Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yup, I Might Be a Yuppie

The Midwest has safety permeating its scenery. Creeks meander through farmland, hills rise and fall, and even the mountains hug the ground instead of reaching for the sky, as if they are stooped out of concern for your safety.

The Southwest is all sharp edges and spines. It sometimes takes awhile to fully appreciate the stark, dangerous beauty and the careful delineation of rusted shades, but it's lovely nonetheless.

As far as I'm concerned, Colorado has the best parts of the Southwest and the Midwest. The mountains stretch up to the sky as if they just drove through Kansas and need to chase the numbness from their limbs and minds. The forests of aspens and firs even surpass anything that rural Missouri can display. The boulders sit as if only resting for a moment before rolling down further. Arizona's desert sands look upon the rocks, shake their heads, and mutter, "You won't be so big or so proud when you reach our age." If you equate conservatism with security and family values, well Colorado Springs, with a little poetic license, actually is a "City Upon a Hill." If you prefer the dangers of damnation, Boulder is a liberal bastion.

And I loved every minute in Boulder.

The day before her birthday, Cara and her mother picked me up at the airport. Cara has a unique ability to not only get me to play devil's advocate in an argument (which anyone can do), but then to stick to the side I picked completely out of pride, even when I have no actual desire to continue the argument. In Mongolia, we started to "discuss" which airports are the best in the U.S. after I made a flippant comment about hating DIA. Who talks about stuff like this? Who actually cares? But before I knew it, I had to prove that Lambert-St. Louis was superior to Denver International. This went so far as to result in me researching Blucifer, and before we were in the car, the argument began again.

Thankfully, Cara's mother was a great sport and made sure to point out the hideous statue as we pulled away from the airport and got on the highway headed towards Boulder. Long story short, I finally conceded to Cara that I have no real problem with DIA, and even the giant blue statue reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates' view on art:

"My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment, and one another. Art should provoke, disturb ... expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish."
The 32-foot tall statue that killed its creator certainly does provoke and disturb.

For ten days we only returned to Denver once, before I had to fly back out. On my birthday, Cara gave me tickets to go see a performance of Swan Lake. It was the first ballet I've ever been to and it meant more to me than the tickets or even the ballet itself.

The rest of this post I have typed and re-typed about five times, before realizing that there was no way I could post everything I needed to say. It's personal, and I want to keep parts to myself to treasure. The ballet was a perfect present for reasons that I can't quite capture in words. While in Boulder, Cara thoroughly showed me the city and her sister, Megan, put it best when she warned me against trying to describe the city until I have lived there for a while.

What I can say is what I liked: A Tajiki tea house gifted from Boulder's sister city, Dushanbe, the Shambhala meditation center where a nice lady who knows nothing about hattuks sometimes leads classes, Southern Sun Brewery (their S.O.B. burger is everything I hoped for), and a tiny catholic church near Mary's Lake, about thirty minutes from a gorgeous state park on the Peak-to-Peak Highway.

I've got more to write about the ballet, but if you want to read that, you'll have to check out the article I'm writing. Which reminds me, my last bit of boasting or whatever for today, but while I'm still waiting for the next issue of WorldView, I got a different article published with Role/Reboot. It came out today, and you can chew on it while you wait to see how I compare ballerinas to automobiles.

Enough writing for today, time to give myself a 24-hour congratulatory break,

- John

Monday, November 14, 2011

In Which I Do Not Talk About Colorado, Yet

 The title is a slight tip of the hat to Hilary, who has been great these past couple of weeks with editing.

I have been back from Boulder for a while, but blogging has taken a back seat to real life. Before I talk about Colorado, which was incredible, I have good news which will hopefully excuse the lack of writing here. While in Boulder, I found out that the editor for WorldView was interested by my query letter. I got back and immediately sat down to write about living in a ger. The result was quite different from what I originally intended. Here are some excerpts from the article I originally intended to write:

            Once upon a time, Pre-Service Training was a domestic affair, taking place on campuses and in the woods throughout the United States. Now most, if not all, programs have PST in the host countries, and within host communities. I could not possibly debate the merits for or against either approach, but mention it only to bring up the greatest difference between the two. In either training style, volunteers will ultimately deal with the same issues, from culture shock to necessary lifestyle adjustments, and so forth. (Difference is that one gives you a sneak peak at actual habitation arrangements, leading you to believe you might have an opinion on where you want to live) BAD. New Start:

            To be called a Peace Corps Volunteer or Returned Peace Corps Volunteer is often seen as synonymous with hippy. Some might be indignant at that remark, and rightfully so. When forming Peace Corps, President Kennedy expressly endeavored to create an opportunity for service that was not opposed to military service, not an escape from the Vietnam draft but rather an option alongside the military. In Mongolia, in addition to liberal arts majors like myself teaching English, we have former EMTs working at hospitals and Kiva Fellows working with banks. They are about as far removed from the stereotypical hippy as I can imagine.
The final article looks pretty much nothing like this and should be coming out in the winter issue of WorldView. Pick it up for a couple bucks if you're interested, my article is worth it. It sounds prideful, but then I do take a lot of pride in the amount of work that goes into my writing and the finished product that comes out.

Since then I have been applying to jobs and writing non-stop. The acceptance was simultaneously exalting and horrifying. Afterwards, I realized that a part of me definitely wanted to fail. I love writing, but it's terrifying. I think subconsciously I wanted WorldView to reject me. If they didn't want me writing about Peace Corps service, then no one would, and I would just have to eventually make piece with putting on a suit and working in some job where I would be completely interchangeable with any other cog. Now, I have proof that someone is willing to take my writing and throw it around the country with their masthead on the cover.

So I am running with it. Today I just had an article accepted by the incredibly kind people at Role/Reboot, which I will link to after it gets final edits and put on the calendar. I have two more articles which I am working on and hope to send out by the end of this week.

One of them compares ballerinas with cars, which occurred to me while watching Swan Lake in Denver. Cara took me as part of the best birthday present I have ever gotten. Hopefully, that's interesting enough to make you check back later this week for a quick recap of my time in Colorado.

Seriously, the tutu now makes sense to me,

- John

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Posts from Mongolia (3 of 3)

In tribute to the way these posts have been flashbacks from the recent past, this last one goes old school. I mean original Nintendo style old school. The original title - Super Mario Bros. (2) Lied to Me:

For anyone who did not grow up with the original Nintendo game system, the Mario Brothers (Mario and Luigi) are the central characters in a series of side-scrolling games. Jumping on goombas and slamming their heads into mystery boxes, they made Nintendo famous, and a whole lot of coinage. When I left the States, they were still enjoying success and fame with Paper Mario, and are virtually Nintendo’s silent spokesmen. My favorite game for the longest time was Super Mario Bros. 3, which gave Mario and Luigi the ability to fly thanks to a leaf, a raccoon suit, and a complete disconnect in logic.

However, the nonsense in 3 was easily swallowed after the nightmare that was Super Mario Bros. 2. I say this completely without malice because anyone who finished the game found out that the entire episode actually was a nightmare that Mario wakes up from. It has everything from pyramids, to flying carpets, to potions that induce trips to an inverted dreamland that is even farther “down the rabbit hole” if you realize that it’s a dream within a dream. As an adult, though, my only real complaint is the mechanics of the whirling dust devils.

In the game, the twisters act like enthusiastic trampolines. You jump in, you bounce, and you can catapult yourself out. Turns out, in real life, they should only be admired from afar. The only similarity that the virtual dust devils bear to real ones is that inside of one, they really do spin you about.

This is my last weekend in Manlai before making the trip to Ulaanbaatar with absolutely all of my possessions, and yet I’m still learning new things about life in the Gobi. I was making the short walk from school to my ger when I saw the dust devil sweep over a nearby house. I also saw the little kids next to me scurry inside the nearest building which happened to be the dormitory for the herder children whose parents still subscribe to the nomadic lifestyle out of necessity. Instead of quickly following the kids inside, I kinda simply stared at the vortex. No lasting damage was done at all, but the second or two inside of the dust devil scared the hell out of me as I couldn’t breathe and airborne rocks scratched the face and the hands covering my mouth. As I stupidly spun, I couldn’t think rationally enough to simply step out, but flashed to the memory of my first real sandstorm. That time too, I did nothing but watch it approach, doing little more but idly speculate about how the brown dirt looked against the blue sky. Thankfully, my friend Bayaa was with me and after a little miscommunication got me to run to my ger (I really thought he was asking me if I enjoyed running, which for the record, I do not).

Lessoned learned: mimicry is a fantastic survival method,

- John
(Thus ends my recap, which also means my trip to Colorado is wrapping up. Let's see how that turned out. Writing this with 30 minutes before leaving, I am bouncing up and down with excitement. I won't get too personal here, but this lady is a special one.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Posts from Mongolia (2 of 3)

In case you haven't guessed, these posts have been loaded on a schedule. Technology rules. This is the perfect excuse to take a step back from the current events and talk a little more about what I originally had in mind here. This post was originally titled - Rock Gardens and Gers:

For the last two years I have lived in a tent, the traditional style of home that Mongolians call a ger. It is round with a conical top that resembles the stereotypical picture of an igloo that I have in my head. However, where the Inuits use ice, Mongolians use a wooden lattice-work frame covered in felt or tarpaulin. In the western parts of the country the gers are almost entirely conical and could be easily mistaken for Native American teepees. Do not mistake a ger for a yurt, because while they are technically the same thing, hippies and Russians live in yurts. I am a returning Peace Corps volunteer and the difference is that hippies go into Peace Corps and cynics come out.

Every spring I grow a rock garden on top of my ger with the help of the seasonal sandstorms. After making it through my first winter, I thought that the hard part of the year had passed (which in fact it had, as the 2009-2010 winter was called a zud, a winter so cold that large portions of herds died, some livestock frozen while still standing) but then the rising temperatures in the Gobi brought wind and sandstorms. I have never seen a ger blow over, but I have watched as the double-sided outhouse I use was picked up and thrown in spite of the heavy corded rope and rocks tied to it. The refuse pit left uncovered looked like both a festering wound and a warning. Usually after the first big storm hits in the spring and I have spent a couple of days holding the shaking supports in my ger unsure if the trembling is due more to the wind or my own fear, my school’s director or maintenance workers drop by and pile anything heavy and at hand on my roof. This year, in addition to the sand and rocks that are typical parts of any rock garden, I have two brake drums (which eerily reminds me of my senior year in high school when I spent a semester sand-blasting and painting brake drums for a percussion piece), an iron I-beam, and two iron radiators which at one point were probably used in the hot-water boiler system that heats my school.

When I get back from Colorado, I will work on adding some pictures,

- John

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Posts from Mongolia (1 of 3)

For the next 10 days I will be gleefully running Colorado and alternating between saying incredibly sappy and incredibly insensitive things to Cara. Here's to hoping that the sappy outweighs the insensitive.

In the meantime, here are the blog posts I wrote in Mongolia while dreaming up what I would do with internet access. The title of the first post:: Looking Back to Look Forward (hey, I was isolated).

It’s my last month of work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, so why start a blog now? A lot of reasons come to mind: because it appears that most PCV blogs crap out towards the end instead of finishing strong, when hopefully the lessons have actually been learned; because I have time to reflect on my experience while I get ready to go back to the States; because I want to detail the period that PCVs simultaneously look forward to and dread – readjustment. However, the most accurate reason is probably because I’ve spent the last two years in a small town in the Gobi desert that lacked indoor plumbing, to say nothing of the internet.

I am a TEFL volunteer (the government loves acronyms – TEFL is Teaching English as a Foreign Language, a lot like teaching ESL but in a country where English is the non-primary language) and my school year wraps up May 31st . I finish my service June 24th, so most of the last month will be spent moving all my possessions to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and finishing up CoS paperwork (that’s Close of Service). If you haven’t pieced it together, I’m an M-20, which means I’m a volunteer in Mongolia and part of the 20th consecutive group to be sent to the country which opened to PC (no joke, it’s not “the Peace Corps,” but simply “Peace Corps” without an article, some people get indignant over the littlest things) in 1990. With that intro, you now know the key acronyms to tackle this blog.

Speaking of tackling, here is a glimpse of what I plan to tackle or include in my blog: serving in a former Soviet satellite, the stereotypical Peace Corps experience (weighing babies in Africa) and the atypical experience (life without fear of malaria), bureaucracy à l’America as opposed to à la Russia, what got me through two years of service, idealism versus cynicism, and a lot of half-remembered references to biographies of Sargent Shriver and John F. Kennedy. Oh yeah, and cowboys.

Get ready for ten days of glimpses into my head when I was alone in the desert,

- John 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Response to an Open Letter

 Mr. Udargo,

I want to first applaud the sentiments and emotions behind your open letter. I think most empathetic human beings will second your desires for fair compensation for work, for the availability of medicine and care for everyone who needs it regardless of their station in life, and for the American Dream to be a reality.

Open dialogue, including letters like yours, are part of what our country and world needs. Even though it feels like we might sometimes have too much media, in truth, there can never be too much communication. Too frequently it appears that we (myself included) talk at each other instead of with.

However, dialogue is not the ends in itself, but rather the means to an end. Americans, and I would guess the modern world as well, are frustrated by many things. If I have been following correctly, the general complaints are: too much time spent working, too little compensation, student loan debt, credit card debt, health insurance, car insurance, rising cost of living, too much money given to people who already have money, not enough money give to people without money, to name a few.

The overarching theme seems to be money in general, right? Yet, it feels like there is a greater undercurrent. The economy is only the surface. Beneath the monetary complaints is a feeling of helplessness. People feel like they aren't being heard.

How does that make sense? We have the internet. We have cell phones and land lines. We still have the post office, as well as television. With so many outlets for our voice, what is causing this general feeling of powerlessness? I would argue it's a lack of results.

We talk and talk, and nothing happens. Our leaders have too many plans to agree on, and we as a people have too few. Some of the OWS protesters are doing useful things such as "teach-ins," which takes a step toward educating people. Hopefully, with education can come informed decisions.

But that is also where the weakness of OWS, at present, lies. The amorphous nature that one side claims are too many problems, too many demands, and the other side points to as lacking in direction or goals, is hindering the protest more than helping it. Sitting down and camping out on Wall Street is a nice publicity stunt, undeniably it is working to raise awareness, but people are aware now, what is the next move?

As you let people call you liberals, even claiming the title for yourself, you help draw lines. Do not make this a war of liberal versus conservatives. That's not 21st century politics. Fighting amongst ourselves only serves the people who know how to capitalize on war.

Full disclosure: I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. Both labels make me wince. I would love a universal healthcare system, and find it absurd when Republicans fight taxes on the wealthy because 71 billion dollars would not eliminate our debt. I also think people on the 99% tmblr site complaining about money but posting from smartphones with data plans (or even simple personal broadband connections) are absurd.

I think we, the American people, deserve more than a publicity stunt. I think we can do more than a stunt. Using the internet like this, for dialogue, not yelling or complaining, is an amazing step in the right direction.

So we've heard the complaints. Here are SOME of the facts (and I encourage more facts): the U.S. Debt is 14.8 trillion, our Tax Revenue is 2.28 trillion, the GDP is 14.1 trillion for 2009, the unemployment rate is 9.1%, and for employed people the average workday is 7-8 hours long in 2010.

The irony is that the 8 hour day is truly mostly only a reality for the median, the middle-class. It is also a very modern invention, not a right (like you mentioned, less than 100 years old in the U.S., barely older than that in Europe). Eight hours usually maintains your economic status, not increases it. If you're born poor and want to rise above it, you will have to work more than someone born into the middle class who wants to stay middle class.

Isn't that the real American Dream though? Eight hour work days are an invention. The Dream is that anyone can, through hard work, rise higher than the situation they were born into. Money is not a privilege of class, but a privilege (again, not a right) of hard work that earns it. I think that's at the heart of the 53% response, not that they don't want to see hard work rewarded, but that they want rewards to be earned.

So what are the solutions? Part of the solution is hard work, but that's only a part of it. I do not have the other part of the solution, and I admit it. I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I am not sitting in a park raising awareness, but I do not currently have a job. I am looking for a job, expending nearly all of my energy towards that goal, but I also have a fear that the jobs I want are not there.

Will you help me figure out the solution to our problems or will you waste energy fighting me?

- John

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bleed the Good Out

I find that those whose hearts bleed for everything and everyone have no blood left to sacrifice when it counts. 

For example, the Peace Corps initiative: Live Like a Volunteer. Peace Corps has a lot of fantastic initiatives. These initiatives are problems that continue from one group of volunteers to the next. In Mongolia there’s an Alcohol Awareness Initiative to deal with the enormous problem of alcoholism in the country. Personally, one of my regrets in Mongolia is not finding a way to work with that initiative more. We also had an AIDS Awareness initiative that was useful, but I imagine much more useful in the Peace Corps countries that people typically associate with the organization, African and tropical countries. 

The Live Like a Volunteer initiative is unique with its more domestic focus. It encourages family and friends back home in the States to give up something (like using their fridge, taking showers, using a laundry machine) for a short while, maybe a week, maybe more. It is also a rather gross display of back-patting and largely pointless.

Friends and family back in the States have already given up something, they've given up easy access to, and even a certain amount of communication with, their loved one who is off trying to change the world. I am not trying to disparage the sacrifices made by volunteers, because those sacrifices are not negligible. Going without heat, or without air conditioning, without fast food, without electricity, the internet, yes those are big deals. But as volunteers, our rewards are plentiful as well. We get respect from people back home even if we don't always get it at site. We get a lot of our daily concerns taken care of (health insurance, rent paid for, etc). We choose to go overseas, to give luxury up and gain many tangible and intangible things in return. Our families and friends, however, give us up without really getting much of a say in it.
As usual, I'm also results-oriented, and when people give up something for a week of "Living Like a Volunteer," I want to know what is the result? Do they give up using air conditioning for a week and then someone who has never lived with A/C gets it for a week? No, nothing happens except that awareness is supposedly "raised." Our friends and families already were aware of how we live, we complain to them all about it! This is my effort at being productive instead of complaining (hey, I know I can use adjustment, I'm not perfect). Change "Live Like a Volunteer," to have better guidelines for what people should go without. Have your parents go without chicken for a month, and then donate chicken soup cans to shelters. Have your friends with big ass ... hearts, turn off the heating for a week and give the resulting savings to Country Funds (there's also another donation process to give to specific projects, but I apologize, I'm having difficulty finding the site).

So, go ahead, bleeding hearts, bleed the good out, but make your sacrifice mean something.

You only owe it to yourself.

- John