Friday, February 27, 2009

Just a quick note.

So I stuck my address in the little side-bar thingie. I'll be there until the end of April, when training will end and I'll head out to my village.

I'm in Philly tonight, and in the last few days I've passed through Baltimore, D.C., and New York. Tomorrow, the rest of my staging group and I will get packed into a bus and driven back to New York City, where we'll get on some crazy plane and fly to Senegal. While I'd love to tell you all how I feel about this, at the moment I need to do some re-packing. But I will say that I've loved seeing some of my friends in the last few days, and the memories of some of the things I've done and said and heard in that time will follow me around for a while. In a good way.

I'll try to post again before the flight tomorrow afternoon, but no guarantees.

Also, tonight I ate my first Philly cheese steak sandwich. I wanted falafel and a cupcake, but life is like that sometimes.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

AND! Other stuff going in the bag.

So here are a couple shots of some of the junk I'll be packing for Africa. Not all of this is coming along, thankfully. Mom'll ship some of this stuff after I get to Senegal.

A lot of these things were gifts. In particular, Julia L. was super lovely and generous and helped me out with that humongous orange beautiful pack. Andy, Rehana, and Micah found me a Dana Alphasmart magic word maker thing, which will allow me to do a lot of writing in the comfort and privacy of my own hut. Christine got me an, ahem, feminine urinary director. It may be one of the best things ever. I'm bringing a lot of spices, since the diet in Senegal's fairly boring, a lot of duct tape, and two years' worth of toothbrushes. Good-quality soccer balls may be difficult to find in small villages, too, so I thought it would make a good gift to some kids. The colored pencils, drawing paper, and card games are also for the kids I meet.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

So I'm working on a list of books to bring.

It's hard for me to address the ways books are important to me. They've been a constant presence in my life for as long as I can remember, and of course I went to That Book College and all that.
But it's more than an intellectual thing with me. As I was thinking about this list and flipping through the pages of some of the books I have read before, I found myself seeing again the last occasion I had to read them. In the pages of my copy of Euclid's Elements, I found tons of scrawled margin notes that didn't necessarily relate to the propositions. Little clever or funny things my classmates and tutor had said, reminders and lists of things to do, and random thoughts about Sophocles danced up and down the page next to doodles of sad clowns (an illustration my friends and I used to personify the reductio ad absurdum). In another book, I found a handful of doodles of stick figures playing in the snow, undoubtedly sketched as my thoughts drifted in class to the weather outside. In another, I had tucked a separate piece of paper covered in notes and questions focusing on a notion that would later turn into my freshman essay. Exclamation points and excited scrawl are all over all my books, and encountering these messages from my personal past is enthralling.
It is not only a younger version of myself that I encounter in these books. Some of my dearest friends, the people I love the most, pop out of these pages. Sometimes I come to a passage in a text and am overwhelmed by the memory of my friends and I laughing about it while doing the reading out on the quad, or wondering over it in Seminar, or laboring over it next to that blackboard up on the top floor of the Barr-Buchanan Center. Sometimes these passages bring one person back to me, and sometimes they bring many. But they are always a reminder of the people I have met and loved so far in life, of the things we shared in speech. And then my thoughts turn to the new books, the ones I haven't read yet. I wonder whose words I will record in their pages, who will share the jokes and the discoveries and the wonder of these books with me?

I’m being a little sentimental, I know. But you should be nice to me, because I leave the continent in nine days. Yeesh.

And while I’m at it, I thought of a phrase I like to talk about going from St. John's College to the Peace Corps: "Going from the life of the mind to the life of the hands and heart." Cheesyawesomegoodness.


And now, The Book List. Of course, I'm going to be adding and subtracting from this list a fair bit in the next few days, but just in case you're as obsessive about reading as I am, here you go....

Books I'm reading now and hoping to finish before departure, but might end up coming along for the ride:
Nine Hills to Nambonkaha (If I finish in time, I'll send it to my dad. Hi, Dad!)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Samantha Power's Chasing the Flame (a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, who is becoming something of a hero of mine -- he was into Kant and the United Nations! like me! yeah!)

The real list (sort of kinda maybe):
Kant, Metaphysics of Morals
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves
Proust, Swann's Way
Love in the Time of Cholera, possibly other stuff by Marquez too
Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse
Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (I acquired a soft, squishy spot for this guy back in the days of freshman lab class)
Plato, The Republic - The Joe Sachs translation!
Thoreau, Walden
The Bible -- RSV, the version I read in sophomore year at SJC. Not as a person of faith, so much as a person who likes reading Job and some other bits quite a lot. Plus, as with any book I read at SJC, my margin notes will be a constant source of amusement/horror/humility.
Lonely Planet's guide to Senegal
Tocqueville, Democracy in America (it makes me squirm, and it touches on some stuff I've been thinking about a lot lately)
Guns, Germs, and Steel (started, never finished)
The Pleasures of Exile, by George Lamming. I don't know anything about this book.
Paul Farmer's Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. See my first blog entry for some background on my ridiculous crush on Paul Farmer.

And in a true nod to SJC, two books I want to work through again:
Euclid's Elements (ugh, but it's so heavy)
The Greek manual (uuuugh, but it's sooo heavy that I'm probably going to leave it behind)

I'm missing poetry. But the poetry I want is so random. I'll have a line of something stuck in my head, and I'll get out of bed to look it up. Usually it's Eliot or Auden, but not always. So how do I pack for that?

Am I missing anything?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Most. Important. Thing. Ever.

If someone could help me learn how to whistle before I leave the States, I would be seriously grateful. Like, bake-you-a-pie grateful. Or name-a-baby-elephant-after-you grateful.

Come on, guys. This is important!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dumb things make me super happy.

So I am a huge sucker for coincidences. Not that I have any particular way of viewing them: they could be messages from God or the universe anonymously patting me on the back and saying, "Go get 'em, girl!" or just, you know, things co-inciding, i.e., falling together. I don't know. I just think they're sweet.

Also, I hate flying. If I thought the Peace Corps would let me float to Africa on a little wooden raft, I'd do it so much more happily.

And finally, my birthday is April 5th, 1986. Or 4/5/86. Or 4586, if you're just not that into punctuation.

Before this risks looking like one of those littles memes floating around on Facebook ("25 Totally Absolutely Random Things I Just Happened to Unconsciously Choose that Happen to Make Me Look Mysterious, Sexy, and Smart"), I'll get to my point.

The Peace Corps is flying this new batch of Senegal volunteers from New York City to Dakar. We'll be all snuggled together on flight... 4586.


On an unrelated note, I'd like to give you some statistics:
Percentage of posts in which I mention elephants, St. John's, Kant, Plato, or anything else I'm obsessed with: 0
Percentage of posts which are, in fact, lectures: 50% (Listen, all I'm saying is, it could be worse, because:)
Percentage of the time when I feel the urge to lecture the people around me about elephants, St. John's, Kant, Plato, etc.: 100%

See, guys? Personal growth!


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

“Doing the job in front of me?”

An explanation for the subtitle of this blog.
And! An exploration of the twisted mathematics of aid work.
Yes. You read that right. I’m gonna talk about math. Sort of.

Written on February 2nd, 2009 in a car between somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles.

OK, first of all. I LEAVE IN 25 DAYS WOOOOAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!!

Ahem. So.

Believe me, I know that any sort of apologia is an awkward way to introduce this blog to you, but it’s all I’ve got for now. I mean, I could tell you about the packing process (if I had started it yet) or what I’ve been doing with myself since I received my invitation to do rural health work in Senegal (filling out paperwork and traveling from Chicago to LA – woo!). But. Um. I don’t feel like it. So at the risk of alienating my friends and family and ensuring that no one will ever read this, here I go.

So I want to think about what it means to do public health work in a rural village in Africa. Weird, because I haven’t even been there yet. And weird, because my ideas are probably going to change a lot when this whole adventure starts. But for now, this is where my head is.

OH. And just to be clear, a lot of what I’m saying isn’t going to apply to what I’ll be doing during my time in the Peace Corps at all. I’m not a doctor, I’ll be doing a very different type of work, and the resources situation will be different. This is just some stuff I think about. The point I want to bring with me to my work in Senegal is about scale and perspective.


The fight for access to essential medicines continues, and in the mean time people are dying of entirely preventable diseases. One more time, for emphasis: AIDS and malaria and tuberculosis aren’t killing these men, women, and children. Lack of proper treatment is. Of course, even if people in developing countries had access to all the drugs you and I can get our hands on, malnourished patients usually don’t do very well. Trust me, this paragraph could go on forever. The lack of access to proper medication is just one very small part of it all. I’m not even remotely qualified to be writing about all this, but I wanted to give you a sense of how fricking huge the problem of public health in developing countries can be. At the very least, you should know that it’s way bigger than what I’ll be able to see and comprehend while in Senegal.

Sick people in developing countries ought to have the same chances of getting well as I do. I really can’t see this as a controversial statement. It’s just not up for debate, guys. All the resources they need to get well should be given to them. The best possible treatment should be administered. (I’m ignoring the problem of shoddy health care in the United States and other wealthy countries. I know, I know. But still.) But the doctors aren’t there. The technology isn’t there. Selling drugs to poor people isn’t a moneymaking prospect for drug companies, so they don’t even try to develop cures for the diseases that are killing people in impoverished countries. With access to resources so chokingly restricted and demand for medical care so shockingly high, how do you even think about health care in places like this?

Since I’m not heading to Africa with cartons of peanut butter and antiretroviral drugs, what exactly am I doing? The whole thing looks even funnier when I don’t manage to forget that I studied the liberal arts in college. I’m not sure I can even feed myself with philosophy, let alone help anyone else out.

Luckily for all of us, Peace Corps Volunteers do get quite a bit of training before being unleashed upon our villages (the possessive pronoun is used widely in this style by PCVs, by the way, and it totally weirds me out – but more on that later). I’ll be able to give advice to mothers about how to prevent malnutrition in their babies as they are weaned. I’ll be able to organize the community around an AIDS awareness event, or give workshops on how to chemically treat the malaria nets in which we’ll all be sleeping. I will probably not be able to keep myself from getting worms in my gut, or the occasional rash, or bouts of diarrhea – and whether or not that makes me feel like a hypocrite, we’ll see. (And yes, I will tell you all about those things. I know why you’re really reading this, after all. Gross stuff is fun.)

But what does this work amount to? I’ll be in one village in one district in one country in the whole damn world. There are thousands of Peace Corps volunteers out there, and bajillions of people doing aid work of some sort. Nevertheless, how can I avoid feeling that my individual contribution is not meaningful? Is there any perspective from which I can look at my work and not see absurdity and futility?

Maybe not, honestly. After all, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of ways to be an ineffective Peace Corps volunteer. At the very least, I am absolutely sure that there are more ways to be bad at this job than there are of being good at it. But even if I manage to pull it off, what am I accomplishing?

The way I think about it, it’s all about perspective and scale. I hope I can illustrate this in a way that makes sense.

I spent some time in post-Katrina New Orleans, gutting out destroyed homes in the lower Ninth Ward. It was by no means a given that this area would be inhabited ever again, though we knew we were gutting the houses of people who honestly meant to return to them one day. And even after we gutted these houses, got rid of the mold, and brought back the residents, who could say when the next Hurricane Katrina would hit? What would happen then?

On a day particularly full of frustration, when I felt that my compatriots and I could never do enough to bring life back to this dead place, it occurred to me that all I could do was the job in front of me. Sink your shovel into the muck, lift the shovel to the wheelbarrow, dump. Repeat. It wasn’t a lot, but you would do that enough and then throw some bleach around and you had a clean room. And in the meantime, the other people on your crew would be doing the same thing in other rooms. After a few days, the house that had been full of mud and debris and rot up to your hips was… better. It was on its way to being a home again. Of course, New Orleans was still a mess, but we had this place now. That place had been the job in front of me, and I had done it. One family could come back and try again, and in the twisted mathematics of aid work, one is infinitely better than nothing.


More on that twisted mathematics, because I think it was the piece I was missing for a while when I thought about this stuff, and I’m closer to understanding it now. It’s a problem of scale, sort of like in New Orleans – you can only do so much, so what do you do? The answer in New Orleans was something about treating every destroyed house as the whole problem, the only destroyed house. Pour everything into making it better. The big dirty secret about the world, as I see it, is that so often the things we think are impossible – aren’t. The resources will be there. It can totally happen. Trust me, gutting the second house is easier than gutting the first house, even though getting out of your cot once you were done with the first one seemed impossible. And maybe if you solve that first health problem well enough, you’ll figure out a way to do an even better job next time. Maybe someone will want to give you lots of money to do that second job. I know, maybe maybe maybe. But it’s better than just saying no, I’m done, this is impossible, I won’t go any further. So much better.

Scale is just weird in aid work. The only choice you’re making is to stand up and get to work or not. You say either that you will do the job in front of you, or you turn it down. The flooded room you’re standing in is both the only and every flooded room in New Orleans, and the sick villager in the bed you stand beside is both the only and every sick man, woman, and child in every developing country. It’s not that you make the choice to help people once. I think it’s something more like making the same decision over and over again with each new person.

Am I making sense? It almost doesn’t matter. I think I’ve begun to make sense to myself, anyway.

Later, guys.