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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Like a Good Neighbor

The following took place between the hours of six and seven this evening, while walking my dog (cue the show 24’s beeping):

Neighbor 1: There’s the kid that lives down the street, just got back from the Peace Corps.
Neighbor 2: I heard he was in Mongolia or Tibet, somewhere mountainous.
1: Yes, it was Tibet. I wonder if he wears shoes inside.
2: Probably picked up the habit in China, does it backwards. Where does he think he is?
1: Maybe he’ll put some sandals on in the winter.
2: I bet he doesn’t wear shoes even if it snows.
1: Of course he has to put shoes on when it snows.
2: I don’t know, you never know. You know he sics that dog on children.
1: That dog is ferocious.

I was too embarrassed at first to talk to these chatty ladies. Then I got really annoyed and wanted to go back and correct them. However, by this point I was a couple meters from my house and just kept shuffling on.

I would like to clarify a few things, and can be as snarky as I want here without worrying about causing a situation for my parents.

- I live next door to you, not down the street.
- I did live in Mongolia, but the country is about as mountainous as your 40 year old daughter’s flat, WASPy, butt.
- I run down the street in my Adidas running SHOES every other day, and my daily shoes are a little run-down, but I still make a habit of wearing them whenever I leave the house.
- I do not “do it backwards,” nor do Asians in general. Sometimes they take off shoes inside, though
- Again, I lived in Mongolia. I did visit China, but I doubt anyone told you that part. I think you may believe that there is no difference between China, Tibet, and Mongolia.
- I will in fact wear boots in the winter, especially if there is snow.
- I have never encouraged my dog to attack children. Cara did, however, sic him on some field hockey girls, but they were in high school.
- The dog is a 25-30 lbs. dachshund/black lab mix. He is decidedly not ferocious.

What happened is that I took the puppy out for a walk rather late in the evening. Halfway through my sandal broke and I had to walk home on a street (without a sidewalk) that had recently been torn up for water pipe work. My left-foot sandal was missing, however I did still have one on my right foot.

I would like to take this opportunity to tell you, my neighbor, that if you want to be an actor, please pursue it. Your stage whisper carries with absolutely no acoustical aid. And please, don’t worry, the pebbles and acorns were both character and callous building …

- John

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bad Apples

I gave it a day, but that's as good as I can do. I preface this with: I have nothing personally against Steve Jobs. As a person, he may have had plenty of positive qualities. The link I shared for his death is actually a great article that I agree with, those are his legacies, and they are at the core of what is wrong. As a businessman who had a profound impact of the world market, Steve Jobs has done humanity a great disservice.

To begin with, I do agree that sweeping generalizations do not work very well. The company, Apple, has not been entirely bad, or had no good products. In fact, Apple performs one great service to the market, which is providing products that are simple and relatively easy to use. The iPhones are sleek. An iPad looks like a lot of fun to play with. I even own an iPod, and my parents own an iMac.

I look to Apple when I am tired, when I am being lazy, or when I simply know my limits. I pressured my parents into buying an iMac before I left for Mongolia. Why? Because I couldn't be there to help them troubleshoot. The glossy characteristic of the operating system, and even the hardware itself, was a beautiful, enamel coating protecting the computer from my parents. Other computers do not give so little trust to their users, but Macs, they know that their users cannot be trusted. So Mac-users get big icons, simple docks, and even mice with only one button just so nothing gets too complicated. That is a wonderful thing! For users that have no urge to inform themselves better.

The same goes for my iPod. I wanted portable music, and I wanted it without having to do research. I admit it, and I picked up a device that I knew I could throw music on with nothing more than iTunes, and could put in a pocket while I exercised. Was the Zune better? Maybe not, maybe Creative Labs came out with something mind-blowing. I will never know because I admitted my limits, and admitted that I didn't want the best thing on the market, but the simplest.

The problem begins with people not admitting that. Whatever the reason, whether it's because everyone else has them, or they look cool, people begin to assume that these Apple products are the best things on the market and that they need them. Who actually needs an iPad? I believe there is someone at there that has found an iPad to be the best solution to some problem they've had, but for the majority, it's a novelty, a cool gadget. And that's great, I love gadgets, but the popularity of iPads does not make Steve Jobs an innovator, it makes him brilliant at marketing, and that's all.

Apple's obvious corporate strategy is consolidation and monopoly. Under the guise of making life easier, it consolidates your mp3 player with your mp3 store. It consolidates your phone with your music player. It consolidates your internet browser with your operating system. When Microsoft does this, it's a bad thing, and they get dismantled. Why can't we see that it can also lead to a bad situation when Apple does it too?

When iTunes came out, WinAmp, Sonique, Realplayer, and Windows Media Player all existed for music. Did iTunes, originally, do anything better than the competition? No, but it won out because of its integration with Apple products. I am not crying foul here, this is not a bad thing, it's simply the market working. However, it's not a good thing, either. We are now stuck with mp3 as the audio format of choice, instead of a lossless format, not necessarily because of any technical details, but because iTunes did not support flac and aac files.

It's the lack of personal research, encouraged by Apple, that is so problematic. Apple tells the consumer that it wants Apple products, and we as consumers have started to get confused and actually turn that message around and believe that we need Apple products. What we need is better understanding, more research, and more competition! As consumers, it is our duty to be informed, to push the market to create better and better products. When an iPhone comes out that boasts dual processors, say, "Nice job catching up, Apple," because my Photon has been performing well thanks to its two processors for months now. When you hear about using your iPad or iPhone as a credit card, feel free to sound snobby and inform them that the technology is called Near Field Communications and has been around for a while now. Do not feel guilty, because there are plenty of half-informed Apple users out there ready for you to be as uninformed as they are and take that tone with you.

Allow yourself guilty pleasures, I have my iPod with Ke$ha on it, I admit. But do not spend your whole life lounging on the sidelines, letting companies tell you what you want. That is Steve Jobs' real legacy, and it's a poor one indeed.

- John

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Putting Together 2 and 2 and Getting 99

A friend recently shared a link to We Are the 99 Percent, and I'm beginning to think that all I need for inspiration to post here is Facebook and 10 minutes to scan my news feed. The tumblr account (which is really a blog service for people who like pictures better than words) has stemmed from the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If you missed this display of idiocy in motion, Occupy Wall Street is an exercise in proving that Alexander Hamilton was on to something with Federalism, and that the average human cannot intelligently handle both the responsibility and privilege of democracy.

The Daily Show has covered it (and if you don't see Jon Stewart as at least as viable a news provider as these guys in bow ties, then we really have no common ground to meet on). Stewart does a pretty reasonable job commenting on the ridiculousness - Bonaroo-esque - and then moving past a subject he could just hammer away at. However, maybe he assumes that his colleague on the Colbert Report has covered it, but the absurdity at the heart of the protests is glossed over. These people are gathering, apparently trying to lower or halt the (admittedly low) productivity of Wall Street, without actually having any goals or demands. The know they want things, but are still TRYING TO DECIDE WHAT THEY WILL DEMAND. That is unacceptable. Protests are a result of making decisions, not the process.

To top it off, now WA99P - the website the started this post - has sprouted up in order to apparently put faces on the Occupy Wall Street movement. It features a bunch of pictures of individuals holding up paper with their financial woes written on them. One continual complaint is student loans. These are loans that almost everyone has had to take out. They are also completely voluntary, and usually taken out in spite of options for state and community colleges. It sucks, but education costs. Then, the question arises that if these people have so much debt weighing them down, where are they getting the time and money to post these pictures on what are probably personal internet connections? Finally, what are they 99% of, anyways? Who, then, is the 1 percent? Are they lonely?

The website and movement itself reek of people feeling like they're owed something. What are they owed? They have free speech, as evidenced by the existence of both a protest and online soapbox. Quite a few have jobs, even if they're not making as much as they think they need. So, is that the heart of the problem, money?

Since when did it become okay for Americans to demand money? One of my greatest frustrations in Mongolia was a pervasive mindset that their neighbors with more money and technology owed them handouts. Directors of schools and medical institutions routinely expected money out of volunteers, disregarding any other benefits they could bring. Now I'm back in the States and hearing the same self-interested demands.

Oh and don't even get me started on any of the "creative" people posting on that website. You don't get money for random artistic creations that have little to no market? I'll try to look surprised, but I promise nothing. Find a patron, or find a job. I'm calling you out on this, if you're a real artist, you can't help but create. Work a commercially viable job, and live your art.

Coming up next, finally some of the posts I made before leaving Mongolia,
- John