Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breaking them in

Just sent off my last Dickinsonian column for the year – yet another spur-of-the-moment creation, for better or worse, and this time on the more verbose side (shocking, I know)…

Confession: I hate shoes. I know that all women are supposed to love them and waste far too much time, money, and space on them, but if it were socially acceptable to go barefoot, I would. Shoe shopping is not a draw to me, it is a horror. Regardless, the recent arrival of a new pair of flats was both necessary and welcomed. The trick about new shoes: breaking them in.

Ok, ok, please forgive the fact that this, my last column for the year, is inspired by shoes. I’m generally not so superficial. So, recognizing that, I’d be much obliged if you could keep this in mind and see the larger picture here. Besides, if I have such strong feelings in opposition to the purchasing of shoes, why would I waste my time and yours in talking about them? Good question, and one I debated over myself, to be honest. But here’s what I came up with:

Truth be told, this is the third pair of flats that will suffer under my possession. Now, I only say “suffer” because they’re worn to a pulp… if it were possible for shoes to be worn to a pulp, that is. They weathered trudging up the unshoveled sidewalks of DC under the “snowpocalypse” of 2010; they weathered the Indian festival of Holi, one of the greatest celebrations known to man (result: the shoes became as dowsed in colored powders as I was); they even weathered two months in Ghana during the rainy season and the alternately water-logged or dusty streets of Accra. In short, they saw quite a bit of life with me, and they show it.

Their brethren pair that recently arrived in Carlisle, yet unaware of its similar fate, is destined for a summer in Denmark. There, they’ll join me in biking from my apartment, down Helsingørsgade, past Frederiksborg Slot and its early 17th century royal castle, and in to the center of Hillerød, where I’ll be interning for two months. They’ll also join me on jaunts to nearby Copenhagen and mini trips into southern Sweden, Germany, and the Czech Republic. That’s a lot to handle for a pair of flats, and they have no idea what they’re in for. At the same time, though, neither do I.

Before I pack these ill-fated shoes for a summer in Europe, breaking them in is a necessary evil; even just the test run to the Quarry was a painful experience, the flats annoyed at being put to work and taking it out on the back of my heel. As I strapped a Band-Aid across the injured party, though, I reminded myself that once broken in, they’ll do very well on my jaunts and journeys, and I’ll be sad to replace them in the future as, ultimately, I must. Funny, isn’t it: I’d say the same about the experiences.

When I stepped off the plane last May, I was greeted by a wall of hot, humid Ghanaian air, a rickety conveyor belt I could only pray would yield my bag intact, and a large concrete wall covered in the word “Akwaaba!” – Welcome! There were people everywhere, balancing impossible loads atop their heads or selling unrecognizable food along the side of the road, day and night. English was an official language, but it wasn’t generally the language of choice. And there I was, with eight weeks ahead of me.

Adjusting is never easy, this we know. Really, though, it shouldn’t be. New experiences and adventures truly ought to require a Band-Aid or two, if you ask me; it’s the best way to learn and appreciate. Those flats didn’t know what hit them when they stepped onto the pot-holed streets of Accra, but by the end of the summer, they were naturals. They bore the mark of shoes that had seen a bit of the world – more worn, perhaps, plenty scuffed along the way, but they’d reached that peak stage in the life of shoes: instead of an awkward addition, it was like they’d become a part of me, this extra protective appendage shielding the soles of my feet. We were in it together… Does that sound silly? Most likely. A bit of “silly” is advisable from time to time, though, especially when accompanied by logic and reason.

As I look forward to powering through the end-of-semester insanity and boarding a plane to Copenhagen (via Reykjavik, which I’m oddly excited about), I know myself well enough to anticipate the necessity of Band-Aids. It’s a jungle out there, and the vast majority of new experiences are accompanied by some initial discomfort and insecurity, some bumps and bruises along the way. In the end, though, it’s all part of the adventure, and it’s something I wouldn’t miss for the world.

Monday, April 25, 2011

News updates: speedy, informative, and the teeniest bit biased...

With all the hullaballoo about NYT's implementing a new plan for charging readers, it should be noted that e-mail updates (morning, news alerts, evening, etc) remain free, and something I and many have been on board with for a while now. Around the same time of subscribing for NYT e-mails, I did the same for Washington Post - annoying during, say, primary elections, but more often an entertaining little look into the peculiarities and nuances and word choice, connotation, and focus. One look at tonight's news updates from both is more than enough to remind one of the importance of getting information from more than one source. heh...

E-mail update from NYTimes, sent at 8:54pm:

News Alert: Classified Military Files Offer New Insights About Guantanamo Detainees
A trove of more than 700 classified military documents provides new and detailed accounts of the men who have done time at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, and offers new insight into the evidence against the 172 men still locked up there. Military intelligence officials, in assessments of detainees written between February 2002 and January 2009, evaluated their histories and provided glimpses of the tensions between captors and captives. What began as a jury-rigged experiment after the 2001 terrorist attacks now seems like an enduring American institution, and the leaked files show why, by laying bare the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal.

E-mail update from WaPo, sent at 9:29pm:

Breaking news: New documents reveal al-Qaeda leadership's actions on Sept. 11, 2001
A cache of intelligence assessments of nearly every detainee at Guantanamo Bay obtained by WikiLeaks presents new details of the whereabouts of al-Qaeda's core leadership on Sept. 11, and their movements afterward. The documents also offer some tantalizing glimpses into the whereabouts and operations of Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hillerød: 55 days and counting

Funny thing about travel: you go some places (eg somewhere warm, somewhere developed, somewhere in Europe, or somewhere with beaches and drinks with umbrellas), and everyone wants to visit you; you go others, and everyone thinks you're nutty.

The majority response to learning I was spending the summer in Ghana, no matter who the respondent, was likely to be either (and I quote directly) "wtf? where?? ...why??" or, directed at my mother and/or step-father, "you let her do that?!" Answers, for anyone wondering: a.because I had the opportunity and it was a fantastic one, and b.as full financier (with the help of a Dickinson grant) and a legal - and somewhat independent-minded - adult, I was not "permitted" to do anything, though I did first win over their blessings. ...then promptly booked a non-refundable ticket.

As I plan for this coming summer in Hillerød, Denmark, however, two friends have already made plans to visit, with others claiming they wish they could. ..No one wanted to visit me in Ghana, eh? You don’t know what you’re missing out on by dismissing Africa, world. I miss that continent. Its people and languages, its culture and traditions, its landscape and markets, its kelewele and jollof, its fresh mango… aaah…

The less-than-welcomed insanity and occupied thoughts with the rest of life, however, have been pleasantly interjected with news of the coming summer: my own place just 1.5 miles from the office and downtown Hillerød; a stipend for food, travel, “cinema tickets,” and whatever other living expenses while there (the man actually listed cinema tickets.); a bike; and, almost exciting as the bike and the stipend, no office dress code. Then add to that the great opportunity in the internship for communications and IT to make a real difference in someone's life (eg helping with the summer program at the national center for blind and partially-sighted children), etc.... Score! Oh, right, and mustn’t forget: you can actually see Frederiksborg Slot from Sensus’ office in Hillerød. A castle. A castle built in the early 17th century by King Christian IV, no less. ...geesh.

55 days to Denmark is not soon enough. In the words of Paul Theroux, “travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


While enjoying a Latin American dinner event this evening (somehow, another post inspired by a dinner event. odd.), our plates full of empanadas and platanos and arroz con frijoles, a Puerto Rican friend leaned over to the girl seated beside him to suggest the best way of eating platanos fritos (fried plantain).

"Try this garlic sauce," he insisted, "They're best when you have them with this."

I looked up just in time to catch her sideways glance at him and hear the accompanying response, said with that stereotypical power of attitude that print just can't convey as well as it deserves: "I know, I grew up in Brooklyn - I'm cultured."

I couldn't help but smile in agreement and appreciation. Funny, isn't it, the number of definitions for a word like "cultured"....

Monday, April 11, 2011


Over a dinner of chicken masala and naan this past weekend, a friend bluntly informed me that I smile too much. Me. Kate Musgrave. Smile too much. …Right. Take that, those who say cynics are really just pessimists in denial. There was really only one way for me to respond, though: another, more bemused, smile, quickly breaking into full-out laughter.

Just for comparison, as I stood waiting in the student union building one day, getting some quality thinking time in, another friend had approached me with a look of concern and asked why I was sad. I wasn’t sad, I reassured him, I’m simply not in the habit of wandering about with a smile plastered on my face. People might start to think I was a bit… off.

In places like DC especially – which is where I spent this past weekend and, consequently, where I was found to “smile too much” – one certainly is looked at askance if caught randomly smiling. None of this silly, small-town-inspired smiling, making eye contact, meandering down the street, etc. No no, we are to walk quickly, stand silently, and pack together on the Metro while avoiding eye contact or smiling as much as humanly possible. Kind of like the opening scene in “Metropolis,” but less creepy.

To be fair, sure, there’s a chance I’ll think you’re a bit odd if every time you walk by me you have some mysterious smile on your face, because not even Julie Andrews smiles all the time, even when thinking of her favorite things. I might also think you’re a bit mean spirited if you never smile, though.

Perhaps if I’m smiling “too much,” it’s because my accuser was including smirks and more bemused looks than anything else, which are fairly common in his presence as I marvel at the odd and/or unexpected scenes I sometimes find myself a party too. Take, for instance, that evening, prior to the over-dinner accusation: 27yr old Cuban, 24yr old Iranian Kurd, and a 42yr old Iranian Kurd (a KDP rep. in the US, no less), sitting around a counter together and alternately discussing renovations, the origin and production of Milka chocolate (internet search yielded Germany, though wrapper notes only Austria), and a recent trip to visit family in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hard not to smile and shake my head at the whole scene.

In any case, as with anything, life has its ups and downs, and experiencing both is part of the game and the challenge, eh? Some smiling, some smirking, some straight-faced Metro-ing, some not-so-much-in-the-mood-to-smile-ing. Ideally, heavy on the smiling.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I don't think anyone can deny that in the process of writing something of any serious length - a 50 page thesis, for instance - things can get tiresome. Some interest and enthusiasm lost, some vim lacking and vigor misplaced. At least temporarily.

Ok, ok, I'll be honest: since submitting the second third of my thesis nearly a month ago, I've barely touched it. In fact, I doubt I've even opened the documents since early March (she admits semi-apologetically). Now I face the next 15 page deadline, due Friday but necessarily submitted early thanks to plans for a long weekend in DC. Needed to do this: return of the interest, enthusiasm, and misplaced vim and vigor.

...aaaand success. Reading over a vague outline I'd created some time ago and attempting to remind myself of where I left off, I was, more significantly, reminded of where I'd begun. The inspiration. Examining a selection of works by Jhumpa Lahiri, what I have now at hand is a postcolonial-rooted look at identity and multiculturalism... but what it began with was a story from a small country in West Africa and the question of identity there. And with the story of close friends hailing from South Asia, now making their home on the East Cost. And with the story of another close friend who traveled from Cuba to El Salvador and Nicaragua to Moldova to Canada in search of safety and political asylum, and now also finds himself on the American East Coast. And with the story of still others, finding their roots anywhere from a Native American reservation in Nebraska to the Kurdistan of northern Iran. Each brought new ideas to the fore in the question of culture and identity, and each now serves as a face and story that form the driving force of this growing Word document in front of me.

I'm not the kind of person who can write for the sake of writing. I never kept a journal (which aptitude tests in early school days seemed to find critical in determining your future with the written word), and I tend to hold the general belief that I ought to have something relatively worth saying before I actually trouble myself and others with the verbosity that often ensues. I want a purpose. Raise questions, attempt to answer them, discover new ones, learn, enlighten, entertain, record something that deserves recording, recognize someone who deserves to be recognized. Something to make it worthwhile.

With that, though, must recommence with the thesis-ing, rediscovered inspiration and encouragement in tow.