Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Crack Attack

Once, in Mozambique, I cracked up.

It was a genuine, stomach-clenched-so-hard-I-couldn’t-inhale, gasping for air, full-on crack attack.

I didn’t laugh as much as I would have liked in Mozambique. Sure, there was the occasional silliness with my students; there were good days with delightful conversation speckled with chuckles. But I didn’t reach my Real Laughter Quota because in Mozambique, I lost track of myself. The malaria prophylaxis messed with my head, I took myself too seriously, I got upset easily, I wasn’t eating right, I was burned out from teaching, I wasn’t used to not being able to not blend in, and damnit, I hated washing clothes by hand.

But there was that one crack attack.

9:00 p.m. was an hour past the town’s bedtime, but there we were, digesting after dinner, lying on a straw mat on the red ground, full stomachs towards the sky, relaxing on the 10 feet of dirt that separated Sisinia’s house and mine.

Sisinia was a savior without even knowing it. An unusual woman for Mozambican standards, she just does things her own way. At 28, she was in the process of getting divorced, had no kids, and worked as a schoolteacher, one of only 3 female teachers in the school. Teaching is just a job for her – she would do the minimum number of hours necessary, not obsessed with getting extra hours for overtime pay like many of our colleagues. She has a huge laugh that would make me laugh, and a way of throwing her head back and swiping at you with her hand as she laughed. She bluntly speaks her mind and doesn’t care who hears it. She loudly protests if she doesn’t like something. She brought me many a meal when she saw me having trouble cooking. Once I got a text from her in capital letters: COME STRAIGHT HOME FROM WORK. On my porch waiting for me was a bowl of homemade guacamole.

That particular evening, Sisinia and I lay on the straw mat, chatting about nothing.

Chatting about nothing: deeper than small talk but lighter than philosophizing. Conversing about silly, trivial things; a signal that we had moved beyond acquaintanceship. I was no longer a stranger to marvel over, but a person with whom to share an absurd thought. Most of my Mozambique conversations were about the weather, or discussing our differences – in America, do you buy your chickens live? In America, do you unplug your fridge in the winter? Have you met Justin Beiber? It was a relief to strengthen a friendship not by learning something new about someone, but by creating a ridiculous thought together, for no reason other than that it simply occurred to us.

I don’t remember most of our conversation that night, but I do remember gasping for air, between guffaws.

We were imagining what it would be like if the world was supposed to end tomorrow, so everyone went crazy, but to everyone’s surprise, tomorrow arrived and the world just kept going.

“You’ve already destroyed your house, so you go to sleep in a tree, but you’ve also chopped down the tree!”

We screamed with laughter.

My stomach hurt.

It was the most wonderful pain I have ever felt.

Sisinia, getting her hair braided

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Trivia Question: what comes in the form of stellar dendrites and stellar plates?

here is what I love about snowflake season:

the blanket of warm air indoors after a snow excursion

pretending to be a snowboarder on my sled


the facial expressions of snowmen

how commuters are friendlier to each other on the T

the crackle of thin sheets of ice under my feet


the stillness and softness following an overnight snowstorm

hot chocolate

the brilliant variety of scarves

how it guarantees that i will never take spring for granted.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

For the Wimps and the Bitches

Each ninth grader received a piece of paper with an activity or characteristic written on it, such as “wash dishes” or “earn money” or “weak.” Three columns on the board denoted MEN, WOMEN, and BOTH. “First,” I explained with deliberately vague wording, “put your paper in the corresponding column.”  When each of my nine classes completed Part 1, the charts looked something like this:

Dig latrine
Feed children
Build house

The directions were vague because I wanted my students to complete the activity without thinking, to demonstrate their initial impulses.

My students repeated the exercise, with different instructions: “place your paper in the column depending on who is biologically capable of performing the task or demonstrating the characteristic.” The first couple classes understood the alteration, and when the students finished, every paper was filed under BOTH.  They’re getting it, I thought proudly. When they think about it, they realize that everyone is capable of both leadership and dish-washing.

However, in later classes, several activities remained in the MEN category, such as “dig a latrine”. And I couldn’t convince them otherwise.

This was a twist I hadn’t anticipated.

The intention was to open a discussion about the gender roles that we as a society construct and impose on ourselves. In Part 1, my students categorized activities according to what happens in their community. The women prepare meals and take care of the children, while the men build houses and hold leadership positions. In Part 2, they would complete the exercise more thoughtfully, realizing that although their father doesn’t serve the rice every evening, he is perfectly capable of doing so.

But I hadn’t planned for their assertion that a group was physically incapable of an activity. I tried to direct them by asking questions. “Can every single boy in this school dig a latrine, just because he is a boy?” “Not one woman in the world can dig a latrine?” “Don’t your sisters and mothers demonstrate physical strength by carrying 20-liter buckets of water on their heads each morning?” Some grudgingly admitted that maybe a woman could dig a latrine, “but it wouldn’t be as good as if a man had dug it,” they concluded emphatically.

I was so shocked that my students and I disagreed on such a basic level that I would have willingly sacrificed my lesson, borrowed a hoe from a neighbor, and dug a gaping 6-foot deep hole in the center of the schoolyard to prove them wrong. The problem was that I had wielded a hoe fewer than five times in my life, and if I collapsed from exhaustion in my half-dug latrine – a likely outcome – they would emerge victorious. See, we told you! Women can’t dig latrines!

Standing speechless in my classroom, the disaster was already playing out in my head. “No, no!” I would cry. “I can do it. I mean, I can’t. But it’s not because I’m a woman! It’s because I’ve never dug a latrine in my life!” But my words would be muffled due to the pile of dirt that I would be facedown in, because I had failed to remove it from my miserably shallow attempt at digging a hole. I would be the laughingstock of the school. I would be the weak female teacher. I would—

“Well, I believe that with practice, women can dig latrines.” I interrupted my own thoughts with a feeble attempt at salvaging the message of the day. I did not have the guts to test my digging skills in front of fifty teenagers.

In a course I took called Race, Class, and Gender, we discussed these issues under the agreement that the classroom was a “safe space” – we shared our opinions and experiences without fear of being ridiculed. During this class I became aware of biases that I had never previously considered, but once pointed out to me, they appeared everywhere. I didn’t know that whistling at a woman on the street is sexual harassment. I had never opened a fashion magazine and counted how many of the female models are almost naked, or how many male models display unrealistically bulging muscles.

Internalization is the process by which a group starts to believe a stereotype about itself and subconsciously conforms to those guidelines. Maybe I didn’t pick up a hoe that day because I really thought women aren’t adept latrine diggers. Perhaps if I were a man, I would have had confidence in myself despite my lack of hoe experience. But once I took the eye-opening course, I could consciously fight against internalization and prejudice.

Those who don’t believe in someone must give her a chance, and those who doubt themselves need to step up and give it a shot. Increasing awareness give us the tools to stand up for ourselves against impractical expectations.

It’s not only in a rural town that requires the arduous task of latrine digging that these ideas shape the how we treat each other. In every culture I’ve experienced, there are rules dictating our behavior:

            Men don’t cry.
Women should have small waists and big breasts.
Men embody strength.
Women are nurturing.

A little boy is told to toughen up and act like a man. He is taught from a young age to hide his fears and suppress his emotions. A girl voicing a strong opinion is shushed with “be a good girl.” Women are expected to be reticent and not express or even have opinions. When people defy expectations, we call them wimps, bitches, cowards, pussies, faggots, sluts, dykes.

All-encompassing rules are deceptive. On average, men can lift more weight than women. Does this mean each man is stronger than each woman? Absolutely not. Does this mean women are weak? Hell no. But when we hear declarations beginning with “the average man…” we erroneously extend the statement to everyone in the group. We become resistant to the possibility that a woman can be stronger than a man, or in the case of some of my students, that a woman can be strong at all.

Yesterday on my way to work, I courteously nodded at someone I passed, and he took this acknowledgment as an opening to flirt. “Hi sweetie,” he said in a low, sensuous voice as I walked by. When I turned back to shake my head, he was innocently looking in the other direction, although he had undeniably addressed me. He knew his greeting was inappropriate, and said it anyway.

This is a consequence of a power imbalance. Society perceives men as more powerful, which put me at a lesser position in this man’s eyes. His comment showed a lack of respect, which is why quick, passing remarks such as these should be considered as unacceptable as other forms of sexual harassment. A man calling a woman “sweetie” who is not his daughter or partner is condescending. When it’s ok to call women sweetie, it opens the door for more repugnant comments, such as socio! and la de rojo…*

We are not obligated to accept this shit.

I’ve been catcalled hundreds of times, and not once did it make me feel valued, attractive, or appreciated. Every time, it made me feel like crap. Women don’t wear short dresses with the intent of receiving obscene gestures on the street. Sexual harassment is demeaning someone, man or woman, on the basis of their gender, and it is never warranted.

It’s not always obvious the extent that messages about gender permeate our culture. Their invisibility makes them dangerous, because we don’t realize that we’re being fed sexist standards daily. That’s why it is so important that we continue increasing our awareness by addressing these problems.

We have made progress. Fewer teenagers become mothers and more women are studying and working. More men stay home to care for their children, and some workplaces even offer paternity leave. However, there are ubiquitous signs that there remains much to improve upon. Years of prejudice cannot be undone reading one article on gender. If there were a simple solution, men would nod politely to me on the street rather than roving their eyes down my body and growling hungrily, “get me that girl.” My friend wouldn’t turn to me afterwards and say sympathetically, “Boys will be boys. Don’t let it bother you.” In Part 1 of the exercise my students would place every single activity in BOTH.

Both men and women will benefit from gender equality. When we treat each person as a human being and not as their genitals, we allow seven billion skill sets, thinkers, and workers to contribute to society, science, politics, and education. Woman with authority and men who sew are not threats or insults; they are people free to be themselves.

We have come a long way and we can continue. Instead of putting our heads down and yielding to an outdated norm, we can hold our heads high and grab the hoe to start digging.

*I wrote this piece to submit for publication in a Mexican magazine, so these are 2 examples of crude ways I've heard people calling out to women in Mexico

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Leftover frosting + camera = 

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Warrior Women

Introducing you to my soccer players:

Friday, June 6, 2014

Sirolli's Solution: Shut Up

Why did my school’s journalism group produce two school newspapers and then crash and burn? Because it wasn’t what the students wanted. 

Day 1 of The Daily Macarena
Day 85 of The Daily Macarena

Why did my soccer team practice for two years, and scrimmage even when I wasn’t in town? Because it was what the girls wanted.

After hearing so many criticisms of foreign aid, and wondering for two years what right I have to think I can actually improve this community assigned to me, Ernesto Sirolli’s talk spoke to why aid so often doesn’t work, including Peace Corps work, and what can be done differently.

Looking back with Sirolli's ideas in mind, it makes more sense to me as to why the journalism project – an idea one of the teachers had and told kids to do – ultimately fizzled out, while the soccer team – which the girls came to me themselves and asked for – stayed strong.

What does Sirolli say to do?

He says, SHUT UP.

Too often, Sirolli says, we (as Peace Corps Volunteers, aid workers, NGOs) we enter a community and tell them what to do. It’s no wonder so many projects fail, don’t have the intended consequences, or end up hurting more than they are helping. Those projects don't address the interests and passions of the people we're actually working for.

You can hear his talk here:

What we really should be doing is closing our flapping lips and opening our ears.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Life Post Peace Corps

Let’s be honest. I will always love fresh pão (bread) and peanut butter, even when I’m on American soil…rather, American asphalt and hardwood floors. Dana, MFer, and Bevil encouraged me to keep up the blog, and hey – “the daily bucket bath” is still relevant to my life, except for the word “bucket”…and “bath”…and “daily”…just kidding. So I thought to myself, well, if no one ends up reading the blog, what the hell is wrong with you? I mean, I thought to myself, what the hell, I like writing and didn’t even realize that people were reading it when I was in Mozambique, but still dedicated most of my precious 150 minutes a week of internet to blogging. So I might as well keep on going.

Since my last post, I left Mozambique and went right to France (through Ethiopia) to visit Jorge with a total of two French words in my head. Unfortunately, he had classes during most of my visit, so I visited museums by myself, ate crepes by myself, journaled in hot chocolate shops by myself, sampled honey by myself, bought an awesome cow hat by myself, and went salsa dancing…with Jorge. Tricked ya.

"Ant Jazz" in the Miniature myself

Then I took the train to Switzerland to catch a plane to England to visit Bradley, who is ever as gentlemanly as the last time I saw him, puh-haps even more so.

Then I met my family and their 15 bags of luggage in Italy. An incredible and hilarious journey of fresh and not-so-fresh pão ensued. It merits no words, only the video below.

Video produced by Val while Steph looked on and made useless suggestions like “let’s invert the colors, speed it up 54x, and then zoom in on the butt. That would be funny.” 

Friday, December 6, 2013

O Amigo é o Outro Eu

"O segredo da vida é amizade. O amigo é o outro 'eu'."

This person...
...drives me crazy.
...saves me from going crazy. my culture-question go-to person

...makes me crack up. my motivation for going to work every Tuesday and Thursday. the toughest, most bad-ass
Mozambican woman I know.
...can snap me out of a bad mood.

...inspires me to be more creative and philosophical.

No words necessary.

"The secret to life is friendship. The friend is the other 'I'."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

When you are feeling small...

...just keep reaching, and eventually your feet will reach the pedals.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

What can I Say?

"what can I say"

It's been crazy.