Saturday, April 19, 2008

Learning Change

Every Tuesday and Thursday Nadoum Bour comes to an English language class on the 11th floor of the Chanin building on 42nd and Lexington. He says ‘bonjour’ as he walks past the office, and into the classroom for the adult literacy class. The caseworkers and teachers, all women in their twenties respond to his greeting with English enthusiasm and enunciation, ‘Good Morning.’ Bour has been in the United States for eight months. He speaks French, a bit of Arabic and a few varieties of Chadian dialect. He does not speak very much English and has difficulty writing; arthritis makes his handwriting shaky and barely legible. But Bour is determined; he attends the literacy classes, always sitting next to the other elder man in the class, Fieke, from Kosovo, who is also a refugee.

Bour is 6’3,” with a strong build and weathered, soft facial features. At 67, he moves slowly because of chronic back pain. And perhaps because he is from Chad, where the land and culture do not demand the same haste as here in New York. He has endured back pain for many years, since his days on horse and camel back, and driving land rovers over harsh terrain as a government official in the Saharan regions of Chad. Chad is a land-locked country in central Africa; officially the Republic of Chad in 1960 since its Independence from sixty years of French colonial power. Since 1965 the country has endured civil war between the North and South, countless coup d’etats. More recently, the Darfur crisis in neighboring Sudan has spilled over the border, creating further unrest.

Chad covers an area of 485,752 square miles, made up mostly of uninhabitable desert, semi desert, or savannah. The south is the only subtropical zone, and the majority of Chad’s approximately 7 million people live in the more fertile southwest, with a population density of only 77.7 per square mile. Bour had lived for many years with his two wives and family in N’djamena. Bour now lives with one of his wives in Bronx in the most populous city in the United States, with an estimated population of 8.2 million people within an area of 322 square miles – a population density of 26, 403 people per square mile.

Bour has not revisited Chad since he was forced to leave in 1994. Bour had only just been appointed as the Chief Officer of the Douane, customs and taxes, when rebels threatened his life, seized his position, and removed him. The Rebels wanted his desk and title because they wanted control of the country’s imports and exports. Bour had been one of the only Chadian officers working alongside the French during their colonial rule, putting him in a higher economic and social echelon. After Independence, and witnessing over 20 years of change and political turmoil, suddenly the rebels directed their attention towards him and his family. Bour left his first wife to maintain their kinship and property in Chad, while he and Emilie fled the rebels – commencing what would become a fourteen-year exile odyssey.

Chad is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries. It has battled growing oil wealth, complex ethnic ties that transcend borders, the difficulty of removing Presidents who increase their term while in office, and then take military action when their secured power is challenged. Despite an ever-increasing insurgency Chadian President Idriss Deby has secured his Presidency since 1991.

Bour and Emilie sought refuge in Côte d’Ivoire with one of Bour’s sons, Pepe. They knew someone who worked for BAD, Banque pour Afrique Development (The African Development Bank) which normally deals with micro finance and training. Yet somehow managed to get Bour and Emilie into safety. According to the couple, they faced a great deal of discrimination from the Ivorian people. Emilie described their attitude as overly nationalist.
‘No one would ever say, ‘This is my country in New York City’ Emile said, putting her hand over her heart in exaggerated patriotism. In the fourteen years that they resided in Abidjan neither of them were able to find substantial work; Emilie, who is 20 years younger than Bour, was able to sell fresh juices and textiles earning enough to make money for food.

Neither Emilie, Bour nor his son Pepe were able to return to Chad. Their dire living situation in Ivory Coast compelled them to make desperate contact with the one person they knew in the States. Since the outbreak of ethnic conflict in the mid nineties, many Chadian have fled their country, seeking refuge in France, Canada and the U.S. Bour’s niece had from Chad, to Paris, and finally to New York in her youth and was able to help them by contacting the International Rescue Committee. The IRC helps refugees fleeing war or persecution by providing immediate aid, including food and shelter and education. Last August, after 14 years outside of their country, unable to return for fear of persecution, unable to contact their extensive kin, they were resettled in New York City.

“They told us that it would be the most expensive city in America...but they also said it would be the easiest for transport. We wanted to be here because of our niece, she is the only person that we know.” said Emilie. “It’s good. But my English! Ah, I don’t know English.”

Emilie no longer attends the literacy classes at the IRC. She suffers from hypertension, depression and anxiety, and the hour journey from their home in the Bronx to midtown increases her stress. Emilie only bore one son, who was killed a few years ago in Chad in a motorcycle accident. He was only 19 and had just past his baccalaureate – which was his reason for staying in Chad. Since his death Emilie has not been able to find a quiet mind. She is trying to conceive a child; it is the one thing that she feels like she can create in this new life. She says that the Doctors she has seen are harsh with their words, telling her that ‘In America women her age don’t conceive children.’ They tell her that her body is old. She makes a tsssk noise, putting her tongue between her teeth and says that God is the one she will listen to, not to the inconsiderate proclamations of Doctors.

Like her husband, Emilie is a tall woman, with high cheekbones, almond shaped eyes and a robust figure. She spends most of the day in their basement apartment in the Bronx. She buys vegetables and foufou flour in bulk, and cooks traditional West African stews for Bour and his son, Pepe. Their one-bedroom apartment was found for them by the IRC. It has a small living area in which they built a wall to create another room for Pepe. The exposed piping on the low ceiling echoes and clinks with use, but the heat escapes out of the thin paned windows. Emilie explains that the window allows mildew in, and that the superintendent always says he will come, but never does. Sometimes she yells as him, but he doesn’t understand French, and she can’t understand much of his English.

The apartment is cold, and there isn’t enough money to buy more blankets or space heaters. The couple has been financially independent from the IRC for over two months. The resettlement aid covers the first six months, after which the refugees are left to be self-sufficient. They receive food stamps, and Pepe works nine-hour shifts at a factory operating the machine that covers flat screen TV’s in plastic casing before they are inserted into neat boxes. Bour, in his age and health is unable to work and Emilie doesn’t have sufficient English or confidence to find a job yet.

Emilie is unable to read, like 87% of Chadian women, according to the United Nations Statistics Division. She is learning the English alphabet from the beginning, which is trying when you are in your late forties. In Chad Emilie only went to school for three years. She can’t remember why she had an aversion to school, but she didn’t want to continue, and so she stopped going at 8 years old, and became a full time pair of hands in her home. As the oldest child of six children (two others died) she helped to raise the younger ones, and maintained the homestead with her mother.
‘That is why I am such a good femme de ménage (housewife)’ Emilie says with a wink.

Emilie looks at Bour lovingly as he is trying to fill out a document and his handwriting is slow and shaky, “He used to write so well,’ she said, ‘you wouldn’t know that he used to drive around Chad in an issued Land Rover as the boss of the Douane...he has reverted back to being like a child.”
Not only in the regression of his handwriting but also economically; Bour has gone from being a powerful and wealthy man in his country, to an American life of food stamps and a slim retirement pension because of his age and health.

Emilie, too, faces certain, initiatory aspects of their resettlement, learning the alphabet and other, cultural norms for the first time. She now works on her English from home with a volunteer, struggling over each letter’s pronunciation. Between letters and friendly bantering in French, the television murmurs and flashes in the background with images of America, and such icons as Oprah.
“I like Oprah,’ Emilie says, clasping her hands together and placing them on her lap, decorated in weathered, fading colors of traditional African fabric.
“She is bigger,’ she says, motioning her long fingers like the exaggerated contours of a woman, “something you can hold onto.”

Like Oprah’s fluxing body weight, Emilie’s figure has changed greatly since her arrival last August. After spending the winter in their basement apartment, cooking and cleaning. Her eyes are tired with worry, her face and body swollen with the weight of unhappiness. Last summer and fall she would go to the ESOL (English as a second or other language) with Bour, dressed regally in her African garb. They walk in to class together and greet the other adult students, from Burma, Thailand, and China. She would join one of the other French-speaking ladies, her amies from Togo or Burundi. As fall turned to winter Emilie watched as her fellow classmates stopped coming to class because they were finding work. When the weather turned cold Emilie stopped going to ESOL at all.
The winter months passed with only Bour attending the classes, explaining in French that his wife is suffering from hypertension and depression.

The story of Emile and Bour’s persecution is kept quiet beneath their tired eyes. They only talk about certain aspects of the life that they left behind and are easily brought to discomfort when talking about the past. Although many refugees suffer from post -traumatic stress, in the United States there are few organizations that integrate mental health assessment and therapy into the resettlement process. Emilie and Bour’s story has been documented by a caseworker and then filed away, in an envelope marked as confidential.

The State Department is responsible for overseas processing of refugees. Generally, it arranges for an ‘overseas processing entity’ (OPE) to conduct interviews and to prepare cases for submission. Once the refugees are admitted into the country, they are allocated to a resettlement organization like IRC to handle their case and provide support for the first months. The organization is required to offer cultural orientation. When CO was first developed in the 1980s refugees were given a six-month period of language and cultural orientation training, now they receive a very brief, intensive cultural orientation, ranging in length from 1 to 5 days.

To become culturally oriented Emilie and Bour have relied mostly on family, their niece and occasional visiting family who have settled in Canada. Emilie, unable to read the subway maps and signs is afraid to travel around the city alone. With Bour frequently at his physical therapy, Emilie spends most of her time at home. The apartment always smells of cooking; lamb stew, or baked fish to accompany traditionally cooked rice or grain. Emilie, a natural host, finds delight in times when a visitor will stay for a meal, so that she may feel as though she is bringing sustenance to others in a way that is familiar and natural to her.

Both Bour and Emilie, without work, find a great deal of time to reflect on their life together, and a past that seems so distant. Recently Bour has been taking time to engage in the writing of his life story. He writes his story by hand, in French, to be translated by his brother (who is not of blood, but called a brother nonetheless) who also lives in the city. Three of Bour’s children have settled in French speaking Montreal. His other children and first wife still continue the family name in Chad. Bour was born unto a prestigious village leader who had nine wives; with Bour’s mother alone his father had eight children, and in all he had 37 children. Bour only took two wives, maintaining the tradition; he had six children with his first wife, and only one with Emilie – their son who was killed. Emilie has not seen any of her family since leaving Chad. She speaks to her mother on the phone from time to time; Her mother is 62. She was only 15 when she had Emilie, her firstborn. Emilie would like to find a job in New York so that she can send more money to her mother and family – She dreams of bringing her younger brother here, so that he could work too. She will probably never see her mother again, because as she said, ‘You cannot go back to a country from which you have already been saved. It would be dangerous, and we cannot sabotage our life here.’

Emilie is a devout Christian. When she married Bour she converted from her Protestant upbringing to Catholicism. She prays each day, the family prays together before meals, and sometimes she fasts – to consecrate needs for the family, for health or for the child that she yearns for. With Bour gone so often at the hospital, and little family near by, Emilie has a great deal of time to consider their life – and very little outlet for processing her thoughts. Some nights she doesn’t sleep at all, others, she sleeps for too long. She wants to become integrated, to find a job, to learn English. Yet, life presents continuous set backs and trials. Next week Emilie will undergo a minor surgery to remove uterine fibroids. Fibroids are the most common non-cancerous tumor of the reproductive tract. Merck’s online medical library states that ‘They occur in one fourth of white women and one half of black women.’ Emilie confirmed that they are extremely common among women in Chad, for reasons unknown. The operation affirms that her body can no longer reproduce.

On a recent spring day Emilie had a picnic in Central Park. The park was alive with people running, professionals walking, lovers loving, children playing. Sitting on a grassy knoll, Emilie was dressed in a traditional, tailored skirt and shirt in bright fabrics of red and green. She looked out at the baseball field and fondly remembered the Mets game that she and Bour went to on an IRC outing, when they first arrived. She noticed all the different kinds of people, making comments about their style, admiring the vibrancy of a few Indian women in their saris. Se watches a long line of NYPD vehicles pass, surveying the park from the tarmac road. Emilie is smiling, saying that the sun and heat reminds her of Africa.
‘I love New York.’ Emilie says with conviction, ‘It’s wonderful because no one is going to take it away from you. Rebels aren’t going to come and steal away your life or livelihood. You can live however you want.’

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stewing in Emotion

It’s 4 o’clock and Oprah, dressed in spring hues, cheeks brushed pink comes on the T.V. Emilie is watching, with her long fingers placed together in prayer position, on her lap, decorated in weathered, fading colors of traditional African fabric.
‘I like her a lot.’ She says to me in French. ‘She is bigger, she has something you can hold onto.’
It’s similar to the comment she made earlier, when I had told her I was finished with my cleanse. She had tried to pinch a handful of flesh at my ribcage, and found little satisfaction in my thin build. She motioned how easy it would be to throw me around, making me laugh uneasily. Emilie lifted the lid of her giant pot and showed me the steaming; glistening with fat, lamb stew. She poured rice into another oversized pot, and topped it with oil from a mammoth container. ‘You are staying for dinner.’ She half asked and half lifted one eyebrow, indicating that she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Part of me wished that I didn’t know African cultural norms, and that I could respond in American manner, ‘No, I’m busy...I have plans’ etc. but I couldn’t, so I put my hand on her shoulder and said ‘Oui, Mama. Bien Sûr.’

It was Friday and I was exhausted, and she obviously hasn’t been practicing her English – as we moved through the same letters of the same little book, with the same pictures – getting the same, confused and tired responses from Emilie.
‘Did you talk to the agency about finding me a job?’ she said. I told her I did, and that they gave me the same response as always...There would be no job until she could speak enough English to have a meeting with the employment office. I didn’t say it with such a harsh tongue as the person who had said it to me, but Emilie could feel the definiteness of the response.

‘Who said that? I will go there and ask Amanda, she will help me.’ I told her she could try, but that it would be very hard to work without the knowledge of reading and writing.
‘I want to take care of someone’s children. Or even in a kitchen, making food’ I tried to respond positively, but recognize how many people there are in this city, seeking work at the bottom wrung. I tried to get us through the alphabet, but she wasn’t taking initiative – she wanted me to sound the letter, for her to mimic. Which I did, but I started thinking, how much is she becoming dependent on me? Emilie is tired after 15 years of displacement and resettlement, struggle and strife, hunger and discrimination, departure and distance from kin. She wants me to turn the pages, to sound out the letters, to help her move out of her past, she want us to eat together, to drink wine...she wants to laugh.

‘That’s enough’ I say, as she puts another giant spoonful of rice and stew on the mound on my plate. I haven’t had meat or cooked food since before my cleanse, and although I am a bit fearful of my stomach’s reaction – I dig in. I have no choice, we have prayed to God, blessed the food in Jesus’ name and now Emilie is looking at me, moving her fork to mouth in quick movements and telling me to ‘mange,’ which is the French command to eat. She disappears to the kitchen and returns with two glasses and fills them with wine. A few hours later I am still there, we haven’t done anymore with our English lesson – and we are drunk. I have tried to leave after each glass of wine, and each time, she had used the French equivalent for just one for the road.

When Bour got home from visiting a family member, and a long day of physical therapy at the hospital he was pleased to find me there. Pepe, their son had also returned home from his 10-hour workday at the factory and had bought another bottle of wine for us from the corner shop, and a few Guinness for him. Pepe turned on a music video of West African worship/dance music – where they are dressed in traditional garments and the singer is backed up by a group of women who shake their hips in the appropriate dance. Bour tries to show me all the bills from his hospital visits, held together in a blue envelope of mysterious English, and demanding balances. I shake my head at him, and tell him his wife has gotten me drunk – and that I can’t work anymore tonight. He laughs and pours himself a glass of wine, and fills mine, saying one for the road. I have never been sicker, the lamb and drink were overkill to my pristine system – and my head was spinning; how do I help them without hurting anyone?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The ABC's

Sitting in her Bronx basement apartment Emilie explains that the Doctor proclaimed her too old to have another child. But she shrugs and says that the Doctor doesn’t know, that God is the one to decide. And I agree with her, ‘yes, God willing.’ We’re sitting together on her futon sofa, which, like all of their furniture and the T.V. that chimes in the background, was found on the sidewalk. I ask her if she’d like to continue with the lesson and turn another page.

“J,” I point to the letter. Emilie guesses, might this letter be “F?” I show her the letter F, and tell her the correct pronunciation for the letter J. And then we work through J words next to the images, like jewelry, jack-o-lantern, and jump rope. I’m starting to feel desperate. I’m sitting next to a woman, almost 50, who desires to have a baby, who has already lived through many tragic years and who struggles continuously with her new life. She wants to work yet, she also wants to continue to be available to cook beautiful meals for her husband and his son. She doesn’t speak much English, and she cannot read at all. And I want to know, how do you teach such a competent, wise and enduring woman the ABC’s?

As we are talking she goes to the oven to check on the baked fish that she has prepared for Good Friday. She would like me to stay, but I am doing the Master Cleanse – and I feel rude, but I had told her this morning that I was fasting so that she wouldn’t prepare extra food. But Emilie figured I was fasting for Lent, and it would be over at the day’s break. Then she asks whether I am Christian or Protestant. And I tell her that it’s complicated, that I am neither and both...That God is everywhere. And she agrees, and then says, ‘but you must choose.’ And the time is ticking by the minute, and we aren’t even half way through the alphabet. In Africa we choose one religion, so that we can pass it down to our children, and tell them ‘ This is what I believe.’ And I tell her that I want to pass the choice down to my children, and ask if we should continue.

“H” Hippopotamus. Home. I watch her eyes on the images next to the word, trying to read it’s meaning and I realize that I have very little idea what it is like to be illiterate, and that the last time I learned the English alphabet was about 20 years ago. And I think back to last year, when I was trying to learn Arabic, and I stumbled over the letters clumsily, craving harmony with my eye and mouth, but feeling completely lost, out of sync, and slow. It was one of the most challenging experiences I have had in the classroom. But that was my choice, and I am a student who wanted to learn Arabic. Emilie needs to learn English because she has come to America and must find work. I look at her tired eyes, straining to create meaning and although I want her to learn, I also remind us both to laugh and take the letters and these ridiculous pictures lightly. And I mouth “H” and tell her that her fish smells delicious, and it makes me ‘H’ungry.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Master Cleanse and the City

I have a familial, sort of love – hate relationship with new age practices such as ‘going raw,’ alternative health and the myriad forms of spiritualism. Generally, I love the idea of it, but at the same time I am rebellious, and I happen to be a vegetarian turned bloodthirsty carnivore. Perhaps my divisive emotion towards new-age health and spirituality comes from the fact that I was raised with it.

I have never abandoned the example of my parents. However, I tend to be slightly cynical to all the hype that has now come with the ‘organic,’ ‘raw,’ ‘homeopathic’ and ‘yogic’ movements. I am a healthy, kale-eating, organic-only woman, but I also eat disturbing amounts of French triple-cream cheese, meat in its rawest forms, and I take my Jameson neat.

This winter was long and dark. I spent a few months grieving the death of my Grandfather, and the end of my relationship, and subsequently my mouth instigated an amazing and overly self-indulgent love affair with food in its most beautiful, decadent forms. Although I am a student, I can always rationalize why I need to indulge in steak or some escargots – and so, I treat myself. But come Spring’s prelude, I increasingly found myself frequenting Pure food, a raw food restaurant and juice bar where the people are young and hip, or old and bizarre and the food really does make you glow. The more I started to feed my body with the raw components it desired after the long winter, the happier, and more energized I began to feel

Before I knew it, the idea of doing the Master Cleanse was no longer a joke, but a reality that I was preparing for.
‘What is the Master Cleanse, exactly?’ my Mother asked me on the telephone.
I told her it is a lemonade tonic, a mix of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. And then, each day you drink 32oz. of salt water in order to flush your system and create ‘eliminations.’ I could hear her cringe at the idea of not eating anything for 10 days. I thought the same thing, as someone who normally eats 6 times a day and drinks about 3 cups of coffee – I never thought I could do it. But I am on day 5, have not had [many] hunger pangs and generally feel fantastic, other than some shocking signs of detoxification.

So, how do you do the Master Cleanse in a city with the best selection of restaurants and bars, and very few ‘detoxifying’ qualities? This is how I’ve done it so far:

Day 1 – I didn’t leave my home, except to walk to Prospect Park, bundled up – lemonade and binoculars in hand. Prospect Park has an unbelievable diversity of bird species, as well as human kinds. I found a bench in the sunshine, next to a pond where 16 turtles sunned themselves on a log. I met some beautiful people, and breathed deeply, grateful to live so near to the 153-acre park. I had a slight headache at the end of the day, probably from the caffeine withdrawals.

Day 2 – I awoke with the sun (which never happens unless I am camping), full of energy. I went to the city with a bottle of my freshly made lemonade, and walked the streets – finally reading for a while in Tompkins Square Park, before the Russian Bathhouse on 10th st. opens at noon. Arriving at the bathhouse in the early hours is much better, both because it is hotter and because there are less people. I sweat in the Russian, Swedish and steam saunas – and then a beautiful and outspoken Russian woman named Rosa gave me a salt scrub; lying me out on a table and rubbing me until my skin, and derrière were, smooth as a babies. When I exited, all rosy cheeked and smooth skinned, I noticed a boutique called ‘Love.’ Inside this raw delicacies and health secrets boutique I was told about the latest improvement to the Master Cleanse. A $30 jar called Oxy-Mag, one part magnesium, to two parts oxygen – which, when ingested with lemon juice creates water in your small and large intestines and essentially cleans you deep from the inside out. I overdid it by using the Oxy-Mag the same day as the bathhouse, my body was ill with detoxification and the headache was pounding. I went to bed at 9:30.

Day 3 – I awoke, feeling as though I had made some headway in the whole process and proceeded to take the Oxy-Mag instead of drinking salt water. I decided not to go to my internship, as I wasn’t sure when the Oxy-mag would take effect and...Well, have you ever smelled the breath of someone who is fasting? I didn’t have a great deal of energy, but in the afternoon I decided to go to Chelsea to visit the ‘Chapel of Sacred Mirrors’ which features the visionary and sacred geometric artwork of Alex Gray. He has created an amazing space, with some very potent imagery, which invokes and invites contemplation and meditation.

That night I went to the BAM rose cinema in Brooklyn to see the latest Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park. All filmed in Portland, OR! It was lovely to see my gorgeous home city with such fantastic cinematography. And I had never been in this particular cinema – the sharp room, still maintains the traditional 1900s decor, yet recently painted cranberry red, a arched ceiling decorated with ornate fruits, grapes and pomegranates. The smell of the popcorn and pizza were slightly difficult to stomach, but I had my handy bottle of lemonade – which kept me going.

Day 4 – Slightly lethargic, quite out-of-it...the guy at the farmer’s Market who sells the maple syrup said that the master cleansers usually get stoned from all the lemonade. Now I see what he means. I wanted to go to a Persian poetry reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, but when I got to the subway station – the MTA announcer said that ‘All trains were being held in stations.’ Instead of getting irritated, I decided to return home, change into my running gear – and head for the park. This is an important aspect of surviving the cleanse; not having anything that you must do at a certain time or place.
So I went running, in fact, I sprinted with absurd amounts of energy for someone who hasn’t eaten a lick in four days.
Then, when I got to Park Slope I went to a yoga class. Normally I go to the advanced class, but I thought I had better take it slow and go with the Hatha beginner’s class. Which was actually not very yogic because it is full of people who are not practiced and are therefore looking around the room, wanting to open windows, laughing, talking, and, to put it frankly, I wasn’t being very yogic either – because I was irritated with them. But I stuck it out, and breathed into the annoyance and I made it.

Day 5 – I awoke to the sound of a yap-yap dog from an apartment on my floor. He barked for four hours straight, and I thought I would kill him. I couldn’t tell if my irritability was with the dog, or because I haven’t eaten in 5 days. But, once I got up and turned music on, I felt better...The eliminations have finally become quite satisfying. I can’t believe the stuff that we hold in to in our intestinal tract. I returned to the Bathhouse today for some more sweating, and cold water dunking. Then, my friend and I went to a coffee shop because I am now ‘allowed’ to drink organic peppermint tea, so as to freshen the breath. It felt like such a treat to ingest something other than lemonade, even though they’re the same color!
Trying to take it easy, and stay hydrated...I have wanted to clean my apartment, but can’t muster the energy. I am hungry for something different today, I guess it's knowing that I'm only half way through!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Popularizing the Gap Year

I was pleased to see this article, 'A Cure for the College-Bound Blues, in the NYT education section.

And a bit of rambling on Education and the Ego...

It is rare that we hear the voices of America's youth who are breaking the mold, and doing something a little different between high school and college. I am thankful that America is finally beginning to understand the value in 'a year out.' When I graduated high school I remember telling my councilor that I was going to go to Africa and volunteer before going to University, her response, like most of the other people I encountered was 'Where are you going to college when you get back?' It was as though they couldn't see past the direct path from high school to college, and that nothing existed between. In fact, there is a whole world that lies between these two similarly run institutions.

I don't deny that many students know what they want to do, they have planned it out and perhaps they are ready to go to college straight after high school. I commend these people, and we need them too. However, I am sure that most eighteen year olds do not know who they are in the world, nor what they want from their education. This country is so crazy about achievement, progress, and fulfillment, there is little time spent actually livingbecause we are always busy preparing, becoming, and processing information. In fact, sometimes in my classes I find it difficult that I can be surrounded by so many wonderfully clever minds - though, most of their life experience is limited to the walls of their schooling, and thus doesn't bear dimension in the intellectual discourse and instead use the ego as the power tool behind the shallow nature of the argument. I don't want to sound as though I know more, because that is precisely the point...It is breaking outside of convention, working jobs, and speaking to people in the world that helps me to understand how little I know, and how much can be gained from stepping outside of myself and into another culture, or neighborhood! Diversity of experience, and experience brings shape and color to the University - I promote the Gap year!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Part of the story?

From Charles McGrath's NYT profile of Nicholson Baker:
On a wintry afternoon last month, Mr. Baker, with the help of a visitor, reluctantly took back his first load of books. The volumes, including biographies of Hoover and Vera Brittain, the English writer and pacifist, and the letters of Helmuth James von Moltke, the German resistance fighter, filled the entire back seat of the visitor’s rented Nissan Sentra. During the ride to and from the University of New Hampshire, Mr. Baker sighed a couple of times and said, “Oh, man.”

He is a tall, gangly man with long arms and was able to ferry the books 12 at a time from the parking lot to the library. The visitor fumbled and allowed Hoover and Brittain to squirt from his grasp. At the counter Mr. Baker had to leaf through a number of the books, removing torn slips and Post-it notes he had used as bookmarks, and every now and then he paused to glance at a passage.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pain is Beauty

My sad excuse for not blogging this week...

“In life as in dance: Grace glides on blistered feet -Alice Abrams.

I live in New York City. Like many of the habitants of this city, I love fashion, and I adore shoes, especially boots. Since my brother bought me a pair of vintage cowboy boots for my twenty-first birthday I have been strutting the streets from my previous abode in Portland, Oregon, traversing European cities and even down the cobbled streets of Morocco. These boots and the others that I have collected were made for walkin’, and that I surely do, I rarely get into a taxi, but would much rather listen to the click of my heel as I walk the pavement.

Riding the subways in New York, one can see the grotesque advertisements for ‘minimally invasive’ bunion surgery, complete with pictures of feet deformed with lumps on the sides. I always looked upon this advertisement with pity and a slightly queasy stomach, thinking to myself, those poor souls.

About a month ago, to my surprise and for the first time ever, my feet started hurting at the end of the day. I have only been in New York City since July. However, since my arrival I imagine that I have walked an average of 15 blocks a day, which is about 105 blocks a week, for eight months – which, including nights when I went dancing – is about, but probably well exceeding, 1000 blocks in high heeled, pointed, and always stylish boots. As my pain increased by the day, and it started to swell, I looked up my symptoms on the internet – To my horror, it seems, at age twenty-four, I am getting my first bunion.

The following day I was wearing my old dansko clogs that I swore I would never wear again after my years as a server. I walked the streets of Soho, seeking a cute shoe that wouldn’t aggravate my metatarsophalangeal joint. If you weren’t aware, that is the joint between the foot and big toe. A bunion, clinically known as the hallux valgus (sounds awful, no!) is a structural deformity of the bones and this meta-&*@# joint – it causes the big toe to move inward – and it hurts. So I went into some cute shoe boutique on the corner of Mulberry and told the salesman my predicament. I could tell by his eyes that it wasn’t good and then he said, ‘you’ll have to wear wide toed, rounded shoes – and a minimal heel, if one at all.... Bunions only get worse, better to see a podiatrist before buying anything.” He shrugged kindly. I almost felt tears as I looked around the shop, at all the beautiful pointed, leather, heeled shoes – that could never be mine.

I called Jean-Paul, “I’m shoe shopping, and I’m depressed.”
‘Right’ he said, ‘Sure, you are’
‘No really...Listen, this is serious...I’m wearing my clogs. Jean-Paul, I have a bunion.’
‘Oh my God,’ he said sarcastically, ‘aren’t you a little young for that? I mean, don’t tell me your developing varicose veins”
I stopped dead in my tracks on the sidewalk...
‘I don’t know, maybe, WHAT are those?’ I asked, feeling slightly anxious and hating the sight of my feet.
‘They’re veins on the backs of your legs, the kind you get from crossing them too often.’ He chuckled, and I told him he was full of it, and that I had to find some shoes and hung up.

I walked into one of my favorite shops, ‘In God we trust.’ There was a gorgeous pair of hand sewn moccasin boots on display. I picked them up, and spoke to the young lady – ‘do you have more of these? I’m seeking a cute, comfortable, wide, flat boot.’ Then I looked directly at her and said dramatically, ‘I’m getting a bunion.” She nodded her head, and told me that she had one too. I looked down at her feet. She had on the cutest bunion friendly boots I’ve ever seen. Of course, they were vintage Steve Maddens from the eighties. Then she proceeded to tell me that every single woman that worked with her at the shop, and the one in Williamsburg also had bunions.

I couldn’t believe it. It is the unspoken New York pandemic among young, walking women. As I continued around the city and spoke to more people, I discovered that I was not alone. I read on wikipedia that bunions are caused by ‘conditions intrinsic to the structure of the foot, such as flat feet, abnormal bone structure...factors considered genetic,’ but I didn’t have any of these, I have arches like rainbows! I read on, seeing that there is a debate between experts about whether the deformity can be caused solely by ill-fitting footwear.

Someone needs to edit the wikipedia definition, expressing CAUTION to young New York City Women and men who wear women’s shoes! The bunion pandemic effects dancers, professionals [even in designer heels], hipsters, students, models and any other homo sapiens who wears shoes that demand your foot to squeeze the toes together in a stressed formation; this includes and is not limited to; pointed shoes, high heels, cowboy boots and likely any other shoe that can one would consider ‘cute’ or ‘fashionable.’ Wear at your own risk, or change your shoes often, giving your foot a variety of movement in a day.

Another thing that I used to see on the subway and admittedly would raise my nose to is the American phenomenon of wearing sneakers with a professional, cute, outfit. I thought it a travesty that women would create such disharmony in their fashion statement. I even thought it rather rude. You would never see women in Europe carrying their Chanel pumps in a shopping bag, wearing sexy nylons and...Sauconey sneakers. But maybe that is the answer; maybe I will one day be one of those women. It reminds me of the phrase my friends use to use when they would wear self-tanner and get burned, in order to get tan, ‘Pain is beauty, Rebecca,’ they used to say. So, are we the generation that creates our own disorders? From bunions to skin cancer, we’re willing to risk our health and mobility for a stylish strut, and tan skin. And even I have fallen victim to the pandemic that sweeps the city’s women, old and young – just for a good walk.