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.

New Life

From a Governmental official in Chad, to impoverished refuge and discrimination in Côte d’Ivoire, to a basement apartment in the Bronx, tracing one Man’s journey...

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. 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; chronic 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 soft facial features. He moves slowly because of chronic back pain, and because he is from Chad, where people do not move with the same haste as New Yorkers. The only time he misses English class is when he has physical therapy, for his arthritis and his eyes. He has endured back pain for many years, since his days on horse and camel back as a government official in the Saharan regions of Chad. Chad is a land-locked country in central Africa, officially the Republic of Chad since its Independence from French colonial power in 1960. However, since 1965 the country has endured civil war between the North and South, countless tried rebel coup d’etats and more recently, the Darfur crisis in Sudan has spilled over the border, creating further unrest.

Bour has not revisited Chad since he and his second wife, Emilie were forced to leave in 1994. Bour had only just been appointed as the Chief Officer of the Douane, customs and taxes, when rebels, who threatened his life and seized his position, removed him. Although he came from a strong family heritage of village leaders, and had worked alongside the French as a customs official since he was 18, he was forced out, and almost killed because the Rebels wanted his desk and title, because they wanted control of the country’s imports and exports.

Chad is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries. A few of the elements that constitute many of the conflicts we see in Africa are plaguing Chad; growing oil wealth, complex ethnic ties that transcend borders (which were created by colonization), and Presidents that aim to stay in power longer than their constitutions allow, and who will take military action when it doesn’t go to plan. Despite an ever-increasing insurgency Chadian President Idriss Deby has secured his Presidency since 1991, illustrating the long road of conflict that Chad faces.

Bour left his native Chad and his first wife to care for their home while he, Emilie and one of his sons sought refuge in Côte d’Ivoire. They knew someone who worked for the BAD, Banque pour Afrique Development, The African Development Bank normally works with micro finance and training, but somehow they managed to get Bour and Emilie into safety. According to the couple, they faced a great deal of discrimination from the Ivorian people. 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 to make money for food.

Emilie, Bour nor his son were ever able to return to Chad, and because of their dire living situation in Côte d’Ivoire they made desperate contact with the one person they knew in the States. Bour’s niece had moved to New York from Paris in her youth, and was able to help them by contacting the International Rescue Committee. The IRC in the U.S. helps refugees, who are fleeing war or persecution by providing immediate aid, including food and shelter. Last August, after 14 years outside of their country, away from and 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 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 and she has suffered greatly since then. Although she knows that she is pre menopausal, she is trying to conceive a child, it is the one thing that she feels like she can create in this new life.

Emilie spends most of the day in their basement apartment in the Bronx. She buys vegetables and foufou (traditional West African staple) flour in bulk, and cooks traditional West African stews for Bour and their son, Pepe. The apartment was found for them by the IRC, a one-bedroom basement apartment, with 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 does not supply enough heat, as it 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 obviously 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 is only for the first six months, and then the refugees are supposed to be self-sufficient. They receive food stamps, and Pepe works nine-hour shifts at a factory that produces VHS and electronic products. 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, according to the United Nations Statistics Division – 87% of Chadian women. She is learning the English alphabet from the beginning, which is tiring when you are in your late forties and have not been to school, albeit a few years in primary school. Though Emilie and Bour do their utmost to create a new life here, it isn’t easy.
Emilie looks at Bour lovingly, “He used to write so well, 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” she said, referring to his how different he has become through the trials of the past 15 years and ability to communicate who he is, and what they need for their new life.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Writing the Epic

Gonnerman calls her book Life on the Outside the Prison ‘Odyssey’ of Elaine Barlett. The young reporter seems to have a place in our society, like Homer in ancient Greece, of telling epic stories of homecoming. In Homer’s the Odyssey we are taken on a journey with our hero, so that he might return home after 20 year of war, imprisonment and trial in order to bring social order back to his family and play the role of his lineage. Upon returning home, he discovers that it is not as he left it, and he must endure another battle to secure his role and family. Elaine Barlett fights her own war, with poverty and the Rockefeller drug laws, sixteen years of imprisonment, and emerges as a kind of hero – returning home. However, Barlett also discovers that her freedom must continuously be fought, even within her own home and within society’s blockades.

Gonnerman has been reporting on the National justice system in America for over 10 years, revealing the accounts of those who have endured the harsh hammer of American law. The stories she writes give the reader a look at the individuals who are all too often blanketed beneath terms like, ‘felon,’ ‘sex-offender,’ and ‘drug trafficker.’ Not only are we given the opportunity to see who these people are, how they entered the justice system, but also, what it is like for them to return home. Gonnerman reports on people who are marginalized by society by getting up close and personal with the folk themselves and letting them shine through in her words. Her ability to do this in a strategic manner gives the reader some understanding of the social and judicious constructs that make re-entry, or reintegration into society so difficult. Gonnerman writes for social change, using the age-old method of storytelling in order to highlight the problems in our justice system.

Gonnerman reports, like Homer in his epic tales, using a narrarative that tells the story from multiple characters’ perspectives. Gonnerman, in Life on the Outside was able to use all the characters that interact with Elaine Barlett in order to bring dimension and objectivity to her telling of the prison Odyssey. Gonnerman did this by spending more than two years up close and personal with the Barlett family, noting the food they ate, specific interactions and facial expressions. Unlike Homer, her narrative doesn’t change from third person, however she does use tools, like shopping receipts and letters from her children to color pieces of an intricately woven journey. Gonnerman’s talent for writing on the National justice system in such a human way is an inspired way of invoking social change and evading stigmatization in society.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Consuming Sunday

It was a cold Sunday in early November. Doug sat on the sofa in grey sweatpants watching Henry Fool. Rebecca was walking around the two-roomed Brooklyn apartment, in old corduroys and a sweatshirt; her mullet haircut was in disarray, and her eyes distraught. Doug shot her a helpless glance, and she slid on a long white down coat and went to the corner of Maple and Flatbush to the market, she went straight for the counter, asking the shopkeeper for Midol. She hates medication, but once a month she traipses down to the corner for a pack of aspirin, two extra-strength tablets. A young man with a doo-rag puts down fifty cents for a single Newport. She also pays in change and says ‘Shukrân’ quietly to the owner.

They hadn’t been grocery shopping in over a week. The fridge was rather bare except for some organic half n’ half, some sad looking spinach and a Tupperware with one of Doug’s homemade curry leftovers. It was his specialty according to Rebecca. He did not want to go anywhere today, and neither did she, but 20 minutes later she was showered, dressed in jeans, with her cowboy boots on – grabbing her huge leather and wicker basket from Morocco.

The Midol kicked in as she took the Q train from Prospect Park to Union Square. There are no Natural Grocers in East Flatbush. Park Slope has a few expensive, very fancy organic markets and one very functional Co-Op, but the couple had opted out from the Co-Op the day they had inquired and had been given a very serious run-down of the ‘rules and regulations’ of the community grocer. She enjoyed subway rides into the city anyway; she had only been in New York since July.

Rebecca had quit smoking in the spring. However, since Doug moved in she had been buying rolling tobacco. Doug smoked Parliaments, but was not addicted. Rebecca stopped and sat in the sun on a wooden bench in Union square and rolled a Bali shag quickly, loosing bits of tobacco to the wind.

There was a crowd in Whole Foods, but less busy than weekday afternoons, and a slower moving pace. She grabbed a rolling basket and went downstairs, starting at the cheeses because this is where she always lingered longest. She picked up different kinds, turning them in her hands, looking for the nuttiest, creamiest, and richest – but then checking the prices to compare. Normally she would buy a sharp, versatile cheddar for $4.00. But she picked up Brie, for $9.99, and put le bon homme in the basket. Whole milk and a dozen eggs for crêpes. Maple whole milk yogurt. Salted butter, imported – giving her a vision of langoustine with salty butter and fresh bread on summer days in France.

She stepped into the tea isle, and perused for a good five or ten minutes before choosing a Yogi blend, Organic Dong Qua women’s tonic is an effective and organic way to lessen fatigue, restore your energy and balance a woman’s hormones.

She always picked up pasta and sauce for the staple spaghetti bolognaise. It’s surprising she still liked pasta after having it so much growing up. Rebecca grabbed the other staple, garbanzo beans. Then she saw a can with a label saying ‘Eden Organic rice and beans.’ She loved rice and beans, and grabbed the can, half jokingly, she giggled and put it in her basket. She stopped and picked up some rice crackers with tamarind, imagining how nice and crunchy they would be alone. She was getting hungry.

The butchers were quick to help her. She hadn’t learned the direct, quick off the tongue New York style of ordering; she described softly what she wanted, a tenderloin for her Sunday roast, the best cut. No, the one below the filet mignon for $24.95 lbs.

Behind her the jams were aligned, labels perfectly lined, looking out at her. The Bonne Maman. The lovely shaped glass jars of confiture. She read one letter F of the three-letter word, and her mouth salivated as she put a jar of Fig jam in the basket without checking the price.

The vegetables were always organized and colorful, with colored men, all black, arranging, revamping the vegetable displays, smiling, and checking their watches. She always had the same battles, local or organic? In season, or exotic? She picked New Jersey tomatoes, beautiful fingerling potatoes – which remind her of her days in fine dining – a few apples for the Brie, a bright orange pepper, a bag of carrots, and a well endowed organic zucchini. She loved the spring greens in the big plastic box, hated the packaging – and always bought it. And one Costa Rican banana.

Upstairs, she squeezed her fingers around the bread to see when it was made. The baguettes were fresh baked at the perfect consistency. The chocolate was conveniently placed at the checkout lines. She sighed, as her hand moved with memory and habit to the dogoba chocolates, never below 76% dark. Rosebud or mint? Mint this time.

Her number was called and she passed checkouts 16-21, each with a pretty young, black female working the register. Rebecca’s boyfriend had recently pointed out the fact that “everyone” who worked Whole Foods was black, so far, he was spot on, except for the tall white guy with the poor complexion – but he was the floor manager.

$94.48. You saved -.20 cents on your bags. Credit or Debit? Debit. Cash Back? No.

When Rebecca got home Doug’s eyebrows raised, and he inspected her basket while she changed into comfy clothes. A banana peel was on top, she had eaten it with a few corners of the chocolate on the train-ride home. The crackers had also been opened, and one of the rows was missing. He picked up the can of rice and beans and made a face. ‘They’re not even black beans, its rice with garbanzo beans.’ He shook his head.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

'Extra Sensitive' Sex Ed

IT’s a ten-minute break in a three-hour class at NYU and I’m conversing with the three other members of my group, all young women in their early twenties. We’re studying Globalization amongst a dynamic group of young students. I’m telling a story about my disappointment in a visiting Professor from last semester. One of my major qualms with the Professor is that he had brought some of the common HIV myths into our classroom. One day he had mentioned, while moving quickly from one subject to another, that condoms don’t prevent HIV transmission. I got shivers when I heard him say this, and again as I retold it to the girls in my class. All three of them looked at me, dark brown, blue and green eyes wide. Blue eyes looks at me and says, ‘That’s right.’ In a very factual tone, ‘Condoms don’t prevent against HIV.’ Green eyes blinked again and spoke in a soft tone, ‘I grew up in a really small town.’ She said, shrugging. Blue eyes continued, ‘it even says it on the package, does not prevent hiv infection, only against STD’s’ I looked at her, and took a deep breath, reminding myself that all three of them are proclaimed Christians and they have probably received their sexual education infused with fundamental doctrine, which teaches abstinence as the only way. Blue eyes could feel that I was about to refute her argument, which she was so used to executing in the classroom, and so she went on, ‘Like, in my junior high sex ed, our teacher told us that the HIV microbes are way smaller than other STD’s, and so they can, like, pass through the condom.’ Brown eyes chimed in, ‘yeah, and condom’s aren’t 100% protection anyway.’

In 2000 I lived in Tanzania and taught sexual reproductive health to high school students, as their peer. This was precisely one of the myths that we were working to eradicate during the two years I spent in Tanzania. It seemed there were generally two main problems, the first being the silence that still surrounds sexuality and STI’s and second, the Church’s damnation of Sex and Protective Education. I looked mainly at blue eyes, who had been telling me her learned truth as though it were fact. And I spoke as gently as I could, ‘HIV is a virus, and a sexually transmitted infection; it’s carried in semen and vaginal fluid. Condoms are effective against HIV and STDs. No it’s not 100%, but it’s your best chance if used correctly.’ I wanted to keep going, but I could tell that blue eyes was no longer listening, she had become uncomfortable and had reopened the newspaper to read. Green eyes had folded her legs close to her chest. Brown eyes checked the time on her portable. I looked around the room for someone to share my fear and frustration with. I wondered how many more of my peers at this prestigious school have been miseducated about the virus that causes AIDS. I balked at the fact that none of us had received sexual education since our debut as mere 13 year olds. What scared me the most is that when they went silent, so did I, class started again and blue eyes continued discussion in the same factual style. I didn’t tell them that women our age, 18-24 are at the highest risk of infection. I didn’t say that they have been victims to the false information, with no support in scientific findings that is still so common. I didn’t tell them that they can pick up condoms in the health center, durex, in purple package, our school color, and that if they read the back it would say Effective against pregnancy, HIV (AIDS) and STD’s. As my fear for our generation and the pandemic we face, I closed my eyes and prayed to God that their ignorance was safely cradled in virginity.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

100 copies

How's this for journalism and social change?

Ms. Bartlett, who lives in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, met with Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican majority leader of the State Senate, who had endorsed her clemency and promised to buy 100 copies of the book, written by Jennifer Gonnerman.... —NYT

Further Gonnermania

Jennifer Gonnerman now writes frequently for New York magazine; her focus, now as ever, is on the people that society seems to barely notice (or else ostracize or demonize).

Here's a piece on food deliverymen; here's a recent piece on a home where sex offenders live. And here's her New York archive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Documenting Life

In Gonnerman's book, Life on the Outside, it bewilders me how much detail is presented to the reader. The main character, Ellaine Barrlett's life is already extremely interesting, heart-wrenching and humanizing in its essence, however Gonnerman manages to sketch out facial features, exact times, emotions, telephone calls, what was bought and from which bodega, and from who, dialogue, and specific outfits. Her scrupulousness gives the story an even greater humanizing effect, humor, sadness... and also adds to its legitimacy.

I am perplexed at how someone else could ever write such a personal account for someone other than themselves? It is as though Gonnerman became a bar on Elaine's prison cell, a fly on the wall of apartment 13B, and a member of the family, it seems. I am extremely impressed with her ability to make the story so personal and devout to detail, while still being on the outside of Elaine's experience.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Friend the Media

Since President Bush embarked on his six-day, five-nation African ‘safari’ there has been an unprecedented coverage of his efforts with development in Africa He started in Kenya, still up in arms since their election, ‘warning’ the government that it needs to agree to a power-sharing agreement with the opposition. But what is really being done to prevent further violence in Kenya?
Although currently Chad is facing rebel groups trying to overthrow their government, new violence has erupted in the Darfur region of Sudan, warlords are fighting in Somalia and Ethiopia and Eritrea are having yet another border standoff – Bush has decided to take a showcase tour of some of Africa’s achieving foreign aid programs. Bush hopes to use this trip to highlight success stories in Africa and the programs he has launched to fight disease, poverty and illiteracy. Isn’t it in his favor how colorful and correct he looks on his visit to Africa? It reminded me of how media is used as a tool to create whatever reality he/she is trying to portray. The choice of what is covered, and when, effects the audience greatly because in most cases it is the individuals unique source of information. The amount of coverage that the media gives a certain topic is what gives that event, conflict or person its ordained value in the world.
In Joe Gould’s Secret, Mitchel illustrates in two instances his own influence as a journalist. The first being with his story of the young homeless couple who were living in central Park. His article instigated a great deal of response from the public, just because of the way that he had told their story. And in this case, it wasn’t even the couple who were seeking support, it was just a compelling story that touched the public into become involved. Similarly, Mitchel’s telling of Joe Gould in his first published article also created a portrait of Gould that wasn’t exactly spot on, but nevertheless, the public’s opinion of him was greatly effected after reading the news article. Also in reading Gonnerman’s ‘Life on the Outside,’ our main character, Elaine uses media coverage as a tool to bring her to life as a human being, with a family, rather than the anonymous inmate/drug trafficker. Eventually it would be her use of the media to highlight parts of the story that would support her release from prison and demonstrate the fallacy of the Rockefeller drug laws.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

From Chad to the Bronx

When I board the 4 train at Union Square I am pushed into the car with the array of afternoon commuters. It’s not until 42nd street that I am able to find a seat, and as the train moves north towards the Bronx there are fewer faces and the buildings are also more spread out. I check my directions and get off at Bedford Park, walk a few blocks past the eyes of policemen and school kids – who are seemingly aware of my presence here. Then I wait for the D train for over 20 minutes, there is only one other woman on the platform and she looks at me and says ‘They always take forever up in here.’ Finally it arrives and I get off at the last stop, 205 st.

Bour had called me this morning to tell me that he might not be at home when I arrived, but that Emilie would be waiting for me. I explained to him that it was ok if he wasn’t around, it was her that I had been trying to see for a few weeks now, since she stopped coming to English classes at the resettlement center. I find their house, and at the door of the basement apartment, I knock on the window as Bour had directed me, and wait. A few moments later Emilie opens the door and greets me in African style greeting, pressing our cheeks together, three times on alternate cheeks. We speak French and I explain to her that she is missed at the center. She invites me into her home, the basement of a brick apartment building. We pass the small, dank kitchen and she shows me through into the salon, where she has been watching an American sitcom series. She leaves the television on and after I am seated she brings water, juice and cookies, making sure that I have all that I need before we start talking. There is a succession of conversation very different from the American way; there would be no serious talk until we had made all the greetings. Then, she would show me the apartment, which, I had already seen, except for their bedroom, with its exposed piping on the ceiling and windows that let the wet in, allowing mold to grow. She explains that the superintendent hasn’t been responding to their requests to fix the problems, and that they can’t really communicate well. Have you been learning English from watching television? I asked Emilie in French. She shrugged and said, un peu and gestured for me to eat another chips a hoy cookie.

Emilie is 47 years old, like many Africans she looks much younger, however in the last six months, since her arrival in America as a political refugee she is looking older and her face is swollen with weight and worry. In the first months of her arrival she was coming to the ‘literacy for life’ program at the International Resettlement Committee where I work as a teacher assistant, helping the clients to feel comfortable with English. It had been a few months since Emilie had stopped coming, her husband, Bour, explained that she was suffering from posttraumatic stress and the Doctor had told her to stay at home for three months. Three months at home, I pondered the idea of complete social isolation for a woman that is inherently social and asked, ‘Is she depressed?’ to which he replied, ‘Of course she is.’ It is extremely common for refugees to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, cultural bereavement and depression during their resettlement period. I couldn’t see how it would be helpful for cultural integration for Emilie to stay at home, alone, without any English – so I had decided that I would travel to the Bronx to listen and try to understand what she needs.

‘You know, I lost my child in an accident not long before we left Chad.’ She looked at me, her eyes filling softly with tears. I told her I had not been aware of this, and didn’t urge her to go into detail –I have been told to be attentive of asking too much about the lives left behind of our clients – it could be more traumatic than I am qualified to support them in. She explained that she was unable to let go of her loss, that it haunted her. She told me how different life had been in Chad, with her son and her comfort of life. Her husband had been a custom’s officer for over thirty years, and had become the highest rank, becoming the overseer of his regions officers. It was his job that had given them a life of comfort and ease in Chad, but also had brought them into the mix of a corrupt power struggle and conflict; finally they had to seek refuge outside of their country. ‘Now look at him,’ she said ‘He has become like a child again.’ Both Emilie and Bour came to America unable to write, Bour is able to write with little difficulty now. Though Emilie asked to start at the very beginning, explaining that she did not know the alphabet in English, and even in French, had never written. So I brought out some worksheets that brought us to the very beginning, and we spent some time sounding out the letters.

When we were discussing when I should return for another lesson, and some lamb stew she handed me a pile of papers from the hospital, with the dates for her next appointments. I leafed through the papers and read one highlighted sentence: patient is trying to get pregnant, premenapausal. I decided to ask her if it was true, to which she responded, ‘ah, you know my secret.’ Her husband is in his late sixties and already had children before he married Emilie. She bore only one son, the one she lost and now she would like to have another child. She knows that it’s getting late in her cycle, that it might not be possible, but she is willing to try anything – even fertilization drugs. ‘Of course, only if God is willing’ she said, holding back tears.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

His Story as History

This week I walked down past where the Bowery ends, to meet up with some young men of my generation before a red-bricked building on 15th Seventh street, at McSorely’s old Alehouse. The doorman allowed me in without looking at my i.d., saying in a soft Irish twang, that he trusted my face. When I walk in my senses were overwhelmed with the smell of men, sweating beer, hops, sawdust and history. The chandeliers above the wooden bar are covered in a thick past of black dust, and wishbones mark the lives of those who did not return to their local jaunt from the world’s wars. This is New York. It opened in 1864, and is New York City’s oldest saloon. My eyes are devouring the surrounding walls, aged pictures and glassy eyes of the men around the room. I see a framed book-cover, ‘McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon’ by Joseph Mitchell and I consider the way that he would describe the ever-raw setting with such a truthful, humble and human approach. I think of Joe Gould.

It was a true surprise to learn that after publishing Joe Gould’s secret Mitchell was not to write or publish anything more. Does this reveal a certain potency of their relationship over the course of 20 years? Was it Gould that challenged and betrayed Mitchell and the integrity of his story? Or did Gould act as a reflection of Mitchell, or some illustration of a quality that he should like to bring alive? I cannot be sure why Mitchell didn’t write anything after Joe Gould’s Secret, but I do see a connection in the coincidence, because Joe Gould both entrapped and liberated something inside Mitchell, the literary artist. I believe that Gould presented a sense of freedom that was enhanced by being outside of society; He didn’t owe anything to anyone, he said whatever he wanted, when he wanted, he went to and fro as he wished and he fabricated stories – creating his own reality. Mitchell indulged in Gould’s freedom, first only as a reporter, but quickly he was emotionally involved. Gould unlocked some part of Mitchell that would allow him to reflect on himself, while reporting on Gould. And because he published both the profile and it’s inclusion of his own personal account, his integrity as a journalist was stretched.

Journalism is supposed to be a verified account of the truth, who, what, when, where, why? And withholding the ‘What I think’ of personal opinion. The difficulty with the Mitchell’s reportage on Gould is that he became personally involved in the intricate, and fabricated truth of the ‘Oral History.’ Firstly, he was drawn into it because he wrote the first article, Professor Seagull introducing the Oral History as though it were tangible, yet it was purely on the account of old Joe Gould. It wasn’t until much later that he would discover that the Oral History was indeed only a mouthful of words, a few re-written essays of Joe’s life and not much else. So Mitchell had learned that his first article was fictitious in its telling of Gould’s work of art. Mitchell then feels a sense of duty to his work, but also an infusion of duty and pity for Joe Gould – which drives him to write the second article, ‘Joe Gould’s Secret.’ In the second article, Mitchell rewrites the story that we have already been told, except this time he withholds nothing, he shares all that he has discovered about old Joe Gould, including self reflections and challenges that he faced personally. Although some part of the Oral History and his relation to Gould left Mitchell in a written silence, it was the recording of Gould’s story, told by Mitchell that was an honest history of that time.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Fool's Gould?

This 1996 Virginia Quarterly Review article about Mitchell seems interesting, and I was going to recommend it to you. But I couldn't disagree more with his assessment of Joe Gould's Secret:

If The Bottom of the Harbor is Mitchell's finest book, its successor, Joe Gould's Secret, is his most disappointing....The book is unexpurgated information, much of it unsatisfying. Instead of a judiciously chosen and arranged fugue of facts, we're hauled off to every conversation Mitchell had with Gould, whose boring digressions within digressions are matched only by his capacity to talk for hours, night after night, about the same subject: himself. The book is an exhausting read; we feel only slightly less flayed alive by Gould's verbosity than Mitchell must have. The fascinating thing is that even though we're given the facts, and nothing but the facts, and they add up to a wholly different and in some ways more exact and accurate Gould than that profiled in "Professor Seagull," the end result is much less satisfying because it lacks a certain verity.

Journalism; A Vessel for Society's Secrets

In reading Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret I have discovered some of the more intimate nuances of journalism and its role as a vessel for society’s secrets. Mitchell’s tells Joe Gould’s story through two articles, and in his book, a collection of the two previously published articles, we are also invited to discover how the journalist’s story unfolds in relation to his assignment. The most refreshing aspect of this book is that, as an original newspaper article, it still maintained its integrity. That is to say, it is a very human encounter and exchange.

The main vein of both the book and the bohemian, Joe Gould is his lifework, The Oral History. At first I was entirely enamored by the idea of a historical account told in vignettes of conversation about, and of the Village in its prime. The tradition of Oral History is long lost in our time, and for as long as I have known history – it has been told by the elite white, and so I was an avid supporter of an artistic era being told by a dirty, awkward, shy, black sheep of society. I was slightly disappointed to discover that the Oral History was perhaps alive only in Gould’s mind, although Mitchell’s telling of the story did, in same way bring alive a certain oral history of that time. He is able to shed light onto some of Gould’s life story, and bring understanding into his role and exclusion from the other ‘bohemians’ and poets of his time. Which, together, gives the reader a feeling of the village and how people spoke to one another in relation to time and circumstance.

The richest aspect of this story for me was to look at the essence of Mitchell and Gould’s encounter. I cannot say if Journalism has maintained the possibility of having such a strangely intimate connection with someone that you are writing about? That is not to say that there is no longer an intimacy in journalism, but in this case, Mitchell allows the reader to see how his subject affected him. Furthermore, he respected Joe Gould and he used his writing as a tool for change, for others to esteem the village fool as a valued human being.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Supporting Immigrants in ELL (English Language Learning),siegel,78835,12.html/1

I ride the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan everyday. I see people, and hear languages from every corner of the world, reminding me that I live in New York City – the American heart of immigration, historically and today. Immigration is a hot topic on news media, within the Presidential debates and also for the City’s Education Department at the moment. I often overhear fellow citizens balking at immigrants who do not speak adequate English or integrate into American society. I have not seen much introspect as to how we are receiving immigrant youth, what are we doing to make sure that the immigrant population is being integrated? Perhaps, as Jessica Siegel wrote in her article the Village Voice, ‘Finding a High School for an Immigrant Child is Harder than you think.” As tax cuts are occurring and schools are becoming smaller, and already overcrowded in New York City one of the first programs to be cut – or never even commenced – are the ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) programs.
In her article Siegel tells the account of a 16 year-old boy, Ralph Antony who arrived from Haiti in August, joining his extended family in Brooklyn. He and his family were sent on a frustrating journey through five different schools and relentless bureaucratic systems before finding a Public high school that would take him. Either the schools were too crowded, did not have the right programs or found that the student’s English proficiency was not enough. Mayer Bloomburg’s educational restructuring, of the newer smaller schools that were part of his plan, less than 5% include an ELL (English Language Learners) program. Law demands that Public schools include ELL, and in March 2006 a Citywide Council on High schools, a parent group, filed a Civil Rights suit, accusing the Department of Education of discriminating against ELLs and special education. While the group is awaiting some resolution on the case, we find our recently immigrated Ralph Antony being inefficiently handled at one of the 14 public school enrollment centers. According to the account, the staff were unable to provide the services required for an easy registration and enrollment process. Worse than that, the Department of Education is not monitoring which schools have active ELL classes, and those that do not. Many of the new, smaller schools are going off the idea that they must first take a few years to get established before initiating the programs. This illustrates that ELL support is not a priority in the New York School system – So, who is to blame that immigrants are not integrating? So often in Education we easily point our fingers at the students, saying ‘they are not succeeding’ but, how often do we point our fingers at the system, saying ‘we are not providing?’

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

a visual taste

Education Today and Tomorrow

From Burning Drafts to Blogging

In response to 'One Generation Got Old, One Generation Got Soul'

An article in the New York Times education, highlights present-day dissatisfaction for American Politics and the war in Iraq among American youth. Writer Rachel Aviv speaks with some students at the New School who have recently joined the resurrected S.D.S. in search of social change and solidarity during ‘powerless’ times. Although there is dispute on the reputation of the former S.D.S and it’s historic turn towards fundamentalism, it isn’t farfetched to recognize the similarities between the War in Iraq and the division and governmental mistrust that plagued America during the Vietnam War. The S.D.S. was re-inspired following three events – 9/11, Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina. The group aims to combat “racism, and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism. Any issue that falls under the rubric of “oppression.” I, as an advocate for social change and movements toward political restructuring, could not agree with more. However, I read on to find that during the second national convention, attended by about 200 members, the students spent a day discussing how ‘not’ to oppress one another. They split into groups based on gender, class, race and sexual orientation. This seems to me what happens so often when we are aiming to prevent something, and we end up creating exactly what we are trying to avoid. Tom Hayden, a former president of S.D.S. made a statement that ‘They’re blogging against the war, they’re not burning draft cards...the war in Iraq vividly demonstrates that the issues of the 60s have not gone away, but this generation has an identity crisis that it will have to resolve on its own.” His inability to support the new branch of S.D.S. could be in his lack of understanding of the new generation. It seems that our rapid technological advancements have, in some cases, created even more of a divide between generations. Though, ex-hippies of that time usually say ‘You’ll never understand how we was the best times, it was....’ And I don’t doubt it, it was a sort of adolescence for America characterized by pivotal, oppressing and simultaneously liberating events. However, I do agree with Hayden on one point, our generation is having an identity crisis. Although, I believe that we are going to need help, and inter-generational partnerships in order to resolve it – we cannot do it alone. I don’t see blogging as less consequential than burning draft cards, our times are different. On the contrary, blogging actually takes away the misconception of borders, and allows us to share ideas and connects us more widely to the global world that we live in. Burning draft cards isn’t going to do much if you don’t have a friend in Mexico that you’ve been communicating with via facebook.
I commend the students and S.D.S. members for becoming involved during a particularly ‘fear-stricken’ era, in which we must mobilize. We must restructure our society from the inside – out, starting with the coming Presidential election, and by living as though we are not oppressed, by being self-empowered citizens of a changed world, a world unlike that of the 60’s. A world in which education and relearning of history is at our fingertips, and blogging is a good starting point for discourse on change.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Globalization and eduction explored at GSE, now at NYU

An interesting article dating back from 04. 'academics, journalists pose the question "how do we educate for a global economy?' The conference was inspired by findings from the published book of essays 'Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millenium." The co-author and previous Harvard Professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is now a full time professor at NYU's Steinhardt. His experience with Globalization has shaped a view that is not limited to an economic standpoint, which has long been the case in the field. Suárez-Orozco is now teaching a course on globalization, immigration and the changing demographics of global cities. The Professor stated at the conference that "No topic today, whether it's the outsourcing of jobs, whether it's the war on terrorism, whether it's the environmental processes, can be contained within the separate domains of individual nation-states."
It is an honor and excitement to be a student at NYU alongside such prestigious work, I hope and look forward to interacting more closely with Professor Suárez-Orozco.