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Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

To dad (sorry this is so late)

In Uncategorized on October 3, 2013 at 2:29 am

It came to pass that one day

I walked along a not-oft traveled

But not altogether-forgotten

City street.

And as I ambled-

Not carelessly, but decidedly

Without determined purpose-

It began to rain

As I contemplated

How sunny days often turn to rain,

Some errant drop splashed-

Itself quite purposefully-

Upon my face.

Knowing well enough

That in such cases

I had yet another cheek to turn

I carefully planned to ignore

The sudden event.

But the Heavens had planned

For a chance encounter that day

And They would not be denied

By a little thing like

My inconvenience.

And so as They opened up

Their charge upon me,

I turned my gaze around

Searching for anyone

To call a friend.

Fearful to look up too directly

Or else face directly Heaven’s test,

I scanned the quickly darkening path

For signs of a dry place

Offering reprieve.

And so it was that I should meet

That tall, friendly confidant

For whose company I would have traded

My kingdom for just

A moment’s counsel.

I hustled to the spot

Underneath his leafy boughs

That was dry and secure

Where it seemed even Heaven

Held no power.

As I looked out

Upon the wettened world

As if it were some scene removed,

I thought of my new friend

And how we’d come to meet.

This was not some ancient sage,

Nor was this some sapling

Who had come to this young town

Much as I had

Just a few years before.

This was a sturdy kind of some years

Who must have seen his former life

Felled, and all around him constructed

A new world of brick and mortar

And strangers.

As a young one himself

He must have guarded

Field mice and foxes and furry things

Who, like I now did, looked to his strength

To weather the storm.

To be sure, he was still young

When that past world expired,

For he had continued to stretch his legs

Under and through the sidewalk,

Even as his roots were hauled away.

These were the circumstances

Upon my first meeting

With my new friend,

The one to whom I owed so much

In my time of need.

His side of the story

I cannot say for certain

As he remained mute and strong

That day, while I poured out

My sincerest thanks.

And my thanks were sincere!

Just as I appreciated his strength

At such a trying time,

I marveled at how

He let not a drop trouble me.

But true and sadly,

Just as with any friend

Who means so much

In such a short time,

We grew apart.

I would grow up

To be a man that would travel

And see the world from

Every angle and place

And meet many interesting friends.

He, too, continued to grow up

Wordlessly watching

The world around him

Even as the new world

Came to be the old.

Again, I cannot say

What or if he thought of me,

But I can say that I remembered

Though did not often

Think of him.

Until it came to pass one day

That I was again walking through

That now seasoned town,

Passing along streets to which

I had been accustomed.

Lost in thoughts of the Congo

And the castles of England and France

And the many things I’d seen,

I wandered beneath those

Once-familiar arms.

Having not seen my friend

For many years and even then

Not having seen him much at all

I failed to notice him,

And I nearly passed him by.

But, ever the better friend than I,

He well-remembered me

And reminded me so

In the most bittersweet way

I have ever been so reminded.

At the moment I passed under

His once-impenetrable bough

He let fall a single, heavy droplet

Which struck the same cheek

As when we had first met.

In a moment of perturbance,

I almost failed again

To recognize my old friend,

Or worse still,

His simple heartfelt gesture.

As I realized who stood before me

And the import of his salutation,

I could not help but

Amplify his single tear

Of remembrance and friendship.

It is truly such a thing

That friendship is

In the moments of joy

And the moments of trouble

And in the moment of need.

And while it is truly human

To appreciate and forget

It is something altogether divine

To remember and wait

For a friend to return.

For that lesson

I thank my friend today

For his gift of remembering me

Long after

I passed along my way.

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Tedium — in training

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Oh inspired heart!

Oh measured mind!

Both have forsaken me.

Leaving in their stead

But a few Romantic words

Of waning mourning.

I cannot but look out upon my city

That once stirred great things in me

And now feel only self-pity

Over what things should but will never be.

 

For the time has passed me by

To move great mountains of men

With none but my words

And lift them to Victory.

 

The time has passed for allusion.

Days are now bathed

In the light of this day and none other

And we are left to scratch out

Mere existence

Amongst a myriad of worry

A torment of troubles

A rising tide of anger and resent

And that very worst of all, Routine.

 

Perhaps our knight will once again come riding

To alert us to the lurking villain

To slay the tedium that itself has slain inspiration.

Perhaps he shall claim us as his maiden

And ride off to foreign conquests in our name

Braving the ever-present threat

Of quietly passing away to obscurity while none watch.

 

Maybe these days, too, shall turn

Nights and winters, too, shall fade

New summers will bring new dreams

All at once the same as those we had passed

And drawn our soaring hopes from,

And all at once bearing the sign of Difference,

That great temptress of promise and hope

And regret.

We once said that it was not for us to say

That the world would pass

Without paying us notice.

And in the face of this great Indifference

We swore against the world and to it

That we would be known

That we would change her

Whether the world wished it or not.

 

What happened to that inspired heart?

Is it laid in irons?

And that calculating mind,

Has it timed its exit?

 

There is, of course, time

As there always is

But she is no ally here

Too cold and indifferent to care

About the plight of mortality

About the scar of birth into a dying cage.

“Con-gone” or “Bombs over Brazza”

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Where I’m at: Cape Town, South Africa (but more on that later)

What I’m doing: still feeling slightly guilty. Why? How about because I’m not currently living next to this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m posting: catching everyone up on significant events. Finally.

__________

It’s been ages since I posted, and even longer since I posted anything worthwhile. Is it because nothing interesting has happened in our lives in Brazzaville? Normally, that might be true, but this time it certainly isn’t. In fact, I’ve been involved in so much interesting stuff – both wonderful and terrible – in the last month that I simply haven’t had time to blog. That, plus the virtually non-existent internet connection at our Brazza home has made uploading pictures nearly impossible. Unfortunately, for the post that I should be getting to fairly soon about my trip into the “Heart of Darkness” in Congo’s northern jungles, the slow picture uploads may no longer be a problem as our computer (which had the pics on it) was stolen at the front end of our South African adventure (which itself will be a subsequent post). See?! Procrastination solves everything.

This post, however, is neither about our happy travels nor about cheeky remarks. As many of you will know by now, on the morning of March 4, half of Brazzaville blew up due to (officially) an electric problem that caused a fire at a munitions depot in the heart of Brazzaville. As you’ll see from the photos that one of our brave (crazy?!) friends took in the areas of the blast – which still have unknown quantities of unexploded munitions at them – the devastation was widespread, awful, and shocking. How a munitions depot sits in the middle of the most crowded neighborhood of a capital city (let alone how it is managed) is a matter of speculation on which I cannot comment publicly due to my official position. But suffice to say, you can draw your own conclusions. Having been in the middle of the action, I wasn’t reading as much of the media coverage (e.g. it was the top story on CNN on Day 2) as we scrambled to start relief efforts, but I think the media probably did a fair job of covering events, so I defer to some of its coverage to permit readers to get a sense of the situation in order to draw conclusions. Let me say, though, that this was not an isolated incident, with this having happened at least 2 other times in the last 3 years at other munitions depots, albeit on a much smaller scale. But for my readers’ benefit, I’ll recount our own role in the story, which will not have been covered in the press (the paparazi have not yet discovered us!), and so which might be of interest.

At about 8am, Sunday, March 4, we were still in bed, having spent a late night out with friends on Saturday night discussing our next post possibilities as we prepared to submit our bid list (NB: we just found out about an hour ago where we’re headed in October 2013! I’ll leave the suspense for a subsequent post !). First, we heard a dull, but serious crash, which woke us up, but which we thought could be anything from a heavy gate being slammed shut to a tree limb slamming one of the tin roofs around. I remember asking aloud, “What was that?” Receiving no answer but “urgagugghhh” from a groggy Colleen, I laid back down. About 5 minutes later, another louder crash came. This time, I was sure that a tree limb had fallen from one of the trees in our yard onto a roof. I got out of bed and looked through the window, expecting to see a very windy morning and tree parts strewn across the yard. As I looked out, though, there was absolutely no wind and I saw our guard walking across the lawn radioing the embassy. I then heard our upstairs neighbor call out his question to the guard about what was happening. Our guard said that Kinshasa, DRC was bombing Brazzaville. Mind you, this is what everyone in Brazzaville thinks all the time, partly due to their justifiable concern about the sleeping giant next door and partly because people are still very scarred by the civil wars in the 90s. Moreover, I had heard this same guard say the same thing when Independence Day fireworks went off last year in Kinshasa, so his statement caused me no alarm. Still, the noises were strange, and I decided to pull our emergency radio into the room and turn up the volume.

When I turned on the radio, I heard the call sign of one of our wardens (volunteers, usu. American citizens, that help as info passers for the American communities abroad) doing an excellent job of radioing in to check in and ensure the lines of communication were open. Unfortunately, there was no official answer (also not unusual- we don’t always have the most professional or English-proficient local staff). Then, a very violent blast shook the whole house, knocking some things off shelves. I heard Colleen jump out of bed with a start, the dog barking, and then a few seconds later, an audibly shaken wife of the Regional Security Officer (who was supposed to be in Kinshasa for work, but who had returned early, unbeknownst to us at the time) come on the radio and call all American staff to the embassy as quickly as possible. We found out soon that their house had had all of its windows completely blown in by that blast, making the trepidation in her voice understandable. Mind you, we still didn’t know what was going on at this point, and the only (mis)information that we had was that a bomb had hit the city. However, we stayed calm and grabbed essentials (for me: pants, official badge, phone, leatherman, flashlight) and headed for the door. The only problem was that our car was/is broken (another saga for another time; moral: never ask a Congolese “mechanic” to figure out what a noise from your car is). I told Co to stay put as I went upstairs to ask our neighbor, also an embassy employee, for a ride and to make sure he heard the call to come in. As I stood in the 2nd floor doorway talking to him, I turned and looked towards the city. There is an empty lot next to us; at that moment, I heard an enormous blast, and almost instantaneously saw a wave of sound/energy/godknowswhat moving across the lot towards me. A split second later, I was thrown back several feet into the wall and had the heavy door slam into me. Our neighbor and I started to move quickly towards the car and I could hear Co yell that we needed to leave NOW. I yelled back to meet us at the car, halfway between us. Seconds later, dog in arms and not knowing what was happening, we sped away to the embassy. We live close to the presidential work palace, so there are always military around. But that morning, there were dozens all over, all looking frantic and confused. Minutes and many broken traffic laws later, we were at the embassy.

Throughout the rest of the day, we all pitched in to try to figure out what was going on, to attend to the Americans and others showing up at our gates (our embassy being probably the only structurally sound building in the entire city), and then to figure out next steps, incl. needs for recovery. As a Pol/Econ/Consular officer, I was frequently shuttling between helping American citizens, then Allied countries’ citizens, and ultimately anyone that came, as well as trying to get the scoop on the situation and connecting with anyone and everyone. At first, this was nearly impossible as all the phone networks were overwhelmed and radio/tv were shut off. Moreover, not a single Congolese official answered their phones. Those initial hours could have thus been filled with panic, especially as blasts continued throughout the day and some injured started to show up at the gates. But for both the Foreign Service readers and non-government types alike, you should be proud of your diplomats that everyone not only kept their cool, but accomplished an amazing amount in those first few hours with virtually no ICT assistance and incredibly short-staffed. Within hours, we had accounted for all Americans (save 1 child, whom we later found safe), which unfortunately required trips to the morgues (moral #2: as I’ve mentioned to some already, NEVER EVER die in a place like Brazzaville. You do not want to see how your body would be treated; I’ve seen pictures of concentration camps during WWII, and the piles of broken, mangled, and bloodied bodies in those morgues reminded me of those). Moreover, we had kept the press informed and had already gotten relief efforts underway, incl. with plans for what was needed, how we would get it, when we would get it, whom we would work with, etc. Unfortunately, the pictures were just starting to come in, as were some of the awful, but sometimes harrowing stories. One family of friends, for instance, lived just a few hundred meters away from the blast site. Their windows/frames/doors were totally blown in, to the point where glass flew across the room and stuck all over their walls. Their child’s playroom was completely destroyed. They spent every Sunday morning in that playroom. For some reason, they decided that Sunday morning to go to church…for the first time ever in Congo. It saved their life. But lest you read too much into the spirtuality of that, they happened to choose to go to a church on the other side of town that morning. Had they gone to one of the 3 churches near them, they would have fared worse, as all 3 collapsed during the blasts, killing everyone inside. Wow.

There were many stories like that, but not all with the same positive ending. Nevertheless, working virtually 24 hours/day (22 actually) for the next week, everyone pitched in to get much needed help onto the ground. Again, I cannot say enough about how well not only our diplomats, but also family members, our wardens, and the rest of the international community responded. Lives were definitely saved due to quick action, even where slow or non-existent action by other actors jeopardized them. While the city is recovering, it is still in some danger as more of these depots are located around the city (thankfully none near our house), and many areas remain at risk for things as varied as cholera to measles (oftentimes deadly in Congo). The status quo has not been restored, even if the news cycle has moved on.

As you might imagine, there were many more anecdotes throughout the day, many of which unfortunately paint some in lights best left in the dark. To see, for instance, dozens of hospital workers at the city’s 2nd largest hospital and the one closest to the blast site sitting on their hands 4 days afterwards in the midst of literally decaying remains and broken structures, waiting for word to clean up rather than doing it was, to say the least, devastating to my belief in humanity. But as I said, some of these stories and feelings are best left in the dark for now. In lieu of more words, here are some pictures of what used to be an area of town with 250,000 – 300,000 people living in it.

Take care everyone! The next post will be soon and will be decidedly different!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What’s my age again?

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Where I’m at: Brazzaville, just back from a trip to the north of Congo (see subsequent posts – coming soon! – for a journey into my madness in the jungle!)

What I’m doing: renewing my inspiration

Why I’m posting: it’s birthday season

__________

Though I was born on an October morn, the early part of the year is one of two major birthday seasons in my family. Between talking to my brother about his upcoming year following his 26th birthday and working through our friend Matty’s annual Top 10ish Albums of the Year (one of my favorite New Year’s events of every year), I’ve been inspired to share a birthday-related activity that I engage in every year.

First, I should note that this activity began when I was 18. For a number of reasons, I genuinely did not expect to live past 17, and it was with some shock that I celebrated my 18th birthday. From that year on, I’ve celebrated each subsequent birthday with thankfulness about my continued existence with a specially-chosen birthday song(s), usually which mentions that particular age. Looking back on these song choices, I’m reminded of my feelings at that time, my station in life, where I was living, who I was with, and what I imagined for my life going forward. It’s something I also enjoy doing – like many people – every New Year at midnight (thus, this post might be doubly relevant as it’s still technically January).

Having something like a song to remember that time helps. So I’ll share my songs and a little about my life at each of those years. If you’d like to comment on your own unique birthday or New Year’s celebrations, I’d love to hear it. Music deeply touches me, and that’s why this celebration is special to me. Without further ado, then, the list:

Age 18

What I listened to: “I’m 18” by Alice Cooper (though I first heard it as a remake by Creed. Don’t tell anyone I said that)

Where I was living: Middletown, Ohio

Why the song was relevant: Self-explanatory mostly. I wasn’t a big AC fan (except in Wayne’s World), but was very much into rock and felt like the song exemplified how I felt trapped between preparing to embark on what I thought would be my journey into adulthood (college…wrong there!).

Key lyric: “Lines form on my face and hands / Lines form from the ups and downs / I’m in the middle without any plans / I’m a boy and I’m a man / I’m eighteen / and I don’t know what I want”

Age 19

What I listened to: “Losing a Whole Year” by Third Eye Blind

Where I was living: South Bend, Indiana

Why the song was relevant: The singer finds a girl that loves him for his awesomeness and he feels used. For some reason, I thought I was awesome back then and that the song fit my life. But still, one of my favorite albums ever.

Key lyric: “Now you want to try your life of sin / You want to be down with the down and in / Always copping my truths / I kind of get the feeling like I’m being used….Losing a whole year”

Age 20

What I listened to: “Unwell” by Matchbox 20 [Years later, I pretended that I had, in fact, listened to the as-yet unreleased song “20 Years of Snow” by Regina Spektor, a song that ironically says the subject “lives in a matchbox”]

Where I was living: South Bend, Indiana

Why the song was relevant: The song had nothing to do with my age (just the band name), but at the time, I felt like I was losing my hard-fought identity in favor of an easier one. Still, I held onto who I was to make sure that it would still be who I would be.

Key lyric: (from “Unwell”) “I’m not crazy, I’m just a little impaired / I know right now you don’t care / But soon enough you’re gonna think of me / And how I used to be…me” (from “20 Years of Snow”) “I’m twenty years of clean / I never truly hated anyone or anything”

Age 21

What I listened to: “Guilty Conscience” by Eminem

Where I was living: South Bend, Indiana

Why the song was relevant: One of the song’s characters is a 21-yr old facing a moral dilemma at a party. That pretty much depicts college, doesn’t it?

Key lyric: (Just trust me that the lyrics say that. I wouldn’t suggest looking them up.)

Age 22

What I listened to: “Who do you love?” version by George Thorogood; “100 Years” by Five for Fighting

Where I was living: South Bend, Indiana

Why the song was relevant: Both singers mention being 22 and reflecting on their respective lives. The former was one of the songs that gave me the idea to start this tradition, so I had to listen to it, though I did, in fact, mind dying at the time! The latter is a sappy, maybe-embarrassing-to-mention song that reflected how I felt about my then-girlfriend, now-wife. Hopefully we’ll all get 100 years.

Key quote: (from “Who do you love?”) “I’m just 22 and I don’t mind dying”  (from “100 Years”) “I’m twenty-two for a moment / She feels better than ever / And we’re on fire / Making our way back from Mars”

Age 23

What I listened to: “What’s my age again?” by Blink-182; “Dancing Nancies” by Dave Matthews Band

Where I was living: San Diego, California

Why the song was relevant: Both songs were several years old by then, but I had mentally set them aside for this tradition. It was made better by my living with Irish and Romanian students at the time, thus giving them a flavor of some of the various types of “rock” music I had grown up listening to. PS: That DMB album nearly ruined my life at a younger age, so it was nice to look back on it with a more mature perspective.

Key lyric: (from “What’s my age again?”) “Nobody likes you when you’re 23 … My friends say that I should act my age / What’s my age again? What’s my age again?”   (from “Dancing Nancies”) “Twenty-three and so tired of life / Such a shame to throw it all away / The images grow darker still / Could I have been anyone other than me?”

Age 24

What I listened to: “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio

Where I was living: Chicago, Illinois

Why the song was relevant: A staple song for us as we were growing up, the song is a desperate and poetic introspection (seriously) by a trapped youth who sees his world dying around him. My birthday was only a couple months after my dad died, and I very much felt this way up until my birthday, when I finally realized that the rest of our lives somehow go on.

Key lyric: “Death ain’t nothin’ but a heartbeat away / I’m livin’ life, do or die, what can I say / I’m twenty-three now, but will I live to see twenty-four / The ways things are going I don’t know”

Age 25

What I listened to: “Soma” by The Strokes

Where I was living: Chicago, Illinois

Why the song was relevant: By this point, I was starting to feel like a somewhat settled adult. So the song reflects a certain resigned lightheartedness at the prospect of growing up. Though the song’s subject is theoretically talking about having taken a drug called soma for 25 years, some (myself included) interpret the “drug” here as life.

Key lyric: “Tried it once and they like it / Then tried to hide it / Says, ‘I’ve been doing this 25 years’”

Age 26

What I listened to: “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake

Where I was living: Chicago, Illinois

Why the song was relevant: Though the song doesn’t mention being 26, the artist died when he was 26. I had come to know Nick Drake’s music like many Americans…through a Volkswagen commercial. Since that time, I learned a lot more about a very talented musician who died far too young (apparently by 1 year – see Age 27). But the commercial, and subsequently the song, reminded me of an idealized picture of my relationships. Luckily, during this year of my life, I got to live out those relationships in very much that fashion.

Key lyric: (The music, not so much the lyrics, are what struck me about this song; I suggest checking out the link above)

Age 27

What I listened to: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana; the rock anthem for Generation Whatever

Where I was living: Chicago, Illinois

Why the song was relevant: Age 27 is either a great or terrible time to be a famous musician. A remarkable number of notable singers have died of various offenses at 27. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, Kurt Cobain, and recently Amy Winehouse, just to name a very few. Some inevitably died of self-fulfilling prophesy. In any case, I was preparing to leave my beloved Chicago to join the Foreign Service, both of which were causes for introspection and a look back at one of the most formative musicians (for myself and for other musicians of the time) from my youth.

Key lyric: “With the lights outs, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us”

Age 28

What I listened to: I might have listened to “By the river’s edge” by The Gaslight Anthem as I had planned to because it mentioned being 28, but I think I actually listened to “Muzzle” by The Smashing Pumpkins. Apparently this was the year I started to lose my memory.

Where I was living: Arlington, Virginia

Why the song was relevant: “Muzzle” was my favorite song from one of my very favorite albums growing up: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Those closely following that type of music frequently noted that the album had 28 songs. Moreover, “Muzzle” had significant meaning to me. I listened to it on repeat for about 10 hours when my first girlfriend broke up with me; gave a presentation on it at a retreat during senior year of high school as describing my life after I felt I had overcome some major issues; then secretly snuck it into my wedding reception’s playlist as a kind of capstone.

Key lyric: “I fear that I am ordinary, just like everyone / To lie hear and die among the sorrows / Adrift among the days / For everything I’ve ever said / And everything I’ve ever done is gone and dead / As all things must surely have to end / And great loves will one day have to part / I know that I am meant for this world.”

Age 29

What I listened to: “Slow Show” by The National

Where I was living: Brazzaville, Rep. of Congo (though I celebrated in Dayton, Ohio; appropriate since the band members are from southern Ohio, too)

Why the song was relevant: Definitely my favorite band right now and one that my wife, friends, some family, and I all share important memories and associations over. It was weird to be back visiting the U.S. after several months in the decidedly un-U.S.-like Congo, but listening to The National helped bring me home.

Key lyric: “You know I dreamed about you / for twenty-nine years before I saw you / You know I dreamed about you / I missed you for / twenty-nine years”

Happiness is a cold one

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2012 at 9:36 pm

I don’t think it’s too late to start off a post around this time by continuing to wish everyone Happy Holidays! For us, the gift giving didn’t end on Christmas, but extended at least through New Year’s with the gift of a food coma to ourselves. Now, it’s not unusual to have a holiday food coma, but ours wasn’t from tryptophan. It was HFCS.

That last Tom Jones reference aside, the title of the blog is a reference to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a warm gun” (NB: according to Wikipedia, that itself is a reference to Charles Schulz’ Peanuts comic proclaiming that “Happiness is a warm puppy,” which may have been an inadvertent reference by John Lennon, but which I find to be true. Still warm “gun” rhymes better with cold “one,” so that’s what I’m going with.). The cold one here is one of many sources of the afore-mentioned HFCS and also the holiday gift we gave ourselves.

At a certain few hardship posts around the world, the government will pay for a shipment of up to 2500 lbs of “consumable items.” The theory here actually matches the reality (true at least for Brazzaville) and goes that most food items to which we’re accustomed are not available, nor are local equivalents. Those that have followed this blog much will know that we’ve certainly had our difficulties finding things like cheddar cheese, non-rancid meat, and juice that isn’t 90% sugar. And so, with great Christmas cheer, we received our consumables shipment last week that could fairly be described as a ton of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Now, for those of you not familiar with what a ton of HFCS looks like, I’m including pictures. Most of the time, though, it looks like Reece’s Pieces, Teddy Grahams, Pop-Tarts, Cheetos, Captain Crunch, and hundreds of cans of Mountain Dew and American Coca-Cola (the stuff here, like many places, uses sugar). And that’s what it looks like to us, piled up in our house. But it doesn’t look that way to our bodies, and despite what the corn lobby of America say, it doesn’t look like sugar either. It’s basically sugar on steroids. Actually, eating sugar then steroids might be healthier.

That, my friends, is what a refrigerator full of sugar and chicken broth looks like!

But boy oh boy does it taste good! At least, I think it does. For much of the last week, we’ve (actually, just me) been gorging ourselves on all the good treats we’ve been missing by being here. And my body and now the rest of me have become acutely aware that we’ve been without HFCS for sometime now because all of a sudden, I’m tired, worn out, have an aching stomach, and generally feel crappy. Ironic, of course, because we’ve complained that it was so hard to eat healthy in Brazzaville because of the limited vegetable options and the fact that everything is served in a soup of palm oil. Yet when I look around as a trudge around the streets now trying to burn off the inevitable weight gain that we shipped to ourselves, the Congolese look downright ripped, while I’m starting to have trouble seeing my belt buckle. (Of course, I’m probably going to live twice as long than most of the people here thanks to America’s medical system and the comfort and (relative) cleanliness I can surround myself in. Seems unfair, huh?)

Sweet, sweet nectar! And the Guinness ain't bad, neither.

So maybe it’s better after all that the title’s reference is too The Beatles’ self-destructive lyrics rather than the wholesome Peanuts reference to Snoopy (NB2: again, irony, as I’ll be eating Cheetos and drinking a Mountain Dew while watching the playoffs this weekend – go Bengals! – which will be covered by the MetLife blimp, painted with a giant Snoopy on the side). Still, cold comfort is sometimes the best you can get. Even if that coldness is a cold bottle of neon green teeth rot. Mmmmm!

Cereal and tuna and chicken chunks and canned fruit! Oh my!

 

Christmas in the Congo

In Uncategorized on December 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Where I’m at: in Brazza, but thankfully in front of my home computer rather than my work one

What I’m doing: struggling to see through my right eye (see below)

Why I’m posting: to share our holiday cheer!

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Merry Christmas and happy holiday season to everyone! Despite what a number of Congolese folks have told us here – that Christmas is just for kids – where I’m from, then, everyone is a kid. It’s my absolutely favorite time to be with family. Unfortunately, Congress and the State Department felt that it was better that I spend this Christmas in Congo. And despite what the AFN commercials and even a lot of family and friends might believe, I’m here to serve!

But right now, I’m here to share some stories of our Christmas with everyone! In many ways, Christmas here was just like it would have been at home. We went to Christmas parties, wore funny hats/ties/sweaters, ate turkey and stuffing, played in the snow, and exchanged gifts with our family. See some pictures below.

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(Photos: WP excited for Christmas; In a winter wonderland; the family tears into the gifts under the tree; DeMark shows off his new duds all at the same time, continuing a family tradition)

The difference in Congo, I guess, is that the Christmas parties were at an Ambassador’s house and featured Sapeurs, it was really too hot to wear ugly sweaters, turkey breasts cost an arm and a leg (the grocery store was selling turkeys for around $600!), the snow came in the mail….and everything here is trying to kill us!

I’ll explain the last part. It’s Christmas Eve and Colleen, Whiskey Peat, and I are dozing while watching the late football games. Because we’re 6 hours ahead of EST, the games run past midnight. I look up, see it’s now Christmas – WP’s first and our first in Congo – and wish our small family a Merry Christmas and suggest we go to bed. As usual, the dog needs to go out before we put him to sleep. But that night, he found a surprise in the yard. We already knew about the poisonous snakes in the yard. Unfortunately, you can apparently add poisonous toads to the list because WP found one. Playful as he is, he pounced on it a couple times before trying to eat it. A few moments later, he started stumbling around and then started having seizures and couldn’t move. After we were able to calm him (and Colleen) down to slow his heart and get him to drink some water, he started to come to and we put away the big syringe (thankfully, because this one isn’t epidermal! Use your imagination). What a way to have your first Christmas start!

Then it was my turn. About a week ago now, we snuck one present out from under the tree and opened it: a food dehydrator (thanks mom!). The side of the box had the product’s name on it, so it wouldn’t have been a big surprise in any case. But we wanted to open it early so that we could use it to dry some of the many mangoes the tree in our yard produces and give them to some of the embassy’s guards. Our system for picking the mangoes was simple: Colleen stood on a ladder with a stick and knocked the fruit out of the tree to me, who caught them so that they wouldn’t split open on the ground. Unfortunately, I forgot about how toxic the mango sap is, which was by the end of the exercise covering my face and arms. And while I remembered to wash my sticky clothes right away, I didn’t do the same for my skin. As a result, as one holiday party evening led to the next, a very painful and itchy rash began to develop up and down my arms, under my right eye (see? we got to it!), and on my ears. The good news is that it’s not contagious. The bad news: internet dermatology sites are telling me that I can expect this rash to stick around for a couple weeks! Yikes! Merry Christmas indeed!

But Christmas, of course, isn’t just about presents, rashes, or being forced to “attend” the open-air evangelical services across the street all weekend because they drown out your own holiday music. It’s about giving, and our embassy folks did a lot of that. We were lucky enough to go to one such food/gift-giving event at a local school for deaf children. It was just amazing to see the faces of the kids as they drank Capri Suns, ate Skittles and home-made chocolate chip cookies, (went into diabetic shocks) and opened gifts that most American kids their ages would have thrown to the side and wondered aloud where their iPad was. A truly beautiful and touching experience. But also a painful reminder that this is still a poor country, whatever the numbers show.

One of the kids was a 14-year old boy who was about the most polite teenager I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, the program ends for him next year and there are no high schools for deaf children here. He happened to also be an orphan (or at least abandoned), so his prospects are basically to try to sell stuff in the street for the rest of his life or…well, those are his prospects. If he were the only kid here facing such a dilemma, it would be less heart-breaking. And while I can’t use this forum as a soapbox to discuss government accountability, I will say that I’m thankful for all that our government – national, state, local – has helped to do for us throughout our history, and even more thankful for the private citizens that pushed that government and also acted through countless private organizations to make sure that there’s a social safety net, even one with holes in it.

Anyway, I hope this post isn’t a downer around Christmas, but rather a reminder to be thankful for everything that we have and everyone that has helped that happen for us. I’m thankful to all of my friends and family and the many others in my life, who though miles away, are always in my heart.

Merry Christmas to all and to all, good after-Christmas sales shopping!

Castration

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Where I’m at: Brazzaville- spending my first (of 1, hopefully) Christmas in Africa

What I’m doing: frantically typing between internet outages (“Yessss, I thought of typing this post in Word and copying it over when the internet worked. Noooo, I didn’t do that. Noooo, I don’t know why.”)

Why I’m posting: nothing says Merry Christmas like this post’s title!

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Just to clarify, I did not get neutered. That would be awful. Something Buck v. Bell creepy-ish there (that’s just a reference to keep the lawy-erudite interested). However, our son did get neutered last week. To clarify further, our “son” is our dog, Whiskey Peat. The time had come and they had to go.

Having had dogs before, I realized that neutering is often part of the ownership process. But watching WP’s behavior in the few weeks before the operation, I could tell that there was little that he wanted to do more than pass on his crazy gene. Unfortunately, there was little that we wanted less. We were hoping that he would be calmer afterward, what with significantly less testosterone pulsing through his crazy little veins. And whatdoyouknow, he has been…which actually makes it a bit worse since I feel like we opted for the neutering over the frontal lobotomy based solely on time of recovery. What kind of Frankensteins are we?!

Probably, though, it was the right thing to do. But this post isn’t just about the very literal castration in our lives. It’s also about the little castrations we see everyday (note: we are neither Mohels nor “in to that”). For instance, my walk to work most days takes me past one of the city’s main roundabouts. I’ll never forget the evening we first landed in Brazzaville, and what I felt like as we entered the big roundabout, with it’s fountain in the center, famous landmark, and trees surrounding it. It wasn’t exactly beautiful, but it was memorable. And for someone that was to cover the environmental sector here (and for the biologist next to him, too, I’d imagine), I was struck by the reality of an African city carved into nature and known by many as “Brazza the Green.”

And so, it’s been with a heavy heart and a confused head that I’ve watched nearly all of the trees at that roundabout be cut down in the last couple months. A tree whose trunk seemed to indicate its very advanced age was the latest victim last week. A “castration” made all the more ironic by the fact that the tree thinning has made a billboard more visible that promotes the government’s current initiative to plant one million hectares of forest (in a previously unforested savanna, which is not exactly all that helpful or logical, but whatever). Not only is my morning commute less comfortable because I can’t hide from the beating sun – yes, it’s hot here, even at Christmas – under the shade for even the few seconds as I walk by, but also because I feel more aware of the crumbling, poor, man-made city that used to at least be hidden to some degree by nature’s mascara.

Unfortunately, that’s not where the castration ends. That morning commute by foot also helps to remind me everyday that we’re in Africa, less for the people and more because I’m walking and not driving. I’m not driving because our car is in a million pieces. Not a wreck. In fact, the car was running fine. It had just started getting noisy. Our neighbor recommended a mechanic at the embassy. So I asked him if he could figure out why it was noisy. “Sure.” Great. The one line emails that would follow between my emails asking for more info helped explain in quick succession that, the car needed parts, the parts cost more than $3000, we needed to order them ourselves, no we couldn’t have the car back in the meantime while we thought about it/ordered parts, why not, because we took the car apart, and it’s impossible to put it back together. W. T. F. Congo.

So yes, castrated by a now painful lack of mobility after having had gained mobility with our car not too long ago. Okay, I realize that this immobility is really not such a serious case. The frustration here is with the fact that we tried to do something in Congo and it backfired. As it always does. These little failures – be they through work or personal life – seem to happen with such frequency here that one feels, well, castrated. Helpless. And we’re not alone. It’s the reason businesses don’t come here. The reason that the infrastructure is either not existent or extremely dilapidated. It’s the reason that “This is Congo” has been said since the days of de Brazza and Stanley. Things – even the simplest, like asking someone to figure out why something isn’t working, not deconstructing that thing – often find a way to be impossible to accomplish here.

So yeah, I’m frustrated. But this place isn’t worth giving up on. Just like how Whiskey Peat continues to bounce around playfully, albeit less crazily, despite his castration, we’ll trek on despite the little ones in our life. And here, I feel it necessary to apologize to all who may be offended by the far too frequent use of the word “castration” in this post. Especially, Lance Armstrong. Unless it turns out he cheated. 🙂

Christmas at our place!

Christmas at our place!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who said it: Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes

Why it’s relevant: Buck v. Bell was one of the low points in American history and in an otherwise brilliant career by Holmes (I earlier quoted another low point of his, in the free speech case U.S. v. Debs). The U.S. sanctioned eugenics, the practice of determining who was socially-fit to breed. A practice we widely condoned…right up until the Nazis showed us where that thinking leads. A post about castration has to include a quote about eugenics! Plus, it helps remind us that some of the political vitriol we hear around election season about “them” or “those people” might sound downright morally-reprehensible with a few years of retrospect. By the way, the subject of the 1927 case wasn’t even, as it turned out, actually mentally handicapped. She lived into her 90s, obviously childless, and died a poor woman who never received an apology.

The quote: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

Be thankful (for internet!)

In Uncategorized on November 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Where I’m at: apparently the blackhole of technology

What I’m doing: wondering why I came to work in on the day in between the Thanksgiving holiday and Monday’s Congolese holiday

Why I’m posting: wow, because I finally can

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Now this may ring somewhat hollow to those that have noticed that my wife has somehow managed to get two posts up in recent weeks, but I wonder more and more whether the technology wave didn’t also miss Congo. Anthropologists and political scientists often talk about how the Industrial Revolution and Green Wave (ag technology) missed most of Africa, but Africa has largely been more a part of the Tech Wave. Certain instances have pointed to that being true: Twitter-led revolutions in North Africa, the first-ever African-designed tablet PC coming out of Brazzaville, Kigali being the Southern Hemisphere’s Silicon Valley (nb: unfair because they had a head start being physically in a valley and in a part of the world where silicon is found!).

But as I’ve been unable to use home internet (and thus blog) for a month, despite being a client of the supposedly most reliable/largest internet provider in town, I start to question whether the Tech Wave just missed us entirely. The link-up to the broadband internet cable being run down the coast of Africa from Portugal supposedly is happening right now, but the lines running from that cable to Brazzaville could well be months or a year (or more) away. In the meantime, most government buildings don’t have internet or computers yet (that’s okay, they often also don’t have clean toilets, working elevators, or non-crumbling walls), my blackberry (and lifeline to your US phones via text!) can’t connect to the never-functioning network – thus no new pictures, and the electric company went on strike because it was being broken into 3 companies for being a monopoly (umm, aren’t monopolies broken up often because they can price control goods and services? Don’t you have to have either of those first before really being a monopoly?!).

Yikes, TIA (This Is Africa), right?! Okay, admittedly, I just watched Blood Diamond again, and it meant more when that guy who played The Mummy said it after Leo DiCaprio shot him as they duked it out over a huge diamond and the life of some child soldiers (talk about my comments ringing hollow!). But it’s these sorts of everyday things that just drive us up the walls. And that’s a dangerous place because our walls are filled with giant cockroaches and apparently deadly snakes now, too!

En revanche (which is French for “on the other hand,” but which is way cooler because “revanche” means “revenge”), this kind of TIA stuff is also what makes this place charming and unforgettable (nb: the recurring malaria also makes it unforgettable). Sure, I had salmonella poisoning again last week after stupidly eating a chicken meal that we sent back once for being raw (“Why would we use a new plate?” Man, I’m stupid sometimes). But still, charming.

Anyway, it’s the time of year to be thankful, and I’m thankful for this opportunity to serve the U.S. abroad in such an interesting place (and thankful for the taxpayers for paying for a valuable service which apparently they don’t understand – or at least Rick Perry doesn’t). I’m thankful for my friends and family, who mean so much to me. I’m thankful for my dog not being bigger such that when he eats through the couch, at least it’s just a small hole. I’m thankful for parenthetical statements (or am I?!) that allow me to spice up my blog (with multiple personality schizophrenia). And I’m thankful to you all for reading! Happy Thanksgiving!!

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Who said it: Freddie Mitchell, former wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, self-proclaimed “People’s Champion,” and always a great quote. This one after a 2-TD performance in a playoff game.

Why it’s relevant: we’re all thankful for something

The quote: “I just want to thank my hands for being so great.”

A lifetime of memories (interactive!)

In Uncategorized on November 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Where I’m at: Back in Brazzaville after finishing up our tour of the U.S. and others: 30 days, 18 flights, 14 cities (Pointe Noire, Paris, Montreal, Quebec, Seattle, Portland, Reno, Vegas, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, South Bend, Dayton, Kinshasa), 6 time zones, 5 countries (Congo, DRC, France, Canada, USA), 3 road trips, 2 boat rides, 1 great time!

What I’m doing: watching a reply of Monday Night Football, trying to figure out how DeSean Jackson scored 0 pts to cause me to tie my fantasy football game

Why I’m posting: 29 years of reflection

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Our first official R&R (mixed with some work conferences) is now behind us, and it was fantastic! Saw family and friends all over, watched a marathon and an ND-USC football game, visited my mom’s new bar and grill (O’Grady’s, soon to be Stillwater Tap, off Rt. 49 outside of Dayton), played some golf (an eagle in a driving rain at night!), and I had my 29th (1st of 5) birthday. It wasn’t all fun and games (and some of those that were, also stunk, like losing to USC), as my uncle lost his mother, brother-in-law lost his grandmother, and father-in-law lost his brother. We’re still thinking of you guys and wishing you the best.

Which I suppose is as good a segue way as any to say that my birthday gave me some good opportunities to reflect. I had an off-the-cuff speech “planned” to give at my birthday party, except that it wasn’t just my party and there’s really no need to subject family to a moment that puts me on stage at the cost of others being the audience. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share a little about what I was thinking.

Birthdays are one of those occasions where we often take stock of where we are in our lives. As such, we might see ourselves as one in the same as what position we occupy. We might think of what job we have, our family situation, where we live, maybe our physical appearance or hobbies, or others. But for me, life is really the sum of all the experiences we’ve had and maybe even those that we’re setting ourselves up for. I know that this fits the “life is a journey” thing that my high school age cousin will soon be writing in yearbooks. At the same time, though, it’s more than a little cathartic to think of all the small moments, all the people we’ve barely known, and all the times we were happy, sad, upset, or indifferent as somehow greater than they all were individually. And – yes, this is right out of some rom-com – those that we’ve loved stay with throughout our lives, as important in those moments as they ever were.

I’m sure that thinking of your own life as a series of illuminated points, some brighter than others, isn’t necessarily the most novel or even comforting idea. But it works for me. It lets me skip around in my memory in spare moments to think of funny inside jokes with people I’ll never see again, bask in some of the amazing sunsets I’ve seen all over the world, remember my favorite handshakes, and relive the glory days of playing a 2-boy baseball league with my brother during the summers. Those moments involve crying over a grade-school break-up like there was no tomorrow, sneaking into the kitchen to take a finger-full of the cheese from the middle of the Entemann’s cheesecake when I was little, having a glass of wine over the best steak ever at a bar in Honduras with my best friend, falling “asleep” in my friend’s mom’s bathroom, hitting the perfect under-the-leg winner in the biggest tennis match of my life, spending my 21st birthday in a bar with a beer by myself until spending it with a homeless veteran and the girl I knew then that I would marry, trading rides to the store with my downstairs neighbor – owner of 21 tarantulas – for a can of soup…so that he could buy another single can of soup, listening to my little cousin cry that her brother “John made the car squiggle!,” hearing my niece playfully yell “Don’t chase me, okay?! No, chase me!” and many, many more.

Anyway, next year, at the second of my 29th birthdays, I’ll really have to decide whether I’ll “take stock” of what I have then or what I’ve been lucky enough to have had ever. I hope I’ll feel the same as I feel now. But how do you feel? What memories have you never gotten to tell people about because it didn’t seem significant enough to tell a whole story about or just want to relive? Post it in the comments! I’d really love to hear about it!

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The quote: a picture! and a new memory!

Me and Whiskey Peat. What? You don't name your dog after your favorite drink and it's ingredients?!

Trekking around the U.S.

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Where I’m at: Vegas (on the way to Atlanta, just back from Reno, Seattle, Portland, Quebec, Paris!)

What I’m doing: not checking work emails. I promise. I’m on vacation…why would I be checking work emails. No, YOU’RE acting nervous!

Why I’m posting: mid-vacation check-in

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So I’m back in Vegas, where I guess I’m technically home. This is, of course, my wife’s home, but my home is still Ohio as far as “where the heart is.” But since we had to declare a home base, despite not really having one in this uprooted foreign service life, we chose Vegas (thanks in part to their generous, “yeah we have budget shortfalls, but we’re still NOT going to tax you!” no income tax plan. God love it.).

In any case, we’re on vacation in the States! Yesterday, I played golf with my brother-in-law…on a course in America! The par-3 9-hole course we played was on the order of infinitely better than the course we have in Brazzaville. And last night, we sat down at an airport bar and had a Guinness…from the tap! Yes, these are some of the super exciting things I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with. That, and fast food (because I CAN!). And working stop lights. And infrastructure. And internet! And streets not filled with garbage! (Each one of these is making more and more excited)

In case you didn’t know this, America is the best thing ever. EVER. It’s actually been a little hard to hear people complain about things here, since everything here is better than everything where we now live. But, of course, it’s all relative. And moreover, the non-satisfaction that Americans have with the status quo (sometimes anyway) is what has made this land of $0.99 burgers (where the crud is the cents key?!) the greatest place on earth.

I’ve gotta get back to vacationing now, but I’d like to give a shout out to a particular post that my friend Rachel just posted. After a really long absence in posting on her fantastic blog, she explained why. Her rationale is really right-on, at least as far as my own feelings. Something to be aware of if you ever consider starting your own blogs (or something to consider for those that have them and feel sometimes “obligated.”).

Happy to be back and seeing so many of you! God Bless America!

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Who said it: Anthony Walton

Why it’s relevant: because I’m shamelessly gushing about America right now

The quote: “America’s greatest strength, and its greatest weakness, is our belief in second chances, our belief that we can always start over, that things can be made better.”