagement" during our time in DC, I knew I wanted something to do with a non-profit working for developing countries, and I knew I had a growing interest in India. Ultimately, I found myself sitting cross-legged in a circle of maybe eight Indians-turned-Washingtonians, discussing literacy and anti-corruption initiatives in the basement of Dr. Mohan Bhagat, preparing for upcoming fundraisers, speaking with social activist Sandeep Pandey, celebrating Holi, and enjoying dinner and chai with some of the best people I've met in my college career.

When I boarded my flight in JFK this past May, it had not yet completely hit me that I was, in fact, on my way to West Africa. Africa... I was going to Africa? I'd been planning for it, informing friends and family, getting myself psyched for the summer... and, yet again, had no idea what I was getting myself into. Not surprisingly, it was a summer I'll never forget. As we crossed the Atlantic, I peeked out my window to enjoy a fantastically clear view of the stars and it struck me - yep, I was going to Africa. I had to allow myself a moment of congratulations, quite honestly: the first in my immediate family to get a passport, much less use it (let alone the destination), I'd always wanted to travel, though it seemed a vaguely distant possibility in the sleepy town of North East... and here I was, en route to Accra, Ghana for the summer. It was actually happening.

Today was a wonderful day. I'd completed two back-to-back midterms yesterday, received surprisingly positive results on a paper (it must've been the help of the General Tso's I ordered to inspire the writing of this essay on Chinese politics), successfully completed a class presentation on Henry V, got out of class early... and learned that a friend had skipped a class because I'd warned him earlier that I might not make it, so he'd have to maintain his sanity without me. Now, I know I shouldn't approve of that last item, but really, must admit it's an ego booster. And what capped it off, on top of the fantastic beginning-of-fall weather? Further news on an offer I'd received earlier to spend next summer in Denmark working with a pair of IT/communications fellows I'd briefly met in Ghana. The more feasible it seems, the more excited I am - and in awe of how things seem to work themselves out from time to time (with a bit of help, naturally).

Of course, planning is still very much in the process... but, naturally, if this is actually made to come to fruition, I'm positive I'll still have no idea what I'm getting myself into - and I relish that knowledge. Where's the adventure in knowing, eh?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

El mundo está mirando

I am currently sitting at the circulation desk of Dickinson College Library in Carlisle, PA, and watching the rescue of 33 Chilean miners between perusing the battles of Henry V and overseeing the check out of materials to weary Dickinsonians in the midst of midterms. Watching live, that is - wee hours both here and south of the border, and miner #3 has just surfaced and hugged everyone in sight. Amazing..... Louis Armstrong did say "they'll learn much more than I'll ever know," did he not? As I watch live the rescue taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, from far far away, he might have to say  it once again- what a wonderful world. ...And one that seems smaller by the day, doesn't it?

El mundo está mirando, Chile. Felicitaciones!!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The art of listening

Ok, ok, I give in: breaking from a furor (does that work here?) of researching, reading, and Pandora listening to briefly yield to the impulse of reflecting on a comment from a friend earlier today. Namely: "I wish that I had your ability to talk to random people, who turn out to be the most interesting people in the world."

First things first: I'm flattered. It may be silly, but this is one of the greatest compliments I could imagine receiving, behind two prior remarks regarding my apparent ability to deal with whatever comes my way (one learns to take punches and work with the cards we've been dealt, really). The flattering factor here: what a fantastic thought. I do love talking to people - or, more importantly, listening to people. Anyone. They're just such fascinating creatures, aren't they? I'd love to think I have the ability to do this with relative ease... though I suppose the important part in this case truly is that other people think I have the ability to do this. (Too Machiavellian? In some cases, I really do have to agree with the man that what seems to be the case is more significant than what the case actually is.)

Next, the background: While applauding her latest Norwich blog, I commented that I enjoyed "living vicariously through you, my friend, as my adventures at the moment have been limited to occasional jaunts down to DC to meet up with an older Cuban fellow I met on the metro last spring... very unEnglish of me." Now, to be fair, he struck up that conversation, not I; I merely allowed for its continuance. ...And he did turn out to be a remarkably interesting person, at least in terms of background- father died somewhere in Central America fighting one thing or another (so detailed, right?), an only child orphaned relatively young, moved to Moldova with a few cousins for political asylum, then relocated to Canada, where he lived with an Iraqi family for eight years, now in DC working with home renovations while taking classes at George Washington for a law degree. Intriguing, no? If that isn't inspiration to talk to random people, I don't know what is.

The beauty of it is, though, that people don't have to have such absurdly colorful backgrounds to qualify them as worthy to listen to, much less particularly interesting. In fact, I'd hazard to guess that one could find something interesting in everyone - their story, what they do and what they've done, where they've been and where they're going, who they are and who they've known... and the beat goes on. I firmly believe that even the dullest person out there has some interesting quirk about them - even if it is puzzling over how they came to be so horrendously dull. Sometimes they can surprise you... for better or for worse.

For better: owner of Larry's Ice Cream off of Dupont Circle, one of my absolute favorite people in the greater DC area. Name: Jimmy. Country of origin: Turkey. Dubbed by the Washington Post: "the Scoop Nazi" (Seinfeld, for those of you missing the reference). Why a man named Jimmy owns an eatery named Larry's: that's what it was when he purchased it and he just didn't feel like changing the name. Some people find him terribly rude and inappropriate, but I find him hilariously sarcastic, blunt, and endearing to no end. Happily, the feeling is mutual, as he's dubbed me his girlfriend, gives me extra ice cream, and ignores waiting customers to chat with me over the counter - even when I've just dropped in to say hello. (Note: one of those reviews, admittedly, is from me. Can you guess which? hint: I've never tried the cupcakes.)

For worse: the vice principal of my public middle school in small town PA, a former Benedictine nun. Source of knowledge: I was recommended as responsible enough to dog sit (3 fantastic labs) while she attended an event one night... and other nights, though I had the good sense to reject her after the first. Cause of distress: half-cooked chicken left sitting on the counter, fruit and vegetable crispers filled to the brim with beer, freezer full of pizzas, and, the last straw, underwear strewn across the staircase. I vowed never to return as I took a flying leap over the old woman undergarments, and it's a vow I've had no trouble holding to.

And on that note, it is most definitely time to get back to the work at hand. Moral of the story, if I had to boil down all this verbosity and relatively needless detail: let's do ourselves a favor and take a moment to listen to people. You might be surprised by how wonderfully interesting - or at least entertaining - they can be.

...Ooh, no, afterthought: also important to note that, of course, people enjoy being listened to; it's good for the soul. All the more reason to take a moment and listen. Once, while I was sitting deep in conversation at the fountain in Dupont Circle, a homeless man appealed to a pair sitting nearby, only to be met with the most frustratingly patronizing and simplistic outlook on life and moral guide I've heard in quite some time - I was fit to burst, as was noted by the observant fellow sitting next to me. He could see it in my eyes, I suppose. Thankfully, the daft pair ultimately ceased their haranguing and we beckoned the man over to give him what food we had, an orange I'd been carrying around with me that day... and soon enough, we were listening. I'll never understand what that man had been through, but I'd like to think it'd helped him in even the tiniest way, in that one moment, to share his thoughts with others rather than be talked down to. After another moment and a hug, he was off, and we were back to the fountain, now lost in thought as we considered what'd just happened. Turned out to be a perfect evening.

Kicking it up a notch... in the nude

Nude modeling. That’s right, this post is inspired by nude modeling. Turn back now if you’re uncomfortable.

When I learned last week that a friend would be sitting as a nude model, I was torn – intriguing and hilarious, endearing and disturbing, a yearning to witness it and simultaneous happiness that I did not have to witness it (though, annoyingly, my mind’s eye wouldn’t knock it off). Shortly after learning this enticing bit of news but just prior to the scheduled modeling period, I had the pleasure of running into this friend and took the opportunity to both congratulate and question him. Nude modeling may be known for paying relatively well, my friends, but that takes a lot of courage.

As we discussed it, he admitted to it’s now dawning on him that, oh my goodness, it’s real; he actually had to stand naked in a room of fully-clothed people, all staring intently at him. Naturally, I had to ask: what on Earth inspired him to do such a thing? You’d need to pay me much, much more to even consider it. Not surprisingly, his response was a typically insightful yet understated little remark: “Because it scares the hell out of me! And you can’t just have something out there scaring you like that.”

How interesting. This crazy fellow had signed himself up to sit in the nude for two hours in large part because it scared him? An intriguing idea… not a particularly new one, I suppose, this whole “face your fears” philosophy, but certainly a new realm of application. Nude modeling just isn’t one of those things that comes up every day. He had the option of turning back due to discomfort, but instead chose to run headlong into it.

Now, I’ve done a few things that would be less than comfortable for a few people, I suppose (some intentionally, some I fell into). I flew to West Africa for two months of this past summer, starting out with a bang for the first stamp in my passport beyond Canada. While there, I rode in a death van of Ghanaian public transportation more commonly known as “tro-tros,” and I hiked the canopy walk of Kakum National Park, a narrow bridge of wood and rope strung from tree to tree, suspended roughly 30 to 40 meters above the ground. I climbed into a bat cave, and I wove my way through the central Accra bus station just minutes after Ghana’s kicking the US out of the World Cup. Even more frightening for me, I surprised a large lizard into granting me the right of way and shared a cold shower with a cockroach or two… but never would I have the courage to be a nude model.

As a double major with plans to graduate early, spending my free time working at the library, doing research assistance, and freelance editing, I appreciate a good challenge. I’d hazard to guess that we all do, in some little way. When I’m back on campus, though, it’s just so damn easy to get caught up in the little bubble that can be Dickinson (please don’t cringe upon my saying that, Global Ed. people; I hope you catch my meaning). I can drop myself into books, wading through websites and online journals, pages upon pages of Word documents, and not once have to go out on a limb that extends notably past academics.

Frankly, I’m not about to declare intentions of nude modeling, as that just goes far, far beyond my levels of self-confidence.  I might, however, see if I can’t pick up the game a bit beyond the typical and take a small step towards something less than comfortable… within reason, of course. Ahem…

Note: As with last week, admittedly, this is fodder for my Dickinsonian editorial of the coming week... more inspiration floating around in my noggin (which never stops running, even when I'd like it to), but lacking time to turn it into a post, unfortunately. Fall Pause can't come soon enough... much more productive on pretty much all accounts then, Scout's honor.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A glimpse of humanity

Lounging around Dupont Circle during a visit to DC this past Saturday, I was suddenly accosted by a vaguely horrifying sight: a very tanned, slightly withered old man, strutting his relatively obese self across my line of vision in a pair of baby blue, nearly non-existent short shorts. I gasped in shock and horror, unable to tear my eyes away before the worst of it: his walking away, giving me a prime view of that which I truly did not want to see.

Needless to say, I was profoundly glad I’d already consumed my ice cream, having lost my appetite forthwith. However – and here’s the important part of the story – one positive thing did come of it: a moment of mutual understanding with a complete stranger.

As I watched, wide-eyed and mouth agape, the wonderfully bold and unconcerned old man walk away, I heard a British accented gasp of “Oh my God,” and managed to pull my eyes away to note that the common sentiment had come from a passerby who had also just played witness to the unfortunate sight. He, having heard my own disturbed mutterings, turned towards me, made eye contact, and our looks of horror quickly subsided to smirks of mirth and, ultimately, flat out laughter. Were we terrible for reaching this mutual understanding at the expense of another? Perhaps… but no harm no foul, right?

Confession: though it may sound odd, I love moments like that. Moments when, even in the middle of a bustling city, one can pause to soak in a quick and unexpected connection with an absolute stranger. It seems in some way wonderfully humanizing.

The DC metro, for instance, is possibly one of the least such humanizing features I’ve ever come across: people packed in body to body, all silent, total lack of facial expression, filing down the platform and up the escalators with quick steps and steady gazes. Yet, one day, I randomly made eye contact with someone across the car, we found ourselves nearer together as we gradually approached the door and others exited at their respective stops, and we ultimately struck up a conversation. This was last spring, and truth be told, we just met to catch up over dinner shortly after the aged and exposed rear threatened to cause permanent damage to my retinas. One exchange, one moment of humanity, and it yielded an interaction I’d never have anticipated.

Back on campus, dinner in the caf. some time ago found me goofily bopping along as I sang the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs from the ancient Christmas classic, “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” in an attempt to culturally educate my friends at the table. Now, don’t judge me, please, because my fellow Dickinsonian sitting at the next table over certainly didn’t. Instead, when he was suddenly given a straight-shot view of my less-than-dazzling solo, he caught my eye and burst into a huge, friendly grin. Even as I turned an absurd shade of pink in embarrassment, it was clear he was, in all sincerity, smiling and laughing with me, not at. I still have no idea who it was, but I applaud his friendliness.

Of course, the fantastic feature about all of this is the sheer unexpectedness of it all, the fact that it could happen at any time and anywhere, in a crowded DC metro or in a college dining hall. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love people watching, but perhaps even better than that are these such moments. No longer an outside observer, some random person in the world has just reminded you that you are a person of the world, too. And it’s lovely.

Sometimes the inspiration for the moment is disturbing, sometimes a completely random catch of the eye, sometimes entertaining, sometimes potentially mortifying… the list goes on. Every time, though, it makes me smile in proving that, no matter where you are or how large the world, there can and will always be such instances of unadulterated humanity, plain and simple.