Sunday, February 27, 2011

"They give me power..."

As my twitter feed explosion goes from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain to Libya, keeping me and much of the rest of the world glued to the nearest news sources, my mind transitions back a few years to a chance encounter, two brief afternoons, and a fellow named Salam Alkhwaji.

In early January 2009, needing a bit of a mental health break from spending winter "break" in small town Pennsylvania with relatively little to keep me occupied, I bought a flight to Blacksburg, VA, to stay with a cousin for a week in the home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. As he spent most of his days working, I spent most of mine reading, seeing a bit of the town and campus, and hiking the local trails, with or without his lively dog Nike. 

On one such Nike-less hike, nearing the end of my return trip on the Huckleberry Trail (I kid you not), I spotted someone walking along a road parallel to that section of the path, mid to late 20s and with a distinctly un-American sense about him. Intriguing - and all the more so as the path and road converged at a nearby library, at which point he passed me with a few long strides as I made my way in for some essential water bottle refilling. Intrigue heightens when he hesitantly approached me as I finished, asked if I was a student at VT (both accent and looks affirming Arabic origins), and invited me out to lunch. Lunch? Eh, sure; laugh if you will -or cringe in the potential stupidity- but I had no plans and was relatively hungry, he had a promising vibe (admit it, people give out vibes!), and a restaurant was a perfectly public place. So to lunch we went.

Salam Alkhwaji, hailing from Libya and in the States for a Masters or PhD in engineering of some sorts. We ate, then made our way to the nearest Starbucks for some leisurely chai and continued conversation, meeting up the following afternoon for another lunch and exploring the VT campus, wandering past the April 16 memorial and through the library before I soundly defeated him in a few games of pool. Then it was time for me to make my exit. Admittedly, a large part of that was of my own doing, both because I was simply leaving town and in assuring that he wouldn't become overly attached, as some of his side comments had me a bit concerned. A genuinely friendly and intelligent fellow, nonetheless, and an interesting encounter, to say the least.

Thus, as news came of protests, clashes, and bloodshed in Benghazi and Tripoli, my mind recalled Salam and a brief encounter and email exchange two years ago. On an impulse, I sent an email his way, just to prove that I'd kept my promise to remember him and to check in, in hopes that he and his family were well and looking forward to a brighter future, painful and rocky road though it is. His response was a poignant one.

"...Thank you for your thought. I really appreciate your words and they give me power, and show me that there is good people around the world, who like other humans..."

Wham. Flashback to a hard-hitting email from a coworker in Ghana last summer, who'd written after our spending a day together in Cape Coast to tell me how difficult it was to find and believe that a "light skinned lady" would be so down to earth as I was, how much he respected me for it and how "humbled" he was to find that I was "thinking so differently from the other light skinned people who come around."

Part of me is unspeakably touched and honored by such grand compliments said so simply and with such openness. The other part of me, though, cringes at the thought - that they should need such reassurances that there are good people in the world or that a "light skinned" person such as myself would treat a black African as a friend and equal. Feeling helpless in the face of problems far larger than myself and wishing there were more I could do to battle them. I'm torn between being reassured myself in the hope and goodwill of the world and sheer frustration, even anger, at how far there is to go in so many ways.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Bill Ayers, activism, and Girl Scout cookies

As I left a cardio-yoga class this evening, bagged yoga mat slung over one shoulder, I came across a fairly large crowd of people in the student union building. I'm not quite sure why, but my initial reaction was nervousness - this could be less than ideal, something could be wrong, this could disrupt the refreshing peace that had permeated my class-less day, etc. Perhaps it was partially thanks to the general vibe of annoyance and frustration that accompanies any line-waiting, or perhaps it was some subconscious reaction to activity that's kept the campus vaguely abuzz throughout the week.

Factor 1: Speech by Bill Ayers, as previously alluded to. Debate on and off campus about the wisdom or lack thereof of inviting him to speak about activism, announcements to "get there early so protesters don't take up the front seats!"... didn't turn out to be an issue, as the first several rows were reserved (not for protesters, though that'd have been interesting), and in fact the few "protesters" at the event included four or five students standing outside, passing out flyers regarding Ayers' past with Weather Underground or holding a poster about inviting a "terrorist" to campus. Great to see the dialog and students taking an interest, and more power to those students for expressing their views, but I do hope they took the time to actually listen to the man they were protesting (though I know none took part in the Q&A, during which he openly encouraged the audience to pose pointed questions). After all, how can you properly debate something if you don't take the time to understand your opposition and know what it is you're opposing?

Factor 2: Ayers was on campus as part of Dickinson's annual Public Affairs Symposium (PAS), this year themed - excellent timing too, eh? - on social activism. Beyond the speech, the symposium has included other events in the following days, particularly a "day of action," which certainly... enlivened... the student union building and nearby plaza. Students with signs advocating gay rights lying around the building as though dead, a "soap box" event to speak out, and the plaza criss-crossed with caution tape and folks protesting PA fracking, among other things. Great opportunity to be active and get your views out there, bring them into the public sphere, etc. Again, though, have to say - and this was on the minds of some at the Ayers speech, from what I can tell - there's a certain risk in being caught up in the grandiose idea of activism without truly thinking about why you're... well, being active. Brings to mind a comment I overheard while observing a pro-life protest in downtown DC last January. Fellow intern: "I want to protest something!" Me: "What do you want to protest?" Fellow intern: "I don't care, anything, I just want to protest!" So eager to feel a part of some grand revolutionary movement, she didn't even care what the movement was.

Similarly dangerous, I'd say again, is not taking the time to concern ourselves with the opposition. One of my friends on campus, for instance, being from central PA, has gained a more personal perspective on the fracking debate, and when accosted by a protester on the plaza, noted that, at least in her view, the fracking was keeping her community "financially afloat." The response, apparently? "That doesn't matter!" *pointed look from her* "...That didn't come out right..." Can't help but wonder if that student had gotten a bit too caught up in the chance to declare oneself an activist - so much so that he failed, if only momentarily, to fully consider the human aspect from all angles. Almost recalls a scene from the classic movie "Amistad," in which a man basically accuses a self-proclaimed abolitionist of racism. Contradictory? Not so much, if the trouble is that the fellow is not fully invested in his chosen "cause," if he supports the idea without fully understanding or supporting everything - and everyone - else involved in it. Caught up in one's own activism, in a way.

Thus, perhaps subconsciously, my vague unease when I came across the crowd of students. One can imagine, then, what a pleasant surprise it was to find that the cause of the gathering was not some grievous upset or complaint, but a table laden with cookies and staffed by a handful of young girls clad in green vests and sashes. Indeed, it's Girl Scout cookie season. Here at Dickinson, they hit a hotspot of hungry college kids (too bad they didn't wander into the library); when I was in DC last year, they'd set up horrendously enticing displays at the entrance of Metro stops. Talk about knowing what you're about, geesh. If these little ladies keep it up, I'm guessing they'll do well in the world.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Quick afterthoughts/additions to the previous post:

1. Ok, ok, from Berkeley Breathed and the classic Opus: perhaps we're all just talking to ourselves sometimes, eh?

2. And a thought from a friend over dinner: "All writing is narcissistic," in response to my concern re. the listening-to-yourself-talk feature of writing (particularly that which is put into the public sphere but lacking the dialog feature I considered so necessary to dodging the narcissism). Sure, to some extent, you've got to believe you have the right and ability to say whatever it is you're trying to say, and to believe it deserves to be heard/read (again, not the first time I've mulled over this). ...but the goal should be more than talking to ourselves, should it not? meh...

"This is my letter to the world..." part 2

Emily Dickinson once wrote, "This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me...." A phrase I love and have, briefly, mentioned in the past. At the time, I brought it into the blogging realm mostly in displaying this excellent "opportunity to interact with the world... it can read your letter, and write back if it so chooses." ...If it so chooses. You can go on forever talking to yourself, imagining who may or may not be listening, reading, caring. These grand ideas of connectedness are mere potential - are they just as good if we don't use them? Is it perhaps that much worse that we have these abilities but aren't using them to their/our utmost abilities? Not to be ridiculously cynical, but when you see that elderly person meandering around the library and talking to him/herself, do you think "Hey, great, at least they're getting their ideas out there"?

Take, for instance, the 'drafts' folder. Frankly, it could be relatively embarrassing for me if anyone were to spend some serious time in my 'drafts' folders, which gradually fill over the year, most never to be looked at again, let alone sent. Some notes to self, some cathartic verbalizations, frustrations or musings, specifically addressed or general. Is it that much worse that it's been said or written, not just thought or felt, and there is every means of communication at hand, yet that gap isn't quite bridged? Because it could be verbalized in the click of a button?

That, you see, is my thing with blogs. All this talk - rightfully - about what great potential they have for encouraging and continuing dialog, etc, but that's just it, isn't it: potential. Class blogs in which students are jettisoned into reading and commenting, class forums that have been posed but never posted, or posted then never used. Blog sites that have been started but not continued (why not? too busy? feel that they have little worth saying, or no audience concerned or interested enough to listen?) or blogs that have been posted but never viewed, never pondered, never discussed. What's the worth of technology if it's there but not used? We complain about wasted time, wasted paper, setting printing limitations and compost and recycle to avoid what would otherwise be viewed as horrendous waste - what about the written word not consumed, not digested? (Too far with that metaphor? likely.) Emails never responded to, calls never returned, conversations never continued - but worse, conversations never had! Might as well be logging things away in our 'drafts' folders or not writing them out at all, no? Is there still some worth in blogs if there's no sign of their having been read, no dialog? 

Really, it comes down to the old standby - if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it fall? Or take it to another level - if there are atrocities being committed in some corner of the world, rights being denied or violated, and no one notes them, what are their worth? What about the people involved? Or if someone misrepresents or disregards your identity, is it right to classify you as a "non-identity"?

So if there's great potential at our fingertips and it isn't being used, does it still matter? Or is it that much more of a shame because we're missing the opportunity; is the atrocity that much more atrocious because we didn't pay attention, or didn't care, or didn't take the initiative to do something about it, to start - and continue - the dialog?

Since the age of about 7 or 8, I sat at the front window, awaiting headlights as my father came to pick me up for a weekly visit. The frequency of these visits would gradually drop, ultimately relegating themselves to major holidays and birthdays. To this day, I dread waiting around for people, setting my schedule (or worse, hopes) to someone else, avoid forced dialog or waiting fruitlessly to hear from someone. It's discouraging. And it's something brought to mind by that "sheer hell of self-doubt" noted earlier. The sense of talking to a non-responsive void... how much good does it do us? From time to time, I have trouble convincing myself that "points for trying/putting yourself out there" is always all that applicable. Sure it's there, and there are pros and cons to everything, but that elderly fellow wandering around the library and mumbling to himself is a disconcerting and discomforting sight.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In defense of intelligence

"We really are more intelligent than we sound, I promise!" Ah, the self-consciousness.

Having dragged my friend Kofi along to a lecture this evening by the vaguely notorious activist and former educator Bill Ayers, I sat in the auditorium chatting as we awaited the start of the program. Truly, our conversations have a history of flying from place to place, ranging from Thoreau to the current situation in Côte d'Ivoire to gender debates or "aluminum" vs "aluminium." As we sat awaiting Ayers, the conversation circled around the less sophisticated: gender debates and attractiveness, people watching and discussion of common friends, some vaguely embarrassing comments and chuckles at statements said thoughtlessly but potentially laden with innuendo. When, not ten minutes later, a fellow sitting in front of us turned to ask me if we were Dickinson students (turns out he lives in nearby Harrisburg), I felt the need to qualify my affirmative answer with the above brief, half-joking defense of our intelligence, which likely hadn't been well displayed in the conversation he'd overheard. It was as though I'd landed myself back in the times of Jane Austen, apologizing for perusing a novel instead of some dry but proper morality reading. On the contrary, he reassured me, we do sound intelligent - "just talking about life," as he put it.

Still have to laugh at myself a bit, though, knowingly shaking my head at my own self-consciousness. This is not at all out of the norm for Kate behavior. Truly, it was well displayed one day several months ago, when the car I was driving decided to break down on the busiest street of Erie, PA, right in front of the major highway ramp and during rush hour on a Wednesday. As a friend and I watched in laughing astonishment, some rather bold drivers actually took to bajaing (can I make that a verb?) through the median a foot or two from my window. That is, it was all entertainment until one woman, ironically criticizing my abilities as a driver while her husband careened their car over the median, scrolled down her window and yelled with all possible annoyance, "Turn your four-ways on!!" I yearned to defend my intelligence, to yell back and explain "They were on, but the alternator died and drained the battery!!" Damn it. I'm not stupid, I swear.

And again, not a week ago found me reluctantly in conversation with a fellow student over the counter of the circulation desk while I worked, her checking in on how my thesis was going (unstarted at the time). After asking that I reminder her of my topic, she said condescendingly, "Ah, right, I remembered your prospectus mentioned ___ and ___, but that neither of them had anything to do with your thesis. Well, I better let you get to it." I'm not going to lie, I wanted to chase that girl down, partially to kick her for her continued and patronizing rudeness, that omniscient tone that grates on my ears, but more to tell her exactly why she was wrong, to prove that there was a connection and I wasn't completely dim. Lucky for me, workshopping that part of my thesis a few days later did that for me. See that? I wanted to say. I'm not all that foolish.

It's an interesting impulse, this urge to defend my abilities - particularly my intelligence - when I feel they've been doubted. This could inspire some major psychoanalysis, eh? Maybe conscientiousness about meeting expectations (past or current), reminiscent of the nerdy Brian of "The Breakfast Club" fame, or shaky self-confidence in one form or another, or, for some, a need to uphold some egotistic beliefs or self-perceptions. Or maybe what author Richard Wolffe termed at a recent lecture, in regards to his life as a writer, "the sheer hell of self-doubt." (That last bit's a good one, I'd say, particularly as a writer.)

Brought to mind also, however, a clip a friend had recently shared regarding education, the pros and cons of "the system," the expectations thereof. Afraid to make mistakes, or be seen as less than intelligent? Just an interesting bit of an on-going discussion here...

Ken Robinson speaks on education, via TED:

*I should admit that it's vaguely entertaining, by the by, that this discussion on the education system should return to my mind via an encounter while awaiting a lecture by Bill Ayers, as his second claim to fame, in addition to co-founding Weather Underground, is in the realm of the pedagogical.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Leavin' on a jet plane ( June, at least)

Happy to note that I've officially - finally - purchased tickets for a summer in Europe, flying into Copenhagen in June (via Reykjavik- anyone been? ha) and out of Munich in August. Amazing how quickly one can spend several hundred dollars, isn't it?

The plan: Interning in Hillerod, Denmark, for two months, at the end of which I'll be joined by a friend from home for just over a week of misadventures in Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague, and Munich.

How it happened: I met Lars and Lars (seriously, one of the founders of the company, whom I'll be staying with this summer, is one Lars Christensen - talk about Danish) when they visited Ghana last summer to meet with the publisher I was interning with there. We all went out to dinner one evening, and the two invited me to join them (here's a preview, and here for a more detailed version) for a Saturday afternoon trip to Akosombo Dam and Shai Hills Reserve. We hiked, listened to the World Cup game on the radio, took pictures of baboons and antelopes, climbed into a bat cave, and talked.... long story short, last fall over email, Lars offered me an internship with them at Sensus, making a foray into information technology and communications, particularly for those with disabilities.

How it nearly didn't happen: Financing is always and continues to be a small nightmare, family complications, weighing pros and cons, working out timing (last year I flew to Ghana five days after moving out of DC; this year, I'll be flying to Denmark two days after my brother's wedding).

What I'll be up to: Helping on various projects in the company (they also have projects in Egypt and Ghana), possibly joining Lars to a few conferences or the like, newsletter things, possibly helping those working with the technology (eg check this out: RoboBraille), and, intriguing addition, sounds like I'm set up to visit and help with the summer program at the National Center for Visual Impairment for Children and Youth, a key Sensus customer. That last part sounds like a bit of a challenge - and something totally new for me - but one I look forward to, and something that reinforces my decision to spend the summer there.

And aside from that... I'll be in Europe! Because, hey, confession: I was the first in my family to get a passport, and that was for Ghana (back in the day, going to Canada - an easy day trip from my house - didn't require much in terms of ID)... so I kind of threw myself into the world travel experience, making West Africa my first stop. This summer, it's Europe, and frankly, I'm pumped. Hillerod's not far from the coast of Sweden, so I'm hoping to make it to that fine bit of Scandinavia, then of course the final trip into Germany and the Czech Republic for all that one must do there - we're already planning visits to cathedrals, main squares and the like, hopes for a castle or palace or two (in addition to Frederiksborg, in Hillerod), Brandenburg Gate (side note: part of the Berlin Wall is now in DC's Newseum - worth a visit), the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and the former Dachau concentration camp, outside of Munich.

In the mean time, must get back to work to attempt to fund the aforementioned trips, though hopefully a grant from Dickinson will also be a player in that... fingers crossed. Any thoughts on must-see (or even should-see) places on that side of the ocean? I'm hoping weekends allow for some adventures beyond Hillerod and Copenhagen- we shall see. Any suggestions or thoughts on the above would be wonderful, so please do enlighten me and advise. :)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Language abilities: English, Spanish, French, ...Pidgin?

This past weekend, I once again took a mini trip to DC, this time in academic pursuit: the annual AWP Conference. ...Ok, ok, so the draw of the Assoc. of Writers and Writing Programs was greatly aided by the fact that it was held in one of my favorite cities, meaning a visit with good friends, homemade Indian food, surely one of the best crêperies on the East Coast, and the entertaining and peculiar encounters that can happen only in places like the Metro (or in the aforementioned crêperie, if you're an older, somewhat short Colombian fellow who finds it necessary to remark on the beauty of my eyes and persistently ask me out for coffee or tea).

...but I digress. Inspiration for my attending the conference: keynote speaker Jhumpa Lahiri. Beyond that, though, was a day full of picking and choosing panel discussions and readings, all excellent and thought-provoking, though some notably more so than others. Panel 1 for me: women and travel writing, or "wanderlust." While I extend major props to all four panelists, the most thought provoking of them for me, unfortunately, did so in a "that is exactly what I don't want to do" kind of way. Her commentary? Feeling sad upon return, finding the trip to have been "meaningless" - because the trip is over and she knows what happened, she is left with no questions and no curiosity, and thus has trouble writing about it or feeling good about it. What's more, according to her, travel writing ["outside of war zones"] can potentially lack plot, as people go to "happy places."

A panel I attended later that afternoon offers up a fitting quote in response to such an outlook, I think: "It's not even like you're seeing the tip of an iceberg - it's like you're on a beach somewhere sipping a margarita and someone somewhere mentioned something about an iceberg." (Credit to Ru Freeman for that one). In short, if one finds their travel to have been "meaningless," something has gone terribly awry, and/or the situation requires some rethinking and consideration - really, nothing should be totally devoid of meaning (right?), let alone spending a fair chunk of change to traverse the globe and encounter new people, cultures, (mis)adventures.

A.The phrase "happy places," admittedly, makes me cringe: I don't need to have read The Geography of Bliss to note with some confidence that defining and finding such purported places is not all that simple, and if you think you've found Eden, I'd guess you're either having an out-of-body experience (hopefully not drug induced) or you're sipping that margarita and wondering what the hell an iceberg is.
B. Lack of plot or interest upon conclusion of the trip, as she "already knows how it ended": where's your sense of curiosity, woman? Someone truly (or even vaguely) observant ought to be coming up with more questions than answers...
C. "Meaninglessness" in travel: gah. 1.Curiosity, or at least some level of interest, should solve that. 2.I'm no missionary or grand democratizer or anything of the sort, but I do feel the need to take something with me, do some bit of good if I can, beyond supporting to the national tourist industry. 

I suppose that ("C") is what drew me to the backup summer internship goal of working with USAID - I want to travel, but not just for the margarita sipping. Sure, legitimate French crêpes or Spanish paella and art-laden visits in Italy very much strike my fancy, but I don't think I could guiltlessly cafe-sit 24/7. Right next to the hunt for authentic baklava or Renaissance frescoes is that little sense of accomplishment that says I tried to do something of worth for someone somewhere - that I noted the damn iceberg and helped get people into a few lifeboats, if nothing else. Perhaps it was the summer in Ghana that really instilled that as a travel necessity in my mind, or the research on education development in India and literacy in developing countries, the musings for a possible Fulbright proposal.

That means, of course, that I'm wanting to make it to developing countries as well, beyond those typical "happy places" - as evidenced by the first passport usage for a trip to Ghana (back in the day, Canada didn't count). I can proudly add an understanding of West African Pidgin to my list of languages, though my ability to speak it is a bit rough (favorite phrase: "make you no worry"). I wonder if that'd be a valid résumé addition?