Tuesday, July 29, 2008


On what was...

I lived in a very foreign place for 2 1/2 years. I lived there, I did not visit or pass through. I had a house and pets. I had work and friends. I grieved the deaths of two family members in this far-away home. I got sick, and recovered, and got sick, and recovered. My favorite time of year was the Harmattan. I discovered an allergy to mango peel. I saw the beauty and elegance of voodoo, real voodoo, not a Hollywood cartoon which vilifies animism. I built a life for myself. It was very hard to do. And then I came back, back "home." Home in Easyland, home to all the privileges America offers her prodigals.

And I lost everything about that life I'd built. I know that it was my choice. I know that many people lose everything, and they are powerless. Let me be very clear in saying that I am not comparing my grief to theirs.

But I did grieve, and I still do, 4 years later. Nothing is left. I don't know how to explain how different it really was. I knew about the big things- the language, the other language, the weather, the climate, the living conditions. But it was everything else, the sand in the cracks, which made it so hard. If I was talking to you in a room, sure, I'd know this: the items in the room are different. We are not speaking English. We do not look the same. But I never thought of everything else. The clothes I'd wear. The way I'd sit. Whether or not I would make eye contact. How it feels the whole time.

I couldn't bring any of it back with me. I left it all behind. I send letters. I don't know if anyone reads them. The postage for a letter from there to here- well, it just isn't practical. Too much to ask, really. I called once, about 3 years ago. It took several phone calls, and letters moto-taxied 7 km away, to arrange. They were to get a phone in my village, so maybe they have one now. Probably not.

One of the worst things is that my life there has become the conditional tense. "I would eat igname pile with Papa every night....I would visit Philomene at the petrol station." A series of anecdotes.

So I came back. I moved to DC with other people who had lived in the same far-off land. We had parties where we made igname pile. We spoke French. We temped and complained. We plotted ways to leave Easyland. Grateful bunch, eh? I flirted with promiscuity. I started grad school. Time moved on and it was easier to be around people. I didn't feel as awkward and I figured out what to do with my arms. I built a life here, again. It took me a long time to realize how sad this transition was for me. Everyone acted like I was supposed to be happy because I had plumbing again. It's still sad for me. I don't even know if Papa is still with us. Did you know he was a WWII vet? He survived a Nazi camp. Did you know that many African WWII vets never received their rightful pensions? I wish I could talk to Philomene.

But that's the thing about moving on. If I'm still a little sad, it's because my life there is still real to me. Turns out, that's the only thing that survived the move. So I would never, ever, give that grief up.

On what is...

I came to grad school expecting to be single for a good long time. Forever, really. It had been such a long dry spell (four years) that I accepted it. A lot of the time, I enjoyed it. So of course (you know what's coming) I met Booker, and within a year and some change we'd gone to the courthouse and I was a real true Army Wife. I hear the first year of marriage is hard because you have to adjust how you do things. It was really easy; I did everything however I wanted because he was in Iraq. When he left we thought it was for 9-10 months, no more than a year. His brigade was extended to 15 months. Sometimes I picked a phone-fight with him just so we'd have something to talk about. For awhile the Sears commercials made me cry, especially the one where the girl loves clothes and is going to a public school, so the mom buys her a new wardrobe. Sometimes I used coping skills I'd already developed, like knowing when I needed company and when I needed to be left the fuck alone. Coming home from far-away place taught me that. I couldn't sleep for weeks at a time, so a doctor helped me out with a prescription sleep aid. I guess new challenges call for new coping skills.

He came home. Sometimes we bicker. For awhile there we forgot how to talk to each other in person. He gets out in 3 months. Three and a half, actually. We're pretty sure he won't be called up again. He has 3 years of inactive duty after this. We're waiting 3 years to have kids. We're watching the election very, very carefully.

We bought a house before he left, and in our property virgin naivete we gutted it. Now we are faced with finishing what we started. In a lot of ways, actually. I finished my research and am slated to defend this fall. We are having a wedding in October. I am to apply to PhD programs. He is to look for a post-Army career. We must finish the house, then sell it. We will move to...?

I'm afraid this will be too much for me. The defense may get pushed back in lieu of sanity. The transition is ongoing. More to come?
Thanks for seeing through what turned out to be an incredibly self-indulgent post.

Purpose and Consequence

This morning I'm listening to the Bob & Sheri show (www.bobandsheri.com) per routine. I never thought I'd be into a morning radio show enought to listen every day but it's witty, engaging, and plenty snarky to match my a.m. mood. Anyway, the topic for the day is Your. Purpose. There's the volunteer firefighter. The middle school art teacher. The Army officer. The Dad who is scapegoated by his kids. The woman who must learn to care for herself. That one smacked of therapy-talk. Don't get me wrong, I love me some therapy, and have been in far too much of it to ever judge. But I don't like the therapy-lingo coming out of non-therapists' mouths. I also don't like gum.

But.What.Is.My.Purpose. I don't know, and I'm okay with that. If you know, good for you. I hope you also know that you are lucky. I think for most of us, it changes with the phases of our lives. At any moment, we are probably fulfilling the grand purpose for our 80+ years in incremental ways. I hope that when my pulse falls that the amalgamation of my efforts will at least have a neutral impact.

So far, my purpose has involved writing, tree-hugging, listening, observing. A theme has been wanting to use writing to make realities clear to those who may not be experiencing those realities. I linked biology and journalism because I think science needs to be made more accessible to non-scientists.

But something I've been struggling with is how to express both my own experience in the Peace Corps (I served in Benin for 2.5 years), and the reality of how people must live in developing nations. At least, the reality that my limited understanding and privileged position could grasp. I do not want to contribute to the many stereotypes about Africa. When we dismiss an entire continent as Disease/War, we are guilty of a certain kind of bigotry. Ask yourself this: what role do we as Americans play in the problems of other nations? After my experience it became very clear to me that our hedonistic lifestyle is responsible for the poverty of much of the rest of the world. I'm sorry if that upsets you, makes you feel judged, or infringes on your belief that God gave America the thumbs up to be an asshat to the rest of the world. Reality is a mean, ugly warthog. What are we going to do about it? How do I express some of these realities without giving in to platitudes and stereotypes?

What is your purpose?
PS: Dr. Free-Ride talks about the implications of good-intentions here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On looking the other way...?

My students had a very simple written assignment. They were to write a proposal for a scientific expeiment. They were to use published literature to justify the hypothesis, but the experimental question and design was to be a unique creation. In grading these (which amounted to 3 pages or less), it has become apparent to me that what about a third of them did was look up a published experiment, paraphrase, and pass it off as the original idea. I have no interest in wasting my time looking up all their sources and vainly trying to prove the academic dishonesty, only to be countered with some kind of drivel on misunderstanding the assignment or however else they justify cheating. (My two cheaters last semester, boyfriend and girlfriend who turned in word for word the same lab report, said it was because they worked together. No shit Sherlock, you sure as hell worked together.) Usually these papers are crappy in their own merits so none of them are getting by with an A on the assignment.
Maybe I'm selling out. Probably. Another post coming on the overwhelmed-ness, and the justifications for selling out. I have them, I do. My students? As my friend M. says,

"That's her chicken to fuck."

(or his.)