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.