Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Public You

Something that's been rattling around in my head for several years now . . .

Summary: From a certain point of view, there are 3 things that make up who you are: 1) Intelligence; I.Q., more or less. 2) Courage to question your beliefs. 3) Courage to act on your beliefs. This applies most when thinking about ideologies and politics.

There are different conceptions of self. In the West, it's mostly about who I perceive myself to be, whereas in the East, it has more to do with my family, my community. That's a broad generalization; there are lots of variations, and no one's got it quite nailed down. What is the self? Who am I, really? One of my favorite ways of thinking about it is the Amish response to the question "Who are you?" According to popular belief, the answer is something like, "Ask my neighbor."

So it's like the self can be looked at from outside yourself, inside yourself, inside your community, outside your community, etc. Really, there could be an infinite number of "selves," and without getting too ethereal with the logic here, who you are could change based on a number of metrics.

So let's think about the construct of a "public self," or who you are as far as your place in the world. While "left" or "right" in terms of political ideology is often an overused oversimplification, it has proven to be fairly apt, and I'm using it here. We know what someone means when they say "I'm a leftist," "I'm a conservative," or "I tend to fall in the middle." It's one metric for getting a sense of the public self.

I posit that where a person falls on the right-left spectrum can be understood by how they measure up on three variables: 1)Intelligence, or straight-up I.Q., 2)Willingness, or courage, to challenge their own beliefs, and 3) Willingness, or courage, to stand up for their beliefs.

Intelligence: This probably doesn't seem very P.C., but some people are just smarter than others. Of course, there are all different kinds of "Intelligence," and a person with an I.Q. of 85 could be a brilliant musician, far outshining another person with a 150 I.Q. who can't carry a tune or keep a rhythm no matter how hard s/he tries. Accepting that I.Q. is a limited conception of "intelligence," it fairly accurately describes a person's potential to reason, conceptualize, and comprehend complex topics such as we encounter in sociopolitical dilemmas. Someone with a high I.Q. is able to understand the complexity of the world, whereas someone with a lower I.Q. might not be able to quite make sense of it all--not that s/he should be expected to. I personally maintain that it is the responsibility of those with higher I.Q.'s to attend to the more complex matters of society, and the extra dignity that is given to these positions is not necessarily deserved, since no politician, leader, or luminary would have any power whatsoever were it not for the thousands of lower-caste people forming the bricks and mortar of the society they are assumed to have "led" or "built." Let's also dispose of the notion that it's somehow bigoted to identify and appreciate intelligence for what it is. If ten people are in a room with a ticking bomb, and none of them has ever defused one, the one of them that is most likely to figure the thing out and save their lives is the best choice to take on the task. And that person is the smartest one in the room. Likewise, smarter people should be given more responsibility in the higher levels of society--to a point. The other metrics I'll lay out should help to clarify.

2) Courage to question one's beliefs: It is scary to think that you are wrong, as it can threaten your premise for existing. If I've been living the last ten years spending all my time and money getting my hands on as many pieces of used tin foil as I can, because I believe that tomorrow the tin foil deity is coming to whisk away all tin foil-havers to a paradise garden for eternity, and then someone challenges my practice by saying I've been wasting my time, it's not only bad news for me, it's an indication that I've wasted the last 10 years of my life and am therefore a fool. That's why it takes courage to question your beliefs: again and again you risk having to acknowledge to yourself and to the world around you that you might be a fool. I don't claim to have a comment on the veracity of religions, but one reason people tend to cling to the beliefs with which they were raised is because it's intensely frightening and horrifying to imagine everything you have believed might be wrong; it's far more comfortable to build arguments and logical fortifications so that you can plausibly defend your belief system, and hence sleep at night. The courage to cast aside that comfort in the name of "truth," (whatever that admirable notion may be--I personally have very little idea) should not be undervalued.

3) Courage to stand up for your beliefs and your self: This is an easy one to understand. It is the domain of Joan of Arc, Rosa Parks, and any martyr from any religion, war, schoolyard bullying session, public scandal. You believe that something is right and you put your life, reputation, happiness, or health at risk. It is the type of courage needed by soldiers going to war to fight for their country. If you don't believe in your country, it's going to be difficult to die in its defense.

Now here's where it gets interesting: People have different mixes of these three. And that's what I think makes up who you are as a public person. It allows you to look at a person through a different lense. When we think someone is wrong, we often simply say they're "stupid," or "an asshole." Maybe they just have vastly different priorities.

Let's give some theoretical examples:

Rush Limbaugh: Very intelligent, Very willing to stand up for what he believes, Very unwilling to question what he believes.

Bill Maher: Ditto.

That bong-smoking friend of yours who talks philosophy all night but never seems to get involved with anything or hold down a job: Intelligent, willing to question what he believes, but not willing to stand up for what he believes.

George W. Bush: Average intelligence, very willing to stand up for what he believes, unwilling to question what he believes--that's why he was a bad leader, though arguably Limbaugh or Maher could have been worse, due to their deadly combination of razor-sharp intelligence and complete unwillingness to question their own belief systems--as has likely been the case with all tyrants.

What about someone with low intelligence but plenty of both kinds of courage? Ah, there we have the underappreciated "salt of the earth," methinks. The people who don't try to stick out, but rather work hard, watch the news, lend a helping hand where they can, try to have a happy life, and never judge people or try to advance an agenda past what seems prudent. These may be among the happiest folks around.

So who are the saddest folks around? I'd say they're the ones who lack either kind of courage without completely compensating with the other kind. There's the woman who's shut herself up from the big bad world because it frightens her, and in her own home and heart she'll never admit that she might be wrong about some things. There's the man who will never, ever question the rightness of his cause, but can't quite summon the guts to stand up at the town meeting. These, I think, are the angry, sad people of the earth.

The ones who may be the most immediately dangerous to themselves and the people around them--though relatively harmless to society at large--are the ones with less intelligence but plenty of just one kind of courage. Think cults (stand-up courage, but no questioning courage). Think self-haters and mutilators (questioning courage, but no stand-up courage).

Of course, the Super Human would be pretty high in all three metrics, but nobody's perfect. Since I'm the one pointing the fingers and judging people, I'll let you in on my own self-analysis: I figure I used to be more of a Rush Limbaugh/Bill Maher, around my high school and earlier college days, but now am more of a "bong-smoking friend of yours." Not that I smoke bongs. You get the idea.

As a nation, I don't think we're getting dumber. I think we're getting more cowardly--and it sure seems like we're losing the courage to question our beliefs faster than we're losing the courage to stand up for them--although lots of people are losing that one too, probably myself included.

. . .

There. I just had to get all that down somewhere. I don't think anyone reads this anymore, but if you did manage to slog through, and you have an opinion on this, please critique the idea by leaving a comment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The respect I genuinely had for John McCain

Dwindling, dwindling . . .

Saturday, August 09, 2008

proudest moment

Completely unexpected moment of pride in my country, courtesy of . . wait for it . . . . . . Kobe Bryant.

So you know how we've had some real jerk-cough moments in recent Olympic history, like our sprinters or basketball players basically being arrogant pricks?

Opening ceremonies, Beijing Olympics, a-yesterday. Some candid footage of the athletes mingling in the middle of the stadium, having finished their little march with their respective flags. Kobe and LeBron are mixing it up with some of the Russians (some of whom wanted a picture), and they're about to part ways. It's that kind of sports footage where you can just barely make out a few of the things that they're saying, and you sorta have to read their lips too. And I know for sure that, as they were shaking hands and about to walk away, Kobe Bryant sez: "How do you say 'thank you' [in Russian]?"

Dude's wearing Ralph Lauren, nerdy golf cap and all, making a real effort. And it really looked like all of the other basketball guys were doing the same.

Cut, of course, to Bush looking bored and checking his watch (fer serious).

But still.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

we ruin them

I just had a thought:

Maybe it's not the candidates who are slimy and pandering and who will do anything to get elected--at least not at first. Maybe they're actually civil servants who want to do some good as they see it.

And then we ruin them.

Douglas Adams: "Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."

Who listens to the attack ads? Who actually decides to change their votes based on them? Who actually gives a crap about what Obama likes to drink at breakfast or how silly John McCain looks in that picture where he's hugging George W. Bush? Who hones in on stupid, insipid buzz words like "elitist" and "flip-flopper?" Who cares more about whether they can "relate" to a candidate more than whether or not he/she is a smart, capable leader?

We do. And that's how we make McCain spew forth Karl Rove crap, and we make Obama "shift" his positions ever so slightly and ever so often enough that we forget what it is either of them used to stand for, and all we're left with is how mad we are at the other candidate. We could have had an election between Bob Barr, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, and maybe Dennis Kucinich. Those guys actually stand for something. But we won't stand for it. We'll believe whatever the TV's tell us, and by our complacency we tell them what to tell us.

I used to have fairly high opinions of both candidates. I'm madder at McCain now because of the base he has to pander to, but overall I've just come back to that old, familiar place of having not much faith in either of them. And at the moment, I'm thinking that it's America's fault.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I've now done work for 3 organizations with "Peace" in the name.

One great thing about working for Greenpeace: I feel like I can write something honest about working for Greenpeace on a blog and the chances are that they won't kick up a fuss. After all, GP isn't exactly about maintaining the status quo and political correctness, and gettin' arrested is something they're not strangers to.

Speaking of which: Whilst my job has little to nothing to do with the sit-ins or banner-hangings that GP does and which often garner arrests, really respect their line on it. They say that civil disobedience is breaking an unjust law--which GP may do from time to time. But what we do more often is break laws that we think are good, for a purpose. This is why GP activists cooperate and act courteously when the cops show up. We do the things not to get arrested but to call attention to an issue and to achieve a goal that we think outweighs the negatives of being apprehended by the law.

One less-than-nice thing about working for Greenpeace: the imprint the crazy hippies seem to have left on peoples' minds. A few guys with dreads associated with the environmental movement in the 70's act like jerks, and suddenly it's like I've killed your dog. Granted, that's only one or two a-holes per week/month who act like this towards me, but that's all it takes to bring you down sometimes.

Ahem: Greenpeace is just trying to protect the environment, everyone. That's it. I promise. I'm in it now, and I used to be a little wary of it. No, I probably don't agree with everyone at GP about every issue. But I also didn't have to swear an oath of allegiance, unlike the US Peac e Cor ps, where I had to swear to protect the US from "any and all offenders." So please. If you're one that thinks GP is a bunch of crazy eco-terrorists . . . well, stop it. We're not.


What chafes me about global warming deniers, on a personal level, is that I'll probably never get a real chance to say "SEE? &%$#*&!%@ SEE?! I TOLD YOU!" Because ignorance always fades slowly. All of Florida could fall into the sea, and the ocean could feel like a hot tub, and people would still find a way, at least at first, to say the globe wasn't heating up. I'm sure it took a long time for people to let the flat-earth theory go. We'll look back in 50 years and realize how dumb it was to claim that global warming was a hoax ("Wow, Grandpa, people actually believed that?") but between now and then it'll be a gradual thing. No amount of Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change is going to change that fact of human nature.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Greenpeace actually isn't very crazy

I'm here getting trained in San Francisco for my new job with them. And they're pretty darned good. As in, pragmatic, reasoned, reasonable, professional. Full of really smart people. Those crazy things they do from time to time? They actually get things done. If you thought they were crazy and ineffectual, it's probably because you weren't he target audience. That's my half-epiphany for now.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Yes, yes, yes, yes:

"The mark of a free man is that ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right." -Justice Learned Hand

"Adam, you're too hard on yourself."

"Whatevs, maybe I'm just free."
-Author Unknown

I'm not old, but I can already feel a difference from when I was 18: It gets harder and harder with each year to admit that you're just straight up wrong. You've lived, after all, for XX(X) years and you've learned a thing or two. The problem is, you're never too old to be fulla shit. A few days ago my grandfather (Fox News watcher, has framed pic of GW Bush on his kitchen counter) sort of softly ripped me a new one, in his grandfatherly way, for my recently demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility. And you know? He was right. And you know? It was really, really hard to admit it, even to myself. And I said, "Self, how many times have you been called out on your crap over the last year and NOT admitted to yourself that you were wrong?"

(Answer: 14)

Which is (tangentially) why, if my guy Barack wins the election in November, he's going to get anything but a free pass from this Citizen. (Did'ja see? I reference the new name of my blog.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Speech, the day after

I've realized that for me, someone's reaction to this speech is a perfect litmus test of who is worth listening to.

It was the best treatise on race covered by the mainstream media that I've heard in my lifetime. Only a true racist can completely dismiss Wright without seeing the underlying truths in what he was overzealously trying to express. The issue goes so much deeper than any person can even comprehend without a humble, concerted effort to understand why your brother acts the way he does without first judging him for it. If you can't see the value in Obama's speech then you: A) Haven't dealt much with racial problems (which is very plausible/understandable if you're from NW Iowa or Montana), B) You were bound and determined to be against whatever came out of his mouth to begin with, for any number of reasons, or C) You just plain don't want to step outside of yourself for long enough to consider what's really going on between races.

Funny, the people I always suspected weren't worthy of very much respect invariably reacted negatively to the speech, and even ones with whom I disagree but are still cool--they reacted mostly positively.

You don't have to want Obama to be your president. You do have to see that it was a vital, honest speech with real content.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Speech




If anyone happens to read this post, you've got to see/read the speech Obama gave today about race. Whether you're a Republican, Libertarian, Greenian, Democrat, or Vanilla Swirl. Take the armor off for a minute and just read/watch the speech.

That's all I have to say.

Except one more thing: I'm not much of a patriot. I think patriotism is more or less "the belief that one country is better than others because you are in it." I think it's one step away from nationalism, and nationalism is how ALL of the big wars get started. I think if we actually want God to bless America more than we want him to bless Iran, we're just wrong, and we're the Romans.

But I love my country, like I love my extended family. And today, I have more hope for her.

Monday, February 25, 2008

the 46-year-old 6-year-old

Easily the greatest picture I've ever been in. Click on the picture to see it big.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hey right so I came back, right?

My brain’s been a dorm room since I got back from Malawi.

I’m back from Malawi.

What do I mean by my clever metaphor? I’m having fun, eating a lot of pizza and watching a lot of TV but in the corner there’s a whole pile of granola bar wrappers and dirty laundry and creased-up papers detailing assignments that I should have done two weeks ago. Now that’s all metaphorical, okay?

I have no good reason why, but when I was over there doing whatever it is I was doing, blogging was nice. Nifty. And now, like the last time I did this, I feel like a tool when I type things out. That dorm room thing? Would I have posted that while I was in Malawi? That sounds so bleepin’ stupid. Like a dumb jerk trying to make his everyday life seem tasty and funny and relevant to people in the webosphere. Seriously. Webosphere? I typed that because blogosphere is an overused word and “on the web” would have been too commonplace. So, I haven’t wanted to blog for a long time, again. I’m forcing myself right now.

So I decided to come home just a bit early because the GF had some medical issues that were stressing her out just a teensy bit—which is to say, she might have had cancer. So I pulled out a few weeks early and I’m home now. I had one of those invigoratingly hellish last weeks in Malawi where I got a few hours of sleep a night and didn’t remove my shoes for about 4 days trying to get everything done. Everything got done. I found a good home for my kitties, spent all the surplus money from the Zikomo Project on orphans’n’sickpeople’n’schools’n’ that kind of stuff, took some pictures, bought some souvenirs, and left. I almost missed my flight because a friend bought me a drink as we were waiting to leave. I said “sure, one drink can’t hurt.” But the drink was about 14 ounces, 8 of which must have been brandy. And as the plane is boarding, 30 minutes behind schedule, I show up at Customs (not the gate, mind you) going, “Uhh, am I late?” Fortunately they were nice enough to whisk my dumb butt through and I got on the plane.

Saw some hippos before leaving. That big yawny thing they do? They really do do it. A lot. Also lots of monkeys, a ton of those antelope-type things with the curly horns like a snake coiled around an invisible branch, and supposedly a green mamba, though I’m suspicious. Are they really supposed to speak in a cockney accent? This one for some reason confused me with a governor of some sort. Polite though.

Oh, Hillary (GF) doesn’t have cancer, turns out. Possibly should have mentioned that earlier.


I finally ate bugs before I left. The ones with the wings that you peel off. Now just listen. I’m not doing the thing where you try to make yourself sound really exotic and cool in saying “Oh, they actually tasted pretty good.” But they actually tasted pretty good. On Colbert the other night a guy came on to pitch his newest book, which is about, among other things, why we should eat bugs (because it’s good for the environment and they’re full of vitamins and stuff). And because of my breathtaking African adVENture, I can actually say he’s got a point and he’s probably right.


That blog post that Catapult Magazine used? They also put it into a book, apparently. Which is cool. You read it here first, folks. I now technically have original work published in two real books with ISBN’s and everything. In the other original work, however, it’s under the pseudonym Adam Solberg, since they wanted to make me sound Jewish. I’m actually telling you the truth here.


Can I say that I rather hoped that going to Africa would make me feel better about race relations? And it didn’t, really. I guess it might have made up for an upbringing in a place where between the ages of 0 and 21 I saw like three black people, but I still am so far from really understanding what it’s like to be a black dude on the West side of Chicago. I guess that’s sort of the point (that I’ll never understand), but still. Actually, the best education I get these days is listening to Lupe Fiasco or Talib Kweli (whom I really like) and Ghostface Killah or Wu-Tang Clan (whom I like too but can’t honestly say I can quite make the bridge over into my own experience when it comes to the lyrical venom (hate?) and guns and bravado.) Then again, I didn’t grow up under the long legacy of slavery and the injustice that seems to show up when the Haves think they deserve what they’ve got and that the Have-nots are just lazy and stupid.

You say you worked your way up the ladder? Well, if you’d started where they did, down in the muck, I’d give you your props. But do you even realize that you started three quarters of the way up?

Yes it’s all very fascinating.

Hi everybody.

Monday, December 24, 2007

I admit it.

I've been watching the polls for the 2008 Presidential Nomination. Way too much. I know polls are mostly crap and are a civic-minded person's version of Us Magazine, but it's my vice that keeps me a little connected with America.

While the opinions they are a'flying this season, I have to add mine to the stack. I think the following people are actually decent people: Edwards, McCain, Obama, and most of the candidates who aren't getting any support, like Kucinich. And I believe that Obama has a chance of doing some real good.

A recent poll (of 1 household, one person who is Adam) showed the following numbers:
Obama: 72%
Edwards: 21%
McCain: 14%
Clinton: 2%
Huckabee: 0%
Giuliani: 0%
Romney: -9%

I kind of wish you could cast a negative ballot. For example, if the election race ended up being between Clinton and Romney, I'd love to be able to just tick a box that said "NOT MITT ROMNEY" and have it cancel out someone else's vote in favor of him. That'd be sweet.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

No Matter Where You Are, You're With The BBC.

Got some lice. Apparently they’re not the kind that live in your hair (I don’t have any in my hair), but the kind that live in your clothes (I have some in my clothes) and bedding (I have a lice refugee camp in my blanket). When I find one, I squeeze it until it pops and my own blood oozes out. I go, “Give me that back you little turd.” He goes “. . .” I wipe off my fingers on my pant leg.

Apparently I’ve got to boil my clothes and Raid the crap out of my house. A tiny part of me was hoping that all of the itching was some kind of witch doctor hex that would require some formation of rocks, hair and teeth around my house, coupled with some kind of lizard tea, for eradication. But no, just lice.

I was on my way into the hospital to ask them why I was scratching my skin off uncontrollably, when fortunately I was accosted by some friends. They told me, “Hospital? What for? You’ve got lice, dude!” I laughed and did a little dance. See, my insurance doesn’t cover skin diseases, and I was petrified that I had some kind of weird skin disease that would require special care and big doctor bills. So lice were a welcome relief. Even though the whole thing is pretty gross.


Lately I’ve been learning about agriculture. Soil degradation, fertilizer, that kind of stuff. I’m trying to get people in the village to try some sustainable methods of farming. It’s pretty awful to see a village in Africa where one of the few products of technology that have become ubiquitous—chemical fertilizer—is also one that hurts the land. I mean, of all of the advances of modern science that could have come along, of course the one that is more harmful than helpful is the one that everyone’s using. See, you can grow more maize (pretty much the only thing anyone grows around here) with the chemical fertilizer, which means more money to feed your family. Problem is, next year the soil’s going to be worse, and a lot of the land is now at the point where it can’t produce anything without the fertilizer. This sucks, because the land in Malawi that’s been left alone is incredibly rich and fertile. There are a number of people working against this trend, but another problem with third world development is that it’s like pulling teeth to get the average person to try anything other than what they were taught to do. It’s painfully ironic that people are at the point where they’ve actually been taught to use chemical fertilizer, that it’s now part of indigenous village life, but there you are. I’ve only got a month and a half left here, but in that time I’m going to at least try to get a few of the people I know out in the village to try a few new strategies with a field or two. With a lot of luck, it’ll work in the “test field” and they’ll want to do it all over their land. Then the rest of the village will see it and put it into practice themselves.

Right. Well, there’s always a chance. Just have to plant the seed.

I’ve also been working on building a good stove out of bricks and clay that will efficiently burn wood and produce less smoke. Unfortunately, that project suffers from the same problem. The women say, “We’ve been using a couple of bricks around a campfire-style oven all our lives. Why should we use this weird-lookin’ thing?” I usually reach for a chicken and bite its head off, to show my disgruntlement. They go, “Hey, we’re running out of chickens. You’ve got to curb that shit.” I go, “Sorry. It was either the chicken or my own elbow. The chicken was lookin’ at me weird too.” “He was not.” “Yes he was.” “No he wasn’t.” “Well, he did the other day.” “No he didn’t.” “He did too.” “No, no he didn’t.” “Okay fine he didn’t. Leave me alone.”


Latest illusion of which I have been disabused: That going overseas and working in development does more relevant good for the planet. It doesn’t. In fact, this little trip has made me much more sensitive to my duties back in the states, and made me realize the interconnectedness of “development” in the first world and the third world. While there are a billion reasons why cultural engagement is just as important at home as abroad, I present three:

1) Systems affect systems. The more just the U.S. is, the more justly it will treat other nations. Maybe if we were nicer/smarter/humbler as a nation, our aid programs would kick ass, our economic policies would be compassionate, and we wouldn’t drop so many bombs and deny/overthrow so many democratically-elected governments. Educating our fellow countrymen (where we have knowledge and expertise to do so) and getting involved in local governance, as boring as it may seem to us youngsters bent on world-changing, is of course what grownups do.

2) It’s easier to affect what you know. While it’s sexy and adventurous to go to Africa, the fact is that I’m not African and the myriad cultural differences mean that it takes a long time to understand the culture enough to be able to effect change that’s sustainable and correctly principled. Anyone who tells you otherwise is stupid. If I’d put in the time and energy doing what I’m doing here to doing similar things in the States (and, of course, been able to convince people to give me money to do it), I’d probably have been able to do things at least as good if not better.

3) The environment is the environment. Since we pretty much spit out a quarter of the world’s pollution, and that actually produces ill effects in places like Bangladesh and East Africa (see: Typhoon(s), Record Flooding/Drought), seems pretty logical that fighting against pollution in the U.S. must be pretty important. Feel disillusioned about making a difference in the States? It’s just as hard and frustrating anywhere. See my previous rant about disillusionment.

Yeah. Them’s my two cents. Again. Aaaaand scene.


Yes I know I blog about my opinions and my diseases and little else. I am aware of that.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

aren't we the problem?

Hi blog. I got Malaria—finally. I was starting to get exasperated at my inability to catch any of the really cool diseases. First off, I have another installment into the “Africa for Regaling Guests at Cocktail Parties—Like a Douche Bag” handbook:

Ha! You know you’ve been in Africa for awhile when all of the following happen and none of them surprise you:

1) You get Malaria (and go to the hospital).

2) At the hospital, the floor is strewn with large, moth-like flies, floundering around like as many fish in the bottom of a boat. Well, flying fish.

3) You go, “Doesn’t inspire much confidence, does it?” and the nearest woman with good English replies, “When they get big enough we eat them.”

Ha! So as I was saying, everyone must visit Africa. And read The New Yorker or something.

End of excerpt. Apparently the bugs you fry up with just oil and a little salt. I’ll let you know.

Anyway. Got malaria out of the way. It wasn’t that bad, really, because I was on prophylaxis—which doesn’t prevent malaria, but kind of smushes it a bit when/if you do catch it. Malaria here is more like the flu: Everyone seems to get it from time to time—you take a few days off of work, get some medicine, and then you get better and go back to work. It’s not as big a deal as it probably seems. Yeah, people occasionally die from it, but that’s almost always very small children, old people, or people with HIV/AIDS.


Oh, some friends from college who do an online magazine for people who like both God and social responsibility (though if you ask me, those don’t mix) saw my blog post about cynicism where I talked about Dreamingers and asked me to tinker with it a bit to make it into an article. So it’s at www.catapultmagazine.com. It’s a biweekly e-magazine, and the current issue will be gone by this coming Friday. A goodly amount of you people who peruse this blog already know about Catapult, but if y’don’t it’s worth a look.


I’m going on record now as saying Permaculture is the future of Planet Earth. (Google is your friend.) As the planet gets hotter and our unsustainable practices piss off Mother Nature enough that she really does something to get back at us, and we actually get it through our heads that we simply can’t keep living like we have, I predict 1) Massive population control efforts—cuz after all, if we’re honest, none of these things would be a concern if there weren’t so danged many of us doing the same danged things—and 2) Permaculture as a way of living for almost everyone. Personally, I want to be able to tell my grandkids I was on that wagon long before the band.

‘Cuz yeah—it’s getting pretty crazy. I mean, we’ve already obliterated so much forest worldwide, caused so many species to become extinct, and generally mucked things up to such a degree that it seems we’re kind of on a collision course with some sort of cataclysm, doesn’t it? I mean seriously. I don’t mean in a doom-and-gloom sort of way, but really quite seriously. I don’t think it’s even possible, what with people so doped up on all their frivolous technology and consumption habits, that we’ll change in time to avert major disaster. I feel kind of bad, because I’m pretty sure that as a privileged, educated Westerner, I’ll be fortunate enough to escape most of the consequences, but do I deserve to?


Better tell you this: John is my neighbor. He’s cool—really, really awful teeth though. His family’s originally from Zimbabwe (which is somewhat more developed than Malawi); they came here a little over twenty years ago and now hardly anyone even remembers that they’re not Malawian. The men of his family were meeting to decide what to do about their niece. Her husband’s away in South Africa working. He’d been there in the past too but was fired after stealing from his boss. She just started working as a maid for a richer man affiliated with one of the political parties here. Aaand, here it is: she was raped by this guy. At the moment, she was at large—she’d fled and they couldn’t find her. They’d sent the smaller children on various missions to go out and look, but at the moment they couldn’t find her. As you might expect, the chances of the political operative seeing justice is slim to slimmer to none. As I write this, they still haven’t found her, at least to my knowledge.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Iron Lion Zion

I am not cynical.

People are generally more bad than good. Most Western aid to Africa doesn’t work and some of it does more harm than good. The human race does not, in general, move forward. We are no less barbaric than we were four thousand years ago. The situation of the poor here in Malawi is not going to get better for a long time.

I am not cynical. I don’t think telling the truth is ever cynical. There are two kinds of dreamers. Those who have a dream (Dreamers) and those who dream as a way of life (Dreamingers). I’m trying to be the former, and I’ll never be the latter. I’m tired of Dreamingers. I’m tired of being called a pessimist by people who’d rather fantasize about tomorrow’s reality than start building the bridge from today’s. I’m sarcastic. I chuckle about gross injustices when there’s nothing I can do about them (which is precisely the reason I usually don’t chuckle about American politics). Not everyone needs to be sarcastic; it’s my way of coping. What makes me mad is that no one seems to see that big brick wall called disillusionment coming. Some people hit it and become truly disillusioned—they sink like Peter trying to walk on water. That’s when you’re cynical. When you’re no longer looking out for the good. Others do what drives me nuts: It’s like disillusionment is an ugly pink eviction notice and they slip it into the bookshelf and hope it blends in with the other printed material. They learn to ignore it. They buy the groceries, read the funny pages, raise the kids. They forget about that awfulness they caught a glimpse of once upon a time. It’s always there, but if you talk about the kind of new blender you want to buy and the rising prices of cable TV for long enough and with enough people who think likewise, it can start to feel like maybe these are really the things that matter. Still others live in a fantasy world, constructed by their egos or religion or just plain naïvette. Dreamingers.

If you come to Africa with both guns blazing, spraying money every which way, starting new projects that aren’t anchored by years of training and/or experience, having seen firsthand the cornucopia of SHIT that comes along with poverty and injustice, AND acknowledged it to be such, you’re a Dreaminger. I could give at least ten pages of examples of such shit without stopping. If you’ve read my blog much over the last year or two, you have a hint of what I mean, and you certainly don’t have to go to Africa to experience it.

I’m not saying I’ve found the perfect way to scale that wall of disillusionment and I’m not saying I’ve got the perfect dream. I’m just saying that any attempt at redemption needs to have a working relationship with the suffering and misery it’s trying to overcome. Don’t get disillusioned, get even. Dig a foundation of determination that runs deeper than the disillusionment—you’ll probably get really dirty and you’ll have to make several trips back to the hole to make it deeper before you can set the forms and pour the cement. But do it anyway.

I am not cynical.


Three days ago. Seven new “conversations”, entailing at least twelve new messages, all about the New Jerusalem Food Farm. Gmail doesn’t archive e-mails one-by-one, but sorts everything by conversation. So when I realized that about a dozen people had responded to my seven Zikomo Project requests (spread out over four conversations). It was another very good day. I find that here in Malawi people don’t express joy quite the same as I do—that is to say, like a drunken college student at a football game. So I don’t really do that round here. Hence, instead of letting my jubilation explode like fireworks, I had to settle for setting off a few Ground Bloom Flowers inside my torso. (You know the ones. They’re pink, the shape and size of an AA battery, and they hop and spin like a top when you light them.) I just sort of wriggled and giggled like an autistic schoolgirl. But it was still nice. For some reason people really seem to like the Zikomo Project. It’s been pleasantly surprising, actually.


Okay, I promise not to go on long about this. Last polls I had time to read say Hillary’s going to win the Democratic primary. Un-%#!$#*!-believable. We are offered Barack Obama and we prefer Hillary Clinton. What is wrong with us? Are these primary votes being bought like bananas at the supermarket or are we really that blind? Hey, I hear she just voted to identify the Iranian army as a terrorist entity. Nice. Hey America! Let’s replace our awful, nepotistic, warlike, entrenched-politician administration with another nepotistic, warlike, entrenched-politician administration! Just what we need! Please someone tell me that I’m wrong about the polls. I don’t want to have another lesser-of-two-evils choice this election. If she wins (or if anyone else wins, for that matter) and we invade Iran, I’m going to D.C. to join the other protesters.


You know my visa problems from the last post? They really brought me down. I felt tense all the time and it wore on me. I felt very sorry for myself.

During the weeks when this was happening, 3 occasions come to mind: 1) Job, a kid of 21 who wants to be an actor and was “working” (only paid occasionally, when money was available) with the Umodzi Drama Group, a little troupe that tries to scratch out a living in a culture-starved place with little hunger for theatre. He just helped wherever he could, writing, acting, running errands, whatever. Good-looking and America-philic, he was awaiting the outcome of his application to university so he could go on with his education. If he was very, very lucky, he might be able to go to school for acting. If less lucky, he could just get a degree in something else and do theatre on the side. Unfortunately, he turned out to be unlucky, and he was turned down flat. His parents are dead and he lives with his uncle, who won’t suffer his nephew to do theatre, only to work hard for a living. Now Job can hardly even do that. And why was he turned down? Because the year he passed his high-school diploma exams, there was massive cheating and results fraud, and most employers and colleges refuse to recognize any results from that year. Hence, Job had to stop working with the theatre and literally return to high school in order to pass his exams again. Before this happened Job had been a friend and I like him a lot. I haven’t seen Job for almost two months now. 2) I had a long conversation with the teachers at one of the orphanages where I volunteer. They were frustrated with the Board (which is driven along mostly by foreigners), because it was investing all of its time and money into developing a new facility for the orphanage, but paying little attention to the dire needs of the present: Over 300 kids have one dirty outhouse in which to urinate and defecate. There are regular food shortages. And most dire for the teachers, they spend 7-8 hours a day at the orphanage and get paid nothing. Some have families to support and it’s almost impossible to volunteer so much time when you really ought to be out trying to hustle up enough money to buy nsima and maybe some beans for your family to eat. A few have no income and one earns about $2 a week selling eggs. They complain to me and ask why the board won’t help them—after all, most board members drive cars and live in houses with walls, guards, and a gardener. I try to explain but it’s not good enough and I myself don’t agree with the board either. They feel more and more hopeless, after being promised a salary but not receiving it. Meanwhile the Board almost never even visits the orphanage and rarely listens long enough to take in the advice from Steven, the Malawian who tries to hold everything together. I have nothing I can tell them that will help. (Later on through the kindness of a few Missourians, I was able to give the teachers one month of salary as a sort of stopgap, but that money was spent mostly on food and was gone quickly.) 3) “Old man veggie,” a guy who comes to the office of McKallie’s Home of Future and Hope selling vegetables, charges too much. He wants almost double what a person could get at the market for the vegetables, and since I bought from him once, since then he always walks in, stooped and slow, looking at me with those big eyes and expecting me to buy something. He overcharges because for a long time he sold most of his veggies to white people who didn’t know a fair price and were happy to pay the “cute” old man whatever he asked. He got used to it, and sometimes even looks at me like I’m not being fair if I don’t buy from him. His family lives in Zomba and when he has enough money, he goes to visit them. One day when it was raining he came in and told me he couldn’t visit his family that weekend because he’d not sold anything today on account of the rain. I’d once before responded to a similar complaint from him by paying him 500 kwacha for about 120 kwacha’s worth of vegetables and telling him to go and see his family. This time I bought 50 kwacha of broccoli and told him that was all for today. He sort of thanked me and clearly told me through his eyes that I should have bought more.

I think that covers it. Those three things.

It’s the poverty. Not like our world would be perfect if there was no poverty, but I don’t think people who’ve grown up well-fed, clothed, and educated often realize what poverty systematically does. Without poverty, racism would be a largely moot point. Without poverty, we wouldn’t have anything close to the present rates of robbery (armed or otherwise) or even murder. Without poverty who could see any of the wars in recent history even being imagined? And this is just scratching the surface. Poverty touches everything. Massive deforestation in Malawi, for example: People can’t afford to give up the living they earn from the charcoal industry, a terribly wasteful one that indiscriminately burns down forests for the charcoal they can get and then sell in the markets. The people are also not educated about the effects their actions have on the environment, because—surprise surprise—the schools are poorly funded and the level of education is dismal.

Let’s not go too far—We’ll always have poverty because we’ll always have lazy, indolent people. But anyone who names this as the principle reason for widespread, infectious poverty is ignoring, um, HISTORY. If we really decided to get down to it and beat poverty back with a big fat bloody cricket bat, we’d really be getting somewhere.


So whatever happened to funny, short posts, huh? Funny . . . let’s see . . .

I dunno. I find that funny. Am I twelve?

As for short . . when was the last time I did anything that could be described as “concise” or “economical?” You should have realized this by now.