Friday, June 12, 2009

Late Nights With Lily

It was 11 p.m. and she still wasn't in bed. “Let me sit and think for a while,” I heard her say from the kitchen. She rested her head on the table. “Just another five minutes.”

Another five minutes had already turned into 90 minutes past her bedtime, but there was no point in telling her this. She would not remember. We went through this dance of wills at least three times a week, and I was grouchy and wanting to be in bed myself.

“No, Lily,” I said, the edge in my voice obvious. “It’s time to sleep.” I reached for her arm and tried to lead her out of the room. I would more easily have moved a block of lead.

“Bed?” she cried, raising a hand to strike my face when I touched her. “At home I didn’t go to bed until 1 or 2 in the morning if I didn’t want to! Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Indeed. It felt like a good question. Who was I, a 31-year-old, to tell an 85-year-old when to go to bed? More than once I'd felt awkward as I mothered the 10 women in the assisted-living facility. While I understood my responsibilities and rights to carry them out, the role reversal with each of the women made me grieve. Most had raised children who were older than I, been married decades longer than I had been alive, and lived a lifetime more of wisdom, joys and sorrows. My heart wanted people to prosper and continue to grow, not decline and suffer as so many of the residents did. It was especially difficult with Lily, an emotionally unstable and very needy Alzheimer’s patient.

“Don’t let her manipulate you,” the management had warned me. “Don’t give in to her. She’ll use you and drive you crazy. You must ignore her.”

My iron will was determined to follow instructions and not be taken advantage of. It must be what’s best for her anyway, I thought. After all, they’re the professionals. I had no previous experience, so I followed the managers’ and daytime nurses’ examples of curtness, orders and stern words. I ignored her repeated pleas for conversation and attention.

As Lily dissolved into tears and apologies in the kitchen, the growing realization that the “experts’” approach was getting us nowhere hit me full force — and something in me broke. As I watched this violent but emotionally defenseless person who could not remember her own last name, I wondered why God had seemingly abandoned her. I also realized I could no longer ignore her. I had an epiphany that should have come naturally to me: Love her.

That night I tried something other than the frustration I had met her with during the two months she had been at the house. She was always thirsty but couldn't tolerate milk, so I stooped to meet her at eye level and said, “Lily, do you want a cookie and a glass of water?”

“Yes,” she said, looking at me with relief and gratitude as if I were Santa Claus and she were a child receiving a long-awaited gift. “Oh, yes. And can I sit and talk to you for a while?”

“Sure, Lily,” I said, “But you sit in your bed and I’ll sit in the chair beside it.” Even her fragile and childlike mind saw through the bribery, but my offer was too good to refuse for long. This time she took my outstretched hand. She shuffled with me to her bedroom where I sat in an armchair and gladly offered her pecan Sandies and a glass of water. She held my hand as she ate. Her gauzy skin and pronounced veins felt odd and uncomfortable under my fingertips. It had been years since I had held anyone’s hand that long, let alone one I felt I could injure if I moved the wrong way. Everything in me wanted to pull away to safety, but I did not. I felt her relax, and that night she slept peacefully for the first time in weeks.

From then on whenever she was exhausted but too escalated to be still on her own, we sat in her bedroom and discussed the world as she knew it during that difficult season of her life. “I believe that Jesus and all the angels are watching me,” she said one night, though my first thought was, I can’t see that they are caring for you well. Some nights she scolded me because she needed an outlet for her anger. Occasionally we giggled about the house rules or something funny that had happened during her day. Sometimes she wept for no apparent reason, so we prayed. Some nights we sat quietly until she fell asleep, she with her cookies and water and I with a book, just the companionship being enough for both of us.

At times she couldn't remember how to dress herself, but she still remembered fragments of her childhood and shared them repeatedly, each time with enthusiasm as if she had ridden the pony or sneaked the kiss from the boy next door just yesterday. As I listened I saw that in her wrinkled face was a life story. And despite her condition, I uncovered a devilish sense of playfulness, compassion and unselfishness that lived on in Lily despite the disease that attacked her brain. When she was cogent and calm she was concerned about me and my problems. I knew that whatever I said to her would be quickly forgotten, but I shared the goings-on of my day anyway, including my joys and some of my problems.

“Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me,” Jesus once said. I wondered what I had done for them, but I knew it was not enough. It began to dawn on me the inexpressible and inestimable worth of each human being, simply because God created them. I knew enough of Lily’s background information to see that her life had been full of mistakes — alcoholism, estranged relationships, gambling, abuse. Still, I was humbled in her presence. Through this obstinate, fierce, humorous, caring woman, God showed me how much He loves even the least of us, including me. I was embarrassed by my years of indifference and I thought of other people I had carefully chosen not to love because they were too messy, too boring, too difficult, too whatever. The reasons looked hollow on examination. I realized how supremely selfish it is to withhold love when it is within our ability to give it. I also realized that I might be one of the tools God used to show Lily His love. Maybe Jesus and the angels really were watching after her.

Lily’s needs had always been beyond the capabilities of the care facility, but because of what some may call a clerical error — I call it a God-ordained mistake — she was allowed to live with us for four months. Eventually, when her needs became so severe that we could not cope with her, she was transferred to an Alzheimer’s unit that could better handle her outbursts. Her final words to me were, “And what was your name again, honey?”

I hope we can meet each other in the perfection of Heaven where she will finally know who I am. And I will carry what God taught me through her for as long as my mind can contain it.

International Flights

A Primer on International Flights

In 2006 I flew around the globe. Friends and acquaintances who know this say in awe, “You are a world traveler.” I merely tell them that I am perpetually jetlagged and haggard. In fact I am currently recovering from my 45th international flight. This means I have hurtled through space in an aluminum tube for a rough total of 15 or 16 days, excluding domestic flights in the United States. My passport looks as if it has been through a war, and I have occasionally looked as bad as my passport picture. I have endured seating conditions that would make even veal feel more claustrophobic, as well as erratic thermostats that cause people to hunker under blankets or mop pints of sweat from their faces. During Asian flights I have eaten several meals that stared back at me through noodles. During European flights I have eaten half my weight in shortbread. Besides this I have read hundreds of dry airline magazine articles, though the pieces on travelers who developed blood clots were enough to scare me into walking laps around the plane, much to the joy of my fellow veal who had to let me into the aisle. Through all of this and more I have learned a few things about the dynamics of overseas flights. For those who have never had the pleasure of traveling internationally, allow me to fill you in on what the economy-class section of an airplane is like for the long haul.

Phase One: The Connecting Flight (With Children)
For many of us Americans who leave the United States there is usually a connecting flight to the West or East Coast. This is the last taste of home we will have for a while, so we hope this flight offers a nice cross section of Americana — maybe Little Leaguers, grandmothers crocheting scarves or even a Hell’s Angel or an Elvis impersonator. Unfortunately most airlines no longer serve free apple pie or much of anything else on most domestic flights.
Despite my idealistic hopes, on one connecting flight two little boys and their harried mother sat in front of me. The older boy, who was probably 6, stood on the seat, looked me squarely in the eye and yelled, “You’re a big fat chicken butt!”

It’s funny what runs through your mind when you are loudly compared to poultry in public. My first thought was, How would you know? You’ve never seen me stand up. I will not share my personal second thought. My third was, This will be a long two hours. I was right. The boys continued to cow their mother, kick seats and hit each other. Soon virtually every passenger in our section had been called a big fat chicken butt or, worse, the dreaded “pig-nose face.” (I must admit I felt vindicated by the fact few were exempt.) I finally turned to the businessman on my left and whispered, “I have a bottle of Nyquil in my carry-on. What do you have?” He had Benadryl so we endured part of the flight by quietly plotting creative ways to introduce the boys to an hour of naptime. Eventually the other man in our row was brainstorming with us. We agreed to look for the boys’ adult faces on future FBI posters. We also discussed how to split any reward based on the various levels of emotional trauma we had sustained. I was to receive the most.

On a different flight to New York City a 5-year-old boy incessantly kicked the back of my seat for two hours. It was like having ruthless hiccups, and no matter how nicely I asked his father to help him stop, the man said, “He’s just a child. He’s not bothering you that much.” I finally addressed the boy himself in my sternest teacher voice. The kicking stopped immediately and the father’s icy glower was much more tolerable.

Lest you believe all children are like this, however, the majority of them are sweet and they enjoy fun conversations while peeking between seat cushions. There is hope for our country. The future juvenile detention duo and the soccer player are exceptions, and you laugh about them or you get an aneurysm — or a blood clot.

Phase Two: The Honeymoon Period
This is the first hour of the actual international flight. You’re relieved you made it to the airport on time, you’re thrilled your bags weren’t overweight, you’re excited about the big trip and you’re looking forward to nine to 15 hours to reflect, read, work and sleep. You know you will accomplish so much! The air is pregnant with expectation and the faint smells of jet fuel and men’s socks. You love your neighbors and everyone else on the plane. Life is good.

Phase Three: Disillusionment/ Entertainment Frustration
It is roughly the third or fourth hour when you realize that “Miss Congeniality 2” is just as bad as the critics said it is if not worse. Still you are so tired of reflecting, reading, working or trying to sleep while your neighbors walk into and around you that even mindless entertainment is slightly better than just sitting there. After the movie, “Frasier,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Mr. Ed” and numerous other sit-com reruns play for several hours, but for some reason you’re allowed to see only half of each episode, and sometimes in reverse or upside down. The cockpit apologizes for the technical difficulties and then runs the news in French, Chinese, German, Russian, Thai or some other language that you do not speak well or at all. To combat boredom you make up your own news based on the video and the few words you understand. You might even smile to yourself as a result. You hope no one sees this.

Phase Four: Loss of Contact With Legs
Around Hour Five it dawns on you that you need to move, but you might lack the ability to do so without hurting something — or someone. This is when you remember the aforementioned blood clot article and quickly decide to go for a lap or two through first class, where you silently covet their legroom if you, a peon, are allowed in this section. Then you go to the back of the plane and stand around with the attendants — who don’t realize you’re there and complain bitterly about their healthcare benefits or the man in row 27 who smells bad and isn’t happy with anything. As you listen and learn a lot about how much of their bridgework was covered by insurance, slowly but surely blood flows again to your thighs, knees, calves, ankles and feet. Reassured by improved circulation, you return to the other veal. Your neighbor sighs deeply upon your return and slowly removes all of his things from your seat. His reproachful eyes make you want to smack him, but you do not. At least not yet.

Phase Five: The Awful Realization
This is about midway. You suddenly realize that you are NEVER going to reach your destination. Desperation hits. You see that the flight crew is actually just moving the cloud scenery through high-tech DreamWorks-type cinematography (you swear you have passed the same cloud 14 times and you wonder how it’s possible for a 767 to hover). Perhaps you never even took off! You wonder what on earth you can do to remedy the situation. Taking a dose of Nyquil, Sominex, or Dramamine seems appropriate now even if it throws off your time zone.

Phase Six: Sleep
Chemically induced slumber is a beautiful and effective means of passing airplane time. Even lower back pain goes away. At some point during your nap a flight attendant tucks two or three immigration cards into your shirt pocket and you wake up with a noseful of paper.

Phase Seven: Guilt
Grogginess now aside, you are besieged by the guilt of having accomplished nothing so far. If you are overworked, as I am, you pull out your projects and make a final attempt to do something productive. Just as you are settled with papers and poised with pen, the flight crew wants to feed you again. Lifeless chicken cordon bleu liberates you from work.

— Tips on Meals
Every few hours the flight attendants will feed you. In some cases they will try to do this even if you are asleep. Helpful hints: When conscious always choose anything else over fish. Tuna, for example, can be hepatitis A on innocent white bread, and it is not fun to be sick at 37,000 feet. Noodles for breakfast over Asia will feel alarming, but it will be OK. During British flights DO NOT eat the Marmite they offer in any form; industrial sludge found at the bottom of factory ponds probably tastes better and has a better consistency. (I first thought it was chocolate spread, and years later I am still trying to scrape the taste from my mouth.) Do try to use the chopsticks on Asian flights. Cheesecake and the occasional Dr Pepper are good in any language.

Phase Eight: Bathrooms
Acquiring a master’s degree in mechanical engineering is helpful before entering an airplane bathroom. There is so much compression, torque and balance involved that the mathematics of such should be done on the mirror with a bar of soap. And it never hurts to bring copious amounts of hand sanitizer in case soap is missing. Always check for toilet paper on your shoes if you can squeeze your way back outside. Avoid hitting the poor schmuck who is waiting for you in the nose with the door when you open it.

Phase Nine: Arrival
Approximately nine to 15 hours after you walk onto the aluminum tube, you actually land on the ground. Refrain from kissing the ground because you do not know what has been there. Welcome to your new temporary home. Now you must lug a 30-pound backpack, a laptop carrier and one or two 50-pound suitcases through the airport maze to the taxi stand. Good luck bartering for a decent fare. Good luck finding your hotel. Good luck, good luck, good luck. You are now on your own in a huge city and you cannot speak the language very well — even in Great Britain. But if you love traveling as much as I do, things have a way of working out. You will survive and write your own articles about the joys of overseas adventures. Just remember: If you don’t do laps around the plane you might write while recovering from a blood clot.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Ninth Addis Herald

The Addis Herald, Final Edition From the Field

In This Issue:
On Being Back
New Standards
How to Improve Your Posture
Pithy Ethiopia
You Can Go Home Again (Sort Of)

Greetings from U.S. soil. Yup. I'm back. But I still have two newsletters left in me. For one, I haven't told people much about the trek through Africa—and people are still asking. Why is it taking so long? Because a lot happened there, and life "keeps happening" elsewhere. There has been too much to do, process and type—and the fact it could all be chapters long requires me to pare it down. A lot. :-) It will be my next, and final, issue.


Ever wanted to run away from home for a few days? (Not that I've had a stable home in years.) You know, to think. Pray. Be by yourself with God. Sort things out.

You, too, eh?

That's why I spent a few days at the Oregon Coast earlier this month. My friend Greg said last week that he goes to the coast "because it makes everything better." I understand this. The Pacific is so beautiful and massive that it dwarfs the rest of life—including problems that feel huge. And God, not oceanographers, tells it where to stop with His hand. If He can control an ocean, He certainly has control over our lives.

So every couple of years I go there to walk on the beach until my face feels chapped. Then I watch the sea lions (grouchy, chocolate-colored blobs with fins) burp, sleep and gripe at each other. After that, it's mandatory to feed a seagull—which I am convinced is a bag of poop that's held together with feathers. But one seagull usually turns into 20.

And then I sit in a café overlooking the beach. For hours. (This is the benefit of being single and childless.) I read, nibble on something, write, check e-mail, pray, ponder life, scratch out to-do lists and notes. The waitresses fill my glass of whatever four times an hour and usually tease me about how I should get a "real" job. But the eight-to-five routine will happen soon enough—let me be on my own time for a few more days.

I need to ease into it while I still can … coming back isn't always simple.

On Being Back
The Pacific Ocean around Oregon and Washington is cold. Year-round. Inland it may be 104 degrees, but the water at the coast is still shocking on the ankles, even if you think you're prepared for it. No matter how hard I try not to, I gasp when my feet get wet the first time. It's kind of like how it feels to come back to the United States. Even if you think you've got it covered this time—it does get easier—something always catches you off guard. This can take any number of forms. Lately it's been our liberal media, our country's adoration of meaningless celebrities and how bad Americans' spelling is (it's gotten worse, and seriously, teens, here is not hear, too is not to and you're is not u r or your).

But the one that's hit closest to home this week is fashion.

In order to appear normal in Western offices again, I've had to go clothes shopping. Cleaning toilets is more fun in my opinion, but the now tattered African "eternal spring" attire just doesn't cut it. So I've forced myself on search-and-destroy missions to find wardrobe staples. And because there are so many stores I've never heard of nowadays, occasionally I wander into the wrong ones. You know you're out of place when the only sizes are 0 through 6. (Why?? WHY must we have size 0?? Most women weren't a 0 in fifth grade!) The clerks scope you out before you even walk through the door, starting at the torso and moving up and down subtly and efficiently. Then there's an obligatorily blasé, "Good morning. If there's anything I can help you with, let me know." But the vague hostility is my favorite. It's the "I'm wearing Chanel and you're clearly not" attitude that's the cherry on top.

One clerk feigned interest the other day just as I was figuring out that I couldn't afford or fit into much of anything. She was in her 20s and looked amazing in a miniskirt. She slinked up and said, "You are a woman who's looking for a new style [brilliant slam]. These are yummy shirts, and they're on sale. Now, what are you thinking?"

Poor girl. Little did she know this is the killer question and reason people can't take me anywhere. But she asked. So I grinned and told her. "I'm thinking it's asinine to pay $300, on sale, for a simple red shirt that's worth 20. Why is a label our self-esteem? Why are people so … crazy?"

Her face melted into something that said "rude, psycho freak." That was my cue to thank her and walk out.

And it was rude of me. Sometimes it's hard to contain the emotion that comes from seeing such extravagance and the people who don't even recognize it. I should have apologized, but didn't.

Beyond fashion, though, it's American excess in general that's hard to get used to again. Out of curiosity (it kills cats, you know), the other day I walked into a "Doggie Day Spa" complete with lingerie, meowing alarm clocks, facials and genuine leather jackets for dogs. I nearly puked. I've been told that people who have seen death and suffering don't deal well with doggie g-strings afterward. This may be self-righteous—and I may have to fight that on some level—but I just don't understand why we need or want these things. What are we thinking? We are blessed to have disposable income and freedom to use it, and long live capitalism! But … but … doggie g-strings??! (They're bad enough on people.)

And there's more. A few weeks ago I was looking for a flat iron (after five years of wash and wear, I should start doing my hair again). I asked the two trendy girls next to me if they knew which would be best. "This one," the Paris look-alike said, very confidently. When I asked why, she named several features and said, "And because it's made overseas, and other countries make better things than America does."

Her disdain and irreverence flipped a switch in me that I didn't know was there. (Seriously, guys, don't take me anywhere for a while.) The words spilled out before I knew what I was saying, so strong was my reaction. I looked directly at her and said, "You know, I lived overseas for several years and have seen a lot. You're wrong. And you have a frighteningly poor opinion of this great country." Then I walked to another aisle, sans flat iron. They thought I was psycho, I'm sure.

Yes. Reentry shock is interesting. It will be a few months before I feel normal again—if I even want some of this to be "normal" again.

But I promise that someday you'll be able to take me out into public again. :-)

New Standards
There's something about the Third World that changes your perspective. Yes, I sound like a broken record here, but I can't stress it enough. My whole take on life has changed—somehow it's become more … no-nonsense. Here's my rough, new system for handling most of life's problems. Hey, I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just saying this is part of reentry shock. Maybe someday I'll draw you a flowchart of questions to ask yourself:

1. Are there flames?
No. Then what's the problem?

Yes. Then stop griping and put them out or move. Good grief.

(Three random minibuses I took in Ethiopia caught fire. The Ethiopians just sat, passively waiting for the floorboard to stop burning. Because I didn't know where the fuel lines were or have great medevac insurance—people, it was FIRE even if small—I ran off the busses like a rabid goat was chasing me. Man, I was entertaining to the locals.)

2. Is there blood?
No. Then what's your point?

Yes. Then stop screaming and mop it up or get a tourniquet! Good night! And you should have upgraded your travel insurance because, m-a-n, are you are stuck now.

3. Is your government truly screwing you over? (A good one, for example, allows you to own land, bear arms, get a fair trial, vote, say your peace and use your freedom to improve your country.)
No. Then thank God, quit whining and sacrifice to keep it that way! Freedom isn't cheap!

Only a little. Then stop your moaning and work hard to improve it! You have the freedom to do that! You have no idea!

4. Did you have to wait an hour and fill out a lot of paperwork to see a doctor who saw you for 15 minutes?
No. And was it at least somewhat affordable (you didn't go hungry or lose your house) because you have insurance or found financial aid? Woohoo. You are among the privileged few in the world.

Yes. Well, big whoop. Your doctor is qualified well beyond what most of the world considers qualified. You should see hospitals and patients in parts of Africa and Asia—and even parts of Europe. And again, you have the freedom to work to change system!

I should probably be more sympathetic. Occasionally a friend who has also gone through reentry will ask how I'm doing and offers to act as a sounding board. I haven't needed it, but it's nice to have the option. And if I need to be kicked in the butt at some point, they'll help me there, too—so you don't have to. :-)

How to Improve Your Posture
Five days before I left Africa, the embassy called to say that Ambassador XXXX wanted to meet my fellow fellows and me. (Um, in our thinking, it would have been more useful if he'd checked in eight months ago …) Though all four of us wondered why, we went gladly because: it was a chance to sit in a civilized place, it might have meant a very nice (and free) Western dinner, and it isn't every day peons like us get an officially signed and sealed invitation from the XXXX.

So my friends and I got cleaned up—hard to do during mud-luscious rainy season—and met on base. We admired each other's best "Africa wardrobe" selections before walking to the mansion, where we felt a bit intimidated. A state dinner had been set up for foreign ambassadors in the cavernous dining room—which is why we got banana bread and macchiatos that late afternoon instead of chateaubriand that night. (But we went out for Thai afterward, which was just as nice.)

Before XXXX came in, we tried to sit properly on sofas that were too low and soft to balance on. (This is often the case in such places and, because the person of honor sits in a stable chair, I wonder if it's an attempt to make people feel the status difference.) We juggled saucers, coffee cups and official napkins on our knees. The men wore ties, and Alice (yes, my dear Alice) and I crossed our legs gracefully at the ankles, which we do only under duress. Later we laughed because we'd each sheepishly taken a napkin for posterity (hey, they're cool with an official gold seal).

Then XXX walked in and we stood. I had to strain to keep from gasping when we shook hands because I tower over him even at 5 feet 5 inches tall. After introductions, we sat awkwardly and chitchatted about African politics, current events and our fellowship projects (I was cryptic and tactful enough—Alice said so). But there were so many completely politically incorrect—that is, true and realistic—things that Alice and I wanted to say. We did not. It wasn't the time or the place. Who knows if it ever will be.

And this officially ended my fellowship of not accomplishing a single thing academically or professionally, but of growing tremendously spiritually.

Pithy Ethiopia
Before Jamie went back to New York in June, we had to express our distaste for several things that occurred during our stints in Addis. Jamie did this in the form of possible titles for her future memoir. Soon I joined in. Some may sound cruel (which is not our intention), but you'd have to live in Addis to understand why they're so fitting. May this give you yet another perspective on life:

Ethiopia: Lund thatt speeling, gramer an prunoonsiashun fergutted
Ethiopia: Land that customer service never knew
Ethiopia: Ten trillion sheep can poop wherever they want
Ethiopia: Where mediocrity is usually an achievement
Ethiopia: Logic? We don't need no stinkin' logic.
Ethiopia: Where perfectionists and OSHA inspectors may commit suicide
Ethiopia: Second only to China in donkey population (it's true)
Ethiopia: Bob Marley lives. Jah man.
Ethiopia: Ten-million-stop shopping
Ethiopia: Having a stroke here at some point is probably inevitable
Ethiopia: Where, when all is said and done, more is said than done.

We've not yet decided which will be our respective titles. We're still just trying to recover.

You Can Go Home Again (Sort Of)
(Note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

The first week or two I'm back in the States I typically contact no one, form a terrycloth cocoon around myself and hibernate in front of Fox News until I feel human again. It's less shocking to the system this way. TV commercials and the election are enough to adjust to without having to be in public as well. But the other Sunday I forced myself into something besides sweats and a bathrobe to actually join the human race. (The light was blinding. My eyes. My eyes.) I went to a church in my hometown of 8,800 people. When I lived there the population was 7,500, so we're coming up in the world.

I was nervous to go in alone. This is a fairly conservative, traditional place, and the last time I visited a church other than my parents' it was less than welcoming. Several of the women scowled and said, "Well, where is your husband?" (Certainly, not everyone in the town is like this, but even one congregation can do serious damage.)

I was nervous for other reasons, though. I wasn't sure if I'd see anyone from high school. Typically, I wouldn't share this, but it helps me make a future point …

I was a train wreck as a kid—except train wrecks came from tracks and therefore have had more direction at some point. It's a good thing Goth wasn't popular in the '80s, because I would have mastered it. I enjoyed subcultures and black clothing, all while hating most of the world. (Anger and stupidity are synonyms for teenager.) I looked innocuous to people, but HA. You can seem sweet and still rage inside. Why? Because school was so awful that former classmates are still apologizing for things they did to me 25 years ago. Several of them were haunted by their behavior, and, until about a decade ago, so was I.

But I didn't help matters then. In a logging town where football games and big hair bands were the norm among teenagers, I was one of four kids (possibly adults, too) who knew about and enjoyed Monty Python. I could—and can—recite almost every Beatles lyric written. Metaphysical poetry was an obsession (John Donne's conceits still rock). I thought it was "gnarly" how Shakespeare mocked the establishment. I painted satirical cartoons and pictures that no one else got. I sat in the backyard painting, reading The Catcher in the Rye and writing very, very bad prose (which I still do). Reptiles had more standing in my eyes than volleyball players, cheerleaders and jocks. (To this day I don't understand the purpose of volleyball, but I've made peace with its players.)

My condition was so disgusting that I occasionally looked for metaphor in breakfast cereal. There are only three outcomes for such melodramatic figures:

1. Crime

2. Dinner theater

3. Becoming an English major (Obliterating hit, did not pass Go, resistance was futile)

Anyway, there I am. Sitting in a church I'd never been to before, wondering if I'll see a former classmate—sweating, squirming and scouring the bulletin from cover to cover. It took about 15 minutes, but sure enough, the homecoming queen came in. She entered from the far side of the sanctuary, but I recognized her immediately. I don't understand it, but the people you grow up with, though they look older and are more mature, are still exactly the same people you grew up with.

All I said was, "Heather Kincaid. How the heck are you?" Then she smiled like she'd found a long-lost diamond ring. And she hugged me. A hug. From a person I tangled with in high school. And I felt like hugging her back! It was real!

We talked after the service, about the standard things: who's doing what and where, who's struggling, people who have achieved a lot, people we've seen recently. We laughed about her little sister, our grade-school years and how we used to ride her horse for hours in the hills. But then we talked about high school. She said, "You know, Meredith, our childhood is this tiny portion of our lives, but the wounds stay with us forever. We seem to spend our adulthood fighting to grow out of them." Then she shared some of her struggles.

I don't think I showed it, but I was gobsmacked. She of all people is telling me this?? This woman had had everything together as a kid. She was everything—champion volleyball player included. But now she's telling me she was hurt? That she's still hurt in some ways?

The older I get—and the more I am healed—the more clearly I realize that we usually wear a veneer of togetherness, despite operating out of some of our deepest and oldest wounds. Typically, we don't even see this until something knocks us on our keisters and out of our comfort zones. But God doesn't leave us in pieces. He glorifies Himself by making us more beautiful, and if we ask and allow Him to, He will heal. It doesn't happen overnight—when was the last time you saw an apple grow in a few hours?—but it happens. I can't explain this either, but one day, after you've suffered a lot more than you ever bargained for and have been stretched to the point you didn't think you could stand, you eventually say, "OK, I get it. I give up. And You are all there is." The freedom and healing are in realizing He is everything.

So ends this edition of pondering life after Africa. And again, to those who keep asking me for trekking stories, I promise they will come. That will be my final edition. :-)

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Seventh and Eighth Addis Heralds

The Addis Herald
I can't admit I missed a month, so this is the "May and a Half" 2008 Edition

In this issue:
Social Commentary, T-Shirt Style
Endocrine Glands R Us
Don King's Fun With Electricity
Call Me Sisyphus

Hey guys. :-) Happy extended May from one in denial. People have been asking if I'm still alive, so it's time to send a letter.

I'm still working on fun safari stories from South Africa, etc. Things here have been crazy. I'll send them out eventually—because if I ever stop writing, I'll get pale, emaciated, bug-eyed, and start to mumble to myself a lot.


Thumper (yeah, the rabbit) said it best, I think. He looked at his feet and sheepishly announced: "If you can't say nothin' good, don't say nothin' at all." This is where I've lived for the past two or three months: wanting to explode into shards of criticism and frustration because of this culture, but knowing that doing so will just impale others. (God bless my poor, dear mother who too frequently shoulders what I don't unleash on friends.)

Sometimes people think overseas life is glamorous—and I will admit that it can be—but here's the reality that counters any glitz: The grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence, and both lawns get fertilized. Ethiopia, with 5 billion donkeys and 10 trillion goats, has a whole lot more fertilizer.

Things here have been really hard lately.

A drought has hindered hydroelectricity generated by the (only) dam near Lake Tana. (At least, this is what the government says. Friends and I who have seen the dam and lake know they're both full.) Addis has endured rolling power outages for the past three months; each neighborhood is without power and water for at least three days per week (though most shacks don't have these things on a good day). There's also a drinking water shortage, so when I can get it, I use the tap water that Microbiologist Dude once told me to avoid entirely (filters and a UV light help a lot). Rainy season just started, though, so maybe electricity will be restored—if it's not an oppressive governmental control issue (which it probably is, and you would be amazed). But besides the power outages, everyone suffers because of skyrocketing food and commodities prices. It seems like even more beggars ask me for money now.

The drought has especially hurt crops in eastern and southwestern parts of the country. People in these areas are actually beginning to starve, and last week the BBC stated that an estimated six million children will die in this famine. You're not likely to know much about this, since the government is trying to keep it quiet to save face. It's far, far worse than the Chinese earthquake and Burma's cyclone combined. This week's issue of The Economist contains an article that SHREDS the Ethiopian government. And rightly so.

We in the city are far removed from the starvation, and it feels unreal to me yet. The scariest thing for us in town has been terrorism. There have been four officially reported bombings during the past two and a half months—though five or six others remain unofficial. Two were at gas stations and two were on public transportation, which almost all of us have to take. An American was killed a few weeks ago, and about twenty Ethiopians have been injured or killed. No one has claimed responsibility, and locals are blaming the government. This is a malevolent dictatorship—despite my business visa reading "Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia"—so I put nothing past it. It could be false-flag bombing to divert the increasing strain over domestic issues. If the violence can be blamed unofficially on Eritrea, one of this country's archenemies, the government might deflect public unrest and avoid demonstrations or even a coup. Things aren't nearly this bad yet, but tension has been building despite Ethiopians' typically passive nature.

The U.S. embassy here says we have a greater chance of getting hurt in a car accident than of being harmed by terrorists. I'd agree. But just the fact it's happening is alarming.

If you think America has problems right now, come on down, honey. A trip to see how most of the rest of the world lives may do you good.

About half of my foreign friends and I are going home soon, so we're also weathering the classic end-of-stint stress and transition. I know it's bad when unflappable Attorney Guy calls me and says, "Meredith, I just need to gripe. Can you listen?" (Except he always uses more colorful words than "gripe.") I said, "Are you kidding?! Talk! I live to fix things, and that's why I'm dying here."

But despite our frustration, we plug on. We try to help where and when we can. We still learn more about God, each other and ourselves. We still enjoy friendships and aspects of life here. But I'm counting down the time till I get outta Dodge—at this writing, it's six weeks before I go to Europe and eight weeks before I go back to Oregon. Then back to Colorado in September. (And to think I once thought I couldn't make it 30 days in Africa.)

THANK YOU to those who have prayed for me. I would not have made it this long if it weren't for you! Truly. You are appreciated!

Social Commentary, T-Shirt Style
[Note: This is a potentially offensive section. Be forewarned.]

The other night, Attorney Guy, another friend and I were looking for a taxi when an Ethiopian on the street started screaming, "F— you, ferenj! I will kill you! I will kill you! Get out of my country! I will f—ing kill you!" He followed us for several blocks, but Attorney Guy is six feet tall and good protection.

This type of aggression is fairly common. After enduring it for 10 months, I've finally had it. I want to wear T-shirts emblazoned with snide messages written in Amharic (I realize my attitude is bad). Only 35 to 40 percent of Ethiopians are literate, but it would do my heart good to know that a few of these cretinous, insufferable men know my thoughts.

Before you judge me for my attitude, try living here as a single woman. When I walk on the street (which is every single day), about 60 percent of the time some idiot is shouting something hurtful at me. Forgiveness and turning the other cheek are among the lessons I'm still learning.

Here is what I would tell these men. May this help you understand an aspect of life in Addis:

*My name is not "Hey You!," "Fat Whore!" or "Ferenj!"
[With the latter, they're trying to say "French" or "Frenchy" The French settled in Addis during WWI and were among the first foreigners to do so. Therefore, all foreigners are referred to as "Ferenj" or "Ferenji." This is slowly changing since China has been taking over the country. A few months ago, a little Ethiopian girl pointed at me and shouted, "Chinese!" I just stared at her.]
*No, I don't want to have sex with you. The gestures won't convince me.
[Most of them think white women are ugly. It's all mocking.]
*Why, yes, I am married and he's coming to beat the crap out of you.
*Who says your ridiculous country hasn't been conquered? Italy, 1935–41, you arrogant little goat!
*Shut up before you even start to speak to me.
*I am not an ATM or your visa outta here.
*No, I don't need your help to carry my groceries so you can demand money later.
*What are you thinking??! (Oh. You can't.)
* I can take you out, moron, so don't you dare touch me.

A Kiwi friend in town invented a game to ameliorate the stress. She gives men points based on how offensive they are. She's been known to look straight at them, laugh and say, "Only three out of 10? Where are the four-letter words and groping? You can do better." They have no idea what she's saying, but it helps her cope.

It's all about coping. Lately I'm not doing it very well.

My hairdresser is a hip and fascinating 60-year-old French businesswoman/socialite who has lived in Addis for 40 years. She and her aristocratic Ethiopian husband have survived the Dergue, the famines, you name it and then some. She's a wealth of information and advice. Last month I was all ears as she snipped around them.

I told her that I'd seemed to run into extreme arrogance among my students, and asked if she thought my perception was accurate. She snorted, pointed the scissors into the mirror and said, "Mais bien sur! Most definitely! It is oven behavior, and it is why this country has so many problems." When I looked confused, she told me this Ethiopian folktale:

When God made man, His first attempt at firing the clay in the oven came out pale and inferior. These are the white people. His second attempt came out overcooked, too dark and useless. These are the black people. The third attempt came out chocolate-colored and perfect. These perfect people are the Ethiopians. (And they take much pride, too, from being mentioned in the Bible several times.)

She says many of them actually believe this. It would explain a lot. They have a long history of being stiff-necked and not listening to anyone, be it to NGO's, foreign governments, teachers or anyone else who comes in to try to help them. And she's far from being the only expatriate to comment on this—many who have lived here long-term agree. She went so far as to say, "Let your students be as ignorant as they are choosing to be." (Well, I don't have much of a choice.)

When you live in Crazyville, you tend to think everyone around you is normal and you're the one who's nuts. Her perspective always makes me feel less nuts. I'm not the only one who has a hard time in this country.

Endocrine Glands R Us
Microbiologist Dude and I had lunch and talked for several hours recently, ending our long and very helpful hiatus. It's been impossible not to bump into him because our worlds are so entangled—so we finally had to face each other again. It was actually nice to be with him, and he thought the same. Even when he spoke with the emotional agility of a dump truck (Shakespeare he is not), I could overlook it because I've gotten perspective. It's all about perspective.

Turns out we've each learned something about God, the opposite sex and ourselves—he more than I. He's still idealistic, though; he thinks our friendship will last for years. (Maybe it will in some form, but experience tells me it will gradually become a yearly Christmas card.)

I cracked a testosterone joke when he happened to mention his Muppets' song collection (like you, I cringe at this). He was witty enough to sidestep it, though, so my barb landed, impotent and passive, somewhere near his salad. After lunch I went home and listened to Zeppelin because I have a) better taste in music, and b) more testosterone.

Ladies, beware of metrosexual males. They don't get boundaries, women or why their behavior is confusing. But they do say sweet things at times. When I told Micro Dude I was looking forward to seeing friends who love me in the States, he said, "Oh. Right. As opposed to the friends here who don't love you."

But still. Does anybody know a Marine? An Army man? I'm not picky. Though if he's been to grad school to spend an inordinate amount of time with germs, I'll pass unless I get TB.

Don King's Fun With Electricity
A group of friends and I went out for Ethiopian food and an ethnic dance show last night. Each region/tribe of Ethiopia has at least one specific dance and musical style. The dancers performed all of them for two and a half hours, and many dances were like the most intense aerobic workout you've ever had times 70. At first, though, several of the routines (mainly from Muslim areas) were very reserved and I thought, We could leave now. Things picked up with the southern regions. They GET DOWN, baby. Whew. It was fun. You can't help but move and clap with some of them.

We witnessed the birthplace of hip-hop. The dancers were so good, and some of the dances so "familiar" that they could have been backup for any band nowadays. And when the male dancers came to our table and flirted with us, we even danced with them.

The costumes, however, left something to be desired. The headdresses, for example, looked like Don King if he'd stuck his finger in a light socket. Or maybe Eartha Kitt on an even worse hair day. And one of the dancers did something that is so amazing it's difficult to explain. She swung her head back and forth so fast that her hair flew around and we thought her skull might actually snap off. This was the finale because she was so disoriented afterwards that she had to take a second to regain her senses. I call it the Chiropractic Dance--there is no way she doesn't need to be realigned. You can't even fathom this unless you see it. Maybe it's on You Tube. Look under Ethiopian, Dance, and Moves that Could Kill the Untrained.

Call Me Sisyphus
I came to Ethiopia to teach, but that's not really why I'm here. There's no teaching to be done when a ridiculous school lies to you and undermines most of what you attempt. Nope. God brought me here to teach me. Among the many lessons are endurance and trust in the fact that HE is sovereign and sufficient. My career (if one could call what I'm currently doing a career) doesn't define me—He does. My success or failure (oh, tons of my failure here, baby) cannot make Him love me any more or any less. And HE, as I've said before, is my life. I thought I'd learned all this in China, but apparently Ethiopia is a Ph.D. course. (Soon I'll be invincible.)

For me, being in the classroom feels like pushing a boulder uphill and being smashed as it rolls back down—again and again. It doesn't matter if I knock myself out planning a detailed level-appropriate lesson plan, the two or three students who can understand still don't care or pay attention. Half don't even bother to bring their books. And when students aren't talking and ignoring me (or worse, mocking me to my face), they ask me impossible questions. One girl was baffled when I told her that "I will to drink my truck" is not a clear sentence (I am not making this up). And when I said, "Do you understand?" to another girl, the young man next to her had to tell her to say no—she couldn't even understand enough to say it by herself. Only a bilingual Amharic speaker could truly help these guys. I'm just doing a very poor job of baby-sitting.

Students think I'm the Wicked Witch of the West because I actually enforce rules (gasp!). You know, for silly things. Like following instructions that I know 80 percent of them understand but don't have the critical thinking skills to heed. Like being on time and not sauntering in 90 minutes late with a lame excuse. Being quiet and seated in rows. Writing legibly and paying attention to spelling and grammar. When they do not follow the rules, there is a consequence (gasp!). But my enforcing the consequences makes me the antichrist.

I've become the teacher we all hated growing up. You know. The one with a surly mouth, beady eyes, frumpy clothes and a chip on her shoulder that you just knew was the reason she was still single at age 110. The one you couldn't wait to exasperate by continuing to talk when she shhhed you. This teacher usually looked tired, defeated and grouchy, and she merited yearbook entries such as, "Glad we survived Ol' Saggy Butt" (or insert the derisive name of your choice). My students don't write about me (because most of them can't), but they convey their discontent effectively in other ways. I am equally dissatisfied with them.

There's a word for this: BURNOUT. My general rule is when the schoolbag starts to fray, it's time to go home. You're unraveling, too. (My bag is hanging by a thread.)

Twenty-one years ago I started traveling internationally with the attitude that there is no better or worse, no good or bad, just different. But during the past five years, I've become a cultural imperialist. There IS right and wrong, better and worse, good and bad. Though there's no such thing as a truly humane culture (we're all seriously messed up), some cultures ARE more organized and better than others. Before you disagree or find me narrow-minded, do hard time in Africa. I dare you. Watch how parts of this continent treat foreigners and their own. You would be amazed. And you would deeply, deeply appreciate how much you've got, even if it's imperfect and you don't think it's enough.

Anyway. This is life here in a nutshell. I'm looking forward to being in a place that makes more sense to me—but even then there will be a significant adjustment as I face reentry shock. Still, the future looks brighter. :-)

Let me know how you are if you have a chance. I enjoy getting updates. And I'll see you soon enough. I'm hoping to grow roots at my (much appreciated) new desk—the wild, wild world has been great, but domesticity has its benefits, too. For those of you who want to travel long-term, go for it. You will be a significantly different person when you come back, and this is usually a good thing. It's never easy, though.


The Addis Herald June Editionette

So last week as I was reading my Bible a few verses bit me (Luke 6:27–32 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16 among others). As has been my custom when convicted in Addis Ababa, I said—out loud to myself, which is one of many reasons my guards think I'm bats—"Yep. I'm pretty much an idiot."

And it didn't help (?) that that morning I'd gotten an e-mail from my friend Kim, who sent this eerily timed quotation from her quote-a-day calendar:

"Love one another in spite of your differences, in spite of your faults. Love one another, and make the best of one another, as He loved us, who forgot, forgave, put out of sight what was bad" —Arthur P. Stanley (1815-1881).

I have much to learn and a LOT of frustration to release. As you, I'm still a work-in-progress with jagged edges. (How lucky for me that Ethiopia is fantastic sandpaper.)

This country—much of the continent, actually—is out of control and just getting worse despite the BILLIONS of dollars in aid that the world sends. (Why? Because you can't help corrupt governments and/or arrogant people who refuse to change.) But instead of my anger, Ethiopia needs my prayer. (Though even Jesus would be enraged by some of this stuff!)

Anyway, things are looking up here—and I was never as distraught as some of you thought based on the May and Half edition. Here are good developments since I last wrote:

1. There are only two sane people at XXX, but thank God both of them are officemates. When the academic dean (sane person and officemate #1) told me that I shouldn't feel guilty for having problems with students, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. (If given a modicum of opportunity, I will feel guilty for global warming and Ebola outbreaks.)

He went on to say that most teachers at XXX don't do their job. The fact that I have been by enforcing rules, planning lessons and expecting students to work sets me apart in students' minds—but not for the better. He said that many students nowadays are "very scary, undisciplined, ignorant and arrogant." (In other words, he echoed every one of my adjectives for them.) He also said that since corporal punishment has been taken out of the Ethiopian school system, student quality has gradually deteriorated. (Hmmmmmmm.) His generation (he's my age) is much better educated and more respectful.

He had no solutions, but just talking with him made me feel better.

2. My phone was stolen 10 days ago, which was a huge ordeal at first because the government controls telecommunications (and everything else) and is not issuing new SIM cards. But a South African friend who doubles as guardian angel loaned me one of his phones (with card) for as long as I need it. WHEW. God provides.

3. My friend Alice (of traveling fame) asked me to teach a master's-level writing workshop at XXX. Her students are MUCH higher level than my yahoos (don't mean to sound cruel, but a spade is a spade), and I'm really looking forward to teaching people who actually want to learn.

4. I'm finalizing Europe details and looking forward to seeing friends in England and Holland. :-) I'll also spend a day in Germany and might try to hit France, too, if I can swing it. Half of this is courtesy of the State Department, since my return flight is through Frankfurt.

5. God continues to teach and hone. This is always good, even if I squirm a lot.

Anyway, happy June. I can admit now that it's not May. I hope you're well!



Monday, April 6, 2009

The Sixth Addis Herald


In This Issue
A Room with a View
Thoughts in the Dark
Livin' La Vida Transitory
Where Kant Could

Hey guys! Happy April. Hope you got your taxes in. (I have a six-month extension. Woohoo.)

Well, it's official. I can't send everything about our trip in one newsletter without completely overwhelming you. So, I've decided to send a couple of trip vignettes (the first two items in this case) per newsletter for the next few months. (Well, a few months is all the time I have left in Africa anyway.)

This is a quick sketch of our trip: We flew to Johannesburg and traveled by bus to Mozambique late the next day. We went through Swaziland on our way back to South Africa from Mozambique. We crossed into Lesotho via the Drakensberg Mountains, crossed back into South Africa and then took a backpackers' hop-on-hop-off bus along most of the South African coastline to Cape Town. From Cape Town, we took another bus to Windhoek ("only" 26 hours). In Namibia, we hired a car and drove all over the country, which is twice the size of California. Then we took a bus to Pretoria (28 hours!) and finally made our way back to Joburg for the return flight to Addis.

In each sentence above, there is an encyclopedic story. (I will spare you. Don't worry.)

Here's a glossary for future reference:

Backpackers (people): slightly mad, often drunk individuals, usually in their 20's, who travel around the world for a year or two at a time with no apparent purpose other than to bungee jump and drink. (Can also be stretched to include people like Alice and me, who are "too old for this insanity" and have a little more life direction.)

Backpackers (place, singular and plural): hostels that are sometimes cockroach infested and shabby. The upside is they're about $10 US per night and (often) safe. And you can get virtually any illegal drug you want there, if you're in to that sort of thing.

Baz (rhymes with "has") Bus: the transportation choice of most backpackers (people) when in South Africa because it takes you to most of the backpackers (places)

Coast to Coast: a guidebook that lists almost all of the backpackers (places) in the southern Africa region

A Room with a View
I can't speak for others, but as a rule I avoid sleeping in places that display photos of half-naked women straddling motorcycles and wielding whips. Call me provincial, but this life decision has served me well. There are times, though, when rules have to be broken.

(Our first warning should have been that the mirrored bathroom ceiling was listed in Coast To Coast as a "stunning, experience-enhancing feature." But Alice and I were too hassled to notice when we made reservations. Besides, we had only two places to choose from.)

Every hostel, hotel, and mouse hole in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was booked because Celine Dion had come to wail "My Heart Will Go On" (and on and on and on). Twenty thousand people had hightailed it to town, and we were lucky to get a room at all. It was midnight when the bus finally made it through concert traffic and dropped us off. We lugged our packs to the battered front stoop of a Victorian house and rang the bell. We really needed a shower and sleep. Port Elizabeth was just a stopover.

Monique—ample, late-fiftiesish, red-haired, very busy—bustled up, gave me a hug though I'd never seen or spoken to her, and said (much too loudly) in an Afrikaans accent, "WELCOME! You must be EXHAUSTED!!!" Then her husband lurched down the hallway behind her wearing only a torn Speedo (men, no offense, but you need an aerodynamic reason to wear a whole Speedo, let alone a torn one). I knew things would go downhill, but not how quickly. As we walked upstairs to our room, one of the first-floor guests, a small, shadowy Eastern European man wearing pink leggings, offered me mushrooms—forget the salad kind.

I looked around for the rabbit hole I'd fallen down.

Alice (my traveling companion, not the character…) and I slept well despite Monique's 1 a.m. announcement: "BE QUIET! PEOPLE ARE SLEEPING!!!" The next morning, we actually felt somewhat rested. But when I wandered into the kitchen—a scary place with pictures of cartoon cats eating spaghetti, men wearing Halloween costumes and doing their thing at urinals, and, of course, said biker chicks—I freaked when more shadow people came out of dingy rooms and surrounded me, kinda like zombies. This time they asked if I had any money. I tried to look very Mexican, said, "No hablo inglés," and got the hayhook heck outta there, still hungry, but safer.

As Alice and I stood on the front porch waiting for (read: willing) the bus to pick us up quickly, Monique offered me tea. She wouldn't take "no thank you" for an answer. I held the cup she'd thrust at me and watched her toddle upstairs. She appeared on the second-floor balcony holding the sugar bowl she'd forgotten to bring down. She was certain that if I held my cup just so, she could pour it efficiently from there. I would have let her try it—hey, it wasn't any weirder than the rest of the place—but the cat walked by and she got distracted. Apparently, the cat speaks to her by winking. I am not kidding. One wink means he wants out. Two winks mean he's going over to the vacant house next door, where he spends much of his free time. (I would have been there, too, if I could have shimmied up the palm tree and over the razor wire fence.)

Alice, by this time, was the strangest shade of pink I've ever seen a human being turn. And she was shaking. Small bursts of air seemed to be coming out of her nose. Then, when we could stand it no longer and were sure Monique had ventured back into the depths of the house, we erupted like crazy people. In the history of laughter, I think we made the Top Five of those who laugh so hard they risk spontaneous combustion. Then we started to call to the bus: "Here, Baz. Here, Bazzy, Bazzy. Save us from this perverted Victorian nightmare! Please!"

Monique came downstairs, with sugar bowl, to see what was happening. I was practically on the ground. She must have thought we were insane, but she tried to make small talk. "What do you ladies do?" she asked warily, probably checking to see if we were asylum escapees.

"We're teachers," Alice choked, still trying to get air.

"Oh, that's just super!" Monique cried, as if we'd cured cancer. (Side note: I don't know how much experience you have with British and British Commonwealth accents—my deepest apologies to friends from these parts, and you personally are not guilty of this—but some of them enunciate the word "super" in such a way and register that makes me want to slap myself, let alone the speaker: "Seeeoooooopaaah!!")

Then Monique asked if we had traveled very much. She didn't hear a word we said, though. She just launched into a laundry list of travel tips, though she has been only to England, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Item 8 was "Never let the blacks do anything. They'll just ruin your trip. They think they're clever, but they're not." (Apartheid lives on in her generation, but more on that in a later issue). Item number 9 was, "When traveling with your cat, South African Airlines offers the best rates." Item 10 was, "Always keep your socks dry."

I thought about saying, "Wow! I've been to 14 countries on four continents in the last two years and I've never even considered sock malfunction!" But Alice looked like she'd lost control of her torso. I was worried about her spasms.

The bus interrupted Monique just as she started on item 11. I'm not sure what it was. Though I'm sorry I missed it, it was probably better to escape while we could. She was kind and hospitable, but she and her menagerie were more than we could handle that morning.

A cat costs 800 rand to transport, by the way, if you want to take Kitty from Johannesburg to London. I could give you the name of Monique's travel agent.

Thoughts in the Dark
I was five, but I remember it like yesterday. Mrs. McQueary towered above me one morning at St. Francis's kindergarten (as did the enormous bun on her head—I still think the thing housed small birds and should have had its own zip code). She asked me sweetly, as she'd asked all the boys and girls before me, "And what is your favorite color and why?" (Cue big smile and bounciness.) The other little girls had answered pink, purple, yellow, light blue. They'd squirmed and smiled shyly before they'd given a reason: "Because yellow is happy," "Because blue is pretty," or "Because Mommy made me a pink dress." Mrs. M had said, "Yellow is terrific, Jessica!", or, "I like pink, too, Heather!"

No awkwardness there. Perfect social acceptability and ease. But I had to open my big mouth and say point-blank, looking up unflinchingly at her, "Black. Just because I like it." (I rarely understood any woman who cooed at me and seemed to think we were all thick. Mrs. M, in turn, seemed not to know what to say to me sometimes.)

Black is still one of my favorite colors (and were I to see poor Mrs. M now, I'd assure her I'm not a psychopath). As an adult, I can articulate what I could not as a five-year-old: Apart from black's mystery, elegance, and depth—not to mention that I, as a Winter, look good in it—it makes a fantastic backdrop to set off whatever is laid across it.

I thought of this in Namibia.

We'd been navigating vague, washboarded gravel roads for 10 hours on our way to Sosuss Vlei, the Namib Desert's red sand dunes park. We'd had a punctured tire, witnessed a horrible car accident, crossed hairy mountain passes and a flooded river, and stupidly gone all day with nothing substantial to eat or drink (but hallelujah, I have found another place where McDonald's does not exist). We didn't know exactly where we were going or why, but we were going there as fast as possible on the left-hand side of the road. We were lost, tired, dusty, and irritable. (FYI, if you've already been traveling hard for more than three weeks, bumping up and down all day in the official Middle of Nowhere is pretty stupid. Take a day off already!)

We finally stopped at a small retreat center hundreds of miles from anywhere. We felt like we were still moving. It was dusk. I poured myself into a deck chair outside by the pool and didn't make it till dinner before falling asleep. A few hours later, I awoke to something I hadn't paid attention to in years: the night sky. It was so disorienting, I actually gasped. A hundred million diamond stars accentuated by a jet-black universe. The Southern Cross looked close enough to reach. The Milky Way was a pale river from horizon to horizon. Occasionally, a meteorite shot across and I made a silly wish. The sky was moonless, but the stars were light enough. It was so all-encompassing and deep that I felt dizzy and lifted up into it.

I'm drawn to cities and probably always will be. If I have one regret about urban areas, though, it's that the night sky in New York, Hong Kong, and even Colorado Springs just isn't the same as in Podunk, Kansas. But nothing will ever compare to Namibia. Even the memory makes me want to sing Psalm 19. Nights like that were why it was written.

As for the rest of the country, Namibia's landscapes are so surreal I felt like I was trapped inside a Salvador Dali painting. I kept looking for a watch or a pointy mustache draped over one of the weird mountain ranges that cropped up out of nowhere. In a day's drive, we saw ocean, savannah, mountains, absolutely barren sand, and the flowering Kalahari Desert during rainy season. We also saw gemsbok (gorgeous), springbok, a fox or two, and meerkats (unbelievably funny and annoying).

Swakopmund, a coastal town of about 25,000, is a popular site for adrenalin junkies who come to ride ATVs, bungee jump, deep-sea fish, or windsurf. Alice and I, however, only wanted to hang out for a day or two. It's a nice enough place, "more German than Germany," as Lonely Planet puts it (Germany colonized the country during WWI). But it did remind me vaguely of my cousin's Barbie Dream House when I was growing up: artificial, pretty deserted, and definitely a place that will stretch your appreciation of pastels. Most buildings were painted pink, light blue or green, or yellow (Mrs. M would have loved it). And most locals were uncommunicative (sort of like Ken). But we enjoyed shopping, poking around, and eating Wiener schnitzel and red cabbage even if people didn't have much to say.

They call the northern Namib Desert the Skeleton Coast because, in earlier days, any ship's crew stranded there was as good as dead. It is the strangest, most unsettling scenery I've ever experienced. On one side of the highway (I use this term loosely since it's mostly salt road), you have the Atlantic Ocean crashing in. On the other, fog and massive, barren dunes that stretch out as far as you can see. I felt trapped between two impossible environments. For a city girl who really does like skyscrapers and traffic, this juxtaposed, dreamlike scene was unnerving. It was good to visit, but I was happy to leave.

And as we eventually drove into the desert on our way back to Windhoek (nondescript, kind of like small-town Midwest USA with palm trees), every couple of miles there was a triangular "SAND!" sign. (Like you're gonna forget you're surrounded by it and think Oops. I thought I was in the Everglades.)

But I will say, for as weird, difficult, and occasionally disturbing as the country was, it was beautiful. Well worth the trip. I'll post pictures when I can.

eHarm Anyone?
The other night over french fries at Kaldi's, Jamie and I talked about men--and why some are attracted to you and why some aren't. She told me about how Microbiologist Dude and I are too genetically similar. How my immune system is too much like his. How romantic chemistry really does involve biological chemistry, and that's why he's not that into me. Blah blah. (I swear. I have never hung out with so many health professionals in my entire life. I miss English teachers. They would just quote Tennyson.)

When she finished the biology lesson, she told me she's thinking about going on eHarmony (this, despite my warnings and the fact she knows even it can be a vast dating wasteland). Since I couldn't talk her out of it, we started crafting really stupid profile statements:

"I would never buy you cute slippers."
"I hate to shop."
"We would never have to discuss our relationship."
"I prefer the lid up."
"You would always be right (when you agree with me)."
"Disease free with minor baggage."
"Not bipolar. Never have been. Probably won't be."
"I am Catherine Zeta-Jones' body double."
"ESPN rocks! Please! Watch it!"
"Dude. I am the perfect supplementary income."

With lines like that, I think she has a chance.

Livin' La Vida Transitory
As I've said, overseas life is full of transient relationships. Social circles can change every few months, and dynamics sometimes do a one-eighty overnight. This can be good and it can be bad. Currently, to put it bluntly, it bites. Sunday night used to be a haven. Everyone had something in common, and we all talked and had fun for hours. Not so much lately. Because people have been traveling or have left altogether, and because new people have come in, for the past month it's usually been four younger men, one very busy woman with small children, and me.

Two weeks ago, I transcribed part of the new guys' conversation. They asked what I was doing, but I was Cheshire Cat-like as I scribbled. (Note: It might seem like it, but they really hadn't been smoking pot.):

"Dude. 'Anchorman' is the funniest Will Ferrell movie ever."
"No, dude. It's 'Talladega Nights.' "
"Dear, Baby Jesus! Help me, Baby Jesus! Ha!"
"Hey, has he ever made a zombie movie? That would be so cool."
"Dude. Can zombies run? There's like this big debate online. No one can decide."
"Dunno, man. Did they run in 'Shawn of the Dead'?"
"It's totally George Romero's call, dude. He's the expert, so zombies can't run."
"How do you kill a zombie, anyway?"
"Cut its head off and shotgun its brain."
"But, man, they're like, already dead."
"Doesn't matter. You can kill 'em again."
"Yeah, but if they're dead … wouldn't they just come ba— … but if they're already dead … they're not alive … but … DUDE, how does that work?" [Cognitive wheels smoke as he figures out this conundrum.]

[Now I can't stand it anymore. I have to speak.] "Um, guys. Earth to guys. Hi. Yeah, you know what? The real issue is zombies do not exist. So why worry about it?"
[Well, OK, I've seen "zombies" in South Africa, but please … they just needed methadone.]

Everyone stops. They stare at me and blink for a second. Then they blink at each other. Eventually, one guy says to the rest: "So, dude. You ever heard of the United Negro Fried Chicken Fund?" Shortly after this, their conversation turned to wrestling moves. Check out the Superplex and the Power Bomb. They totally kick butt.

Some of you might be saying, "DUDE!! These people are A-W-E-SOME!! How can I hang out with them???" But for me, it's not so hot. I know. I know. It's my problem. I'm not silly enough and I have zero clue how to relate to them. Part of me really wishes I could. But the much larger part just wants to run the other way.

Where Kant Could
Living in Africa gives a person a lot of time to think about things. Yeah, life here is chaotic, totally maddening, and occasionally homicide inducing, but in some ways it's more laid back than Western life. And days here are often so hard but so interesting that there's always something heavy or new to ponder. Since I don't have a TV—it blew up and I didn't get it fixed—I've been reading a lot. Even the philosophy books I loathed in college.

I'm not an Immanuel Kant fan (way too much duty), but he hit the nail on the head occasionally. Especially with this thought: "Give a man everything he wants, and at that moment, everything is not everything." Not that I have everything I want. (HA!! There is a man reeling from amputation who would verify this.) I've had many of the things I've wanted, though. And when I look back on the few things I've achieved, at the many blessings God has given me, or at countries I've lived or traveled in, everything is not everything.

I don't think this in a hopeless, depressed way, but in a realistic way that knows "this" is not what it's all about. There's more, and we'll never reach it on this side.

I guess the biggest thing Africa has been teaching me is contentment. If what I have is meager or lavish, pleasing or hurtful, I want to be content. Here I have learned more deeply that:

1. Life will never get easier.
2. Even if you get what you think want, it's never what you wanted. (Admit it. We all secretly think, If only I had X, I would be happy.)
3. No one ever arrives.
4. You will make a complete ass of yourself at least once a day (much, much more if you are a foreign teacher).
5. If you can't look at today and be content in its trials, however grievous, you will never be content. (Because remember: Life never gets easier.)

And if I think I have it hard, 67 million people in this country have it harder. So I'm slowly, painfully learning to look at today and say "OK" rather than "Oh, no" or "If only" about the future (If only he loved me, If only I could _____________, If only …). It's a gradual process, but my vision is improving. I just wish it didn't take so much upheaval and craziness to teach me this.

But where would faith come in if things were easy?

Anyway, be well. I am.


P.S. Lately this John Newton hymn has encouraged me when I've worried about my (completely unknown) future. May it encourage you, too. The language is archaic, but come on. This beats "Shine Jesus Shine" any day:

Begone unbelief, my Savior is near, and for my relief will surely appear.
By faith let me wrestle with God in the storm, and help me, my Savior, the faith to adorn.

Though dark be my way, since He is my guide, it's mine to obey and His to provide.
Though cisterns be broken and creatures all fail, the Word He has spoken will surely prevail.

Why should I complain of want or distress, temptation or pain, He told me no less.
The heirs of salvation, I know from His Word, through much tribulation shall follow their Lord.

Since all that I meet will work for my good, the bitter is sweet, the medicine food,
The painful at present will cease be 'fore long, and then, oh, how glorious the conquerors' song.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Fifth Addis Herald

In this Issue:
I'm Home (Whew)
The Cat Who Came to Dinner
Coffee, Pizza, or Darwin?
Life 101 and Paradigm Shifts

Hi everyone. Here's a note to say I'm back safely, as well as a few other things.

I'm Home (Whew)
Alice and I came home (a very relative term) last week. I'm still processing everything—the good, the wonderful, and the completely awful. I'll write more next month. Here's a preview: We went to South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia. We spent 32 days on the road, drove on the left-hand side of the street, and slept in 18 beds, three overnight busses, and a Volkswagen Chico (looks exactly like a Rabbit, but without the "frills" … I do not recommend it). We traveled approximately 11,000 miles, with 4,500 miles of them by land. We are still EXHAUSTED. But we had an incredible trip. There is so much to share once I wrap my brain around it.

And we did not kill each other!!! (Yippee!!) There were moments of temptation for both of us, however. Especially for me, I think, because Alice enjoys spontaneity only if it's meticulously planned and ruthlessly controlled. Microbiologist Dude and Jamie popped in over e-mail periodically and asked me how I was doing. Jamie sympathized. Micro Dude suggested using poisoned darts and a blowgun because of their availability, silence, and speed.

I don't know what Alice's crew suggested for me. :-) But she wants to travel together again, so there was no permanent damage done.

It was an amazing trip. And God took care of us in a few tricky situations (even if Alice doesn't believe in Him). For example, do not get stranded outside the Pretoria train station after 10 p.m. ...

Just give me a chance to process. (And sleep a whole lot.)

The Cat Who Came to Dinner
This quote has stuck with me for years, though I can't remember its source:
"She often wondered what it would be like to wake up with a man instead of her cat. But at least she never wondered if she was waking up with the wrong cat."

About two months ago, a tiny, painfully thin, gray and white kitten appeared in my yard. He ran up to me, tail militantly upright, and said, "MEOW! MEOWmeowmeowmeowmeow!" Then he wove around my legs.

Translated from ancient Ethiopian Hustler Cat language, this means: "Listen, white chick. You and I both know I'm starving and very cute. You won't be able to stand it. You will succumb and feed me. So start your Crazy Cat Lady collection tonight, and throw me some food here."

How does one resist such moxie? I was toast.

I tried to imagine what a cat might eat. Rice and whatever leftovers I had? I boiled some rice (hey, it's a filling main ingredient in cat food, so . . .) and mixed it with the bit of chicken casserole from lunch. He promptly turned his nose up because some of the rice was slightly burned (OK, a lot burned. I told you I'm having trouble cooking in a lousy kitchen at this altitude). He looked at me, all squinty cat-faced, as if to say, "Your cooking is so bad I have only five lives left." I did not dignify that with a response. But a few days later, I bought cat food at the commissary, and I knew I had been sucked into caring about the little beast. Ugh.

There are oh, so many reasons for the new guards to think I'm bats, but the cat was completely over the top. Ethiopians don't usually take care of animals—even work animals. Last month as I gave them instructions on how to feed him while I would be on holiday, they paused, looked at each other quizzically, and spoke in Amharic. I'm not fluent, but I think they said: "This woman is serious. We are going to feed a cat. Special food, no less. They don't pay us enough for this."

So far, the little guy is sticking around (if you feed it, it will stay). He has even become something of a group project, since the guards got attached to him while I was gone. He follows us around like a puppy and talks a lot, even if he's not a great conversationalist. And when he weaves around the guards' legs, I grin at them. They smile and throw up their hands as if they've surrendered to his charms, too. I even let him inside sometimes; I do best with a roommate, but a cat offers some company even if for short periods. I'm careful, however, and took him in for a checkup and shots. Rabies is endemic here, and even though I had three very, very expensive rabies vaccinations before I came, I'd rather not have to test their efficacy.

It surprises me how much I've missed taking care of something. (One of my nurse friends laughs at this, saying she wishes she didn't have so many people to take care of.) Maybe I care deeply because I feel powerless otherwise. Helping one cat is something I can accomplish in a huge city of suffering people and animals. Spiritually and emotionally, I can't handle the 30 or more beggars who approach me every day, but I can deal with a little animal that is plumping up, growing, and not hurting as much since I started to feed him. And besides, cats are cats all over the world— even if it's with a hustler twist. They are eminently universal, and therefore comforting.

I'm looking for bigger ways to help people. The cat is an introductory course.

Coffee, Pizza, or Darwin?
Attorney Guy—who is 29, has taught graduate-level law classes for the past two and a half years, and who will soon return to the States to a $100K-per-year law career, ugh—calls me every ten days or so to invite me to lunch or coffee. His regular invitations feel incongruous because I've never had more trouble talking to another human being in my whole life. (Then again, he probably doesn't notice since he dominates most conversations. :-) ) Other friends think he's great, and I will say he's one of the funniest people anywhere. Still, I rarely feel perfectly at ease with him. Maybe this is because:
a) he is the most intelligent, most intellectually sophisticated person I have ever known. (This is significant because, for whatever reason, I've been around many intelligent people over the years.);
b) he seems a little slick to me;
and c) he seems like an unmitigated pragmatist (get over it, get on with it, find another way, good grief, why are you so upset because it didn't work?). Rightly or wrongly, I'm more idealistic. Actually, I am a guileless bumpkin in comparison, since all his life he's been groomed to think critically and gently manipulate people. He once told our Sunday night group, "Social skills are part manners and a whole lotta BS" (my apologies, I am quoting for full effect …).

Maybe this is why Shakespeare said we should kill all the lawyers. :-)

Last week over lunch, he and I ended up talking about romantic relationships (an awkward topic, yes, though he definitely enjoyed the conversation). But I'm not sure why, a few days later, his thoughts still deeply upset me:

He likened human sexuality to that of animals: elaborate mating rituals of birds and smitten men; men fantasizing about being professional athletes because that would increase their chance of getting sexually attractive mates; men and animals instinctively being more attracted to highly symmetrical bodies that indicate better health and fertility; Darwinian principles and microevolution explaining many of our behaviors; blah blah blah. He also agrees with the duplicity of dating: present the very best front you can, for as long as you can, even if you'll be your sordid self later.

Maybe I'm naïve, but I'm not sure he should still be putting on a front five or six months into a relationship. (I never said this guy is always wise. I just said he's brilliant.)

When I asked him what he thinks most single men are looking for, he chuckled, grinned at me, and said, "Just play the Game, Meredith. It's nothing but a Game." (I capitalize because he seemed to find it that important.)

A Game. Huh. Unfortunately, the only games I enjoy involve boards. Otherwise, I don't think they're always healthy, let alone wholly comprehensible. I do see his point in part, but where is God in his thinking? Can't God bring people together for His glory and their growth? Or am I unrealistic? (Rhetorical questions, all ... don't worry …)

As for his future romantic life, he wants to settle down when he returns to the South in July (side note: Culturally, most single Southern men and I are like apples and vodka or something, forget the oranges). He's all for having everything set up for him through eHarmony (personally, I call it eHarm, and ladies, feel free to call if you're matched with him). He's also open to his Indian family's network for arranged marriages. In fact, he just came back from a month in India and has some compelling evidence in support of arranged marriage. Maybe the West has it all wrong ...

But Attorney Guy does occasionally shed light on things for me. Last night at dinner, he happened to say that Microbiologist Dude would have made a fantastic Jesuit priest, barring the whole anti-Reformation bit. :-) If Presbyterians had monasteries, Micro Dude might sign up. (Yup. I know how to pick 'em. Maybe I should quit picking 'em.)

There's a store on Churchill Avenue with a sign that reads "Custom-Made Gents." It's referring to men's clothing, but it still makes me smile. If only it were that simple. Ha.

Life 101 and Paradigm Shifts
OK. So, you guys are spiritual giants and you caught on to all of this decades ago. I'm a late bloomer. But bear with me. It helps me to (try to) articulate lessons while they are gelling in my mind, and it probably can't hurt to be reminded of them. Maybe you'll identify.

Lately I've been especially struck by this verse: "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4, emphasis mine).

I've been wrestling with how often He does not feel like my life. Instead, problems, or goals, or dreams, or other seemingly urgent things seem much more tangible and pressing. And as hard as it is to admit, I (perhaps, we sometimes?) often treat God as a means to an end. A means to peace. A means to help. A means to blessing.

But HE is the blessing I've (and we've) been looking for.

I don't say this to arouse concern or sympathy—I am an expert in toughing things out and will be OK—but the last few weeks have knocked the wind out of me, to say the least. Still, it's been illuminating. The suffering caused me to live without crutches, with nothing comfortable to fall back on for affirmation, consolation, or control. Except God. So when I heard John Piper say the following in an audio sermon recently, personal experience drove home the comment: "Suffering is designed by God to increase your joy in Him. All the props that you're leaning on will be knocked out, and He is the only one to lean on."

Designed, not merely "allowed." Well, He's a good architect. I haven't had props for quite a while. And when God is all you have, you realize, in a fresh way, that He really is all you need.

I know this sounds insane or "überly" and obnoxiously pious to some of you. In fact, it didn't make sense to me for years. To merely hear someone say it or to read about it is not enough. It takes suffering and prayer to begin to comprehend it. (Enter my favorite "suffering verses": Romans 5:1–5, much of Romans 8, and James 1:2–4.)

We're all striving for joy through something—through career, possessions, marriage, children, achievement, whatever. And if we are completely denied something we deem precious, we might feel as if we are somehow dying. But even when we attain what we want, we're never completely fulfilled by it. Maybe our problem is not that we lack certain things or are let down by them when we do attain them. Maybe our problem is that we fail to see them for what they are: things, and not the true blessing. Our focus is off and we don't see Him clearly for who He is to us.

We miss the point that God is our life. And He LOVES us! (Why???? Have you looked at us lately???) At times, it's simply hard to remember this while slogging it out here on Earth. I (perhaps we?) need to refocus on things above. Anything else is passing, even if it seems ultimate.

My goal now? To remember He Himself is the Blessing.

And so ends the March edition. Be well. The cat says hi.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Fourth Addis Herald

The Addis Herald, January 2008 Edition

In This (Longer) Issue:
I Am Racist (Which Is Why I Live in Africa)
Travels with Chicken Little
Trip-Planning for Dummies
Cookware Humor (?)
The Saga of Microbiology Dude and English Teacher Girl

(And, for those who have asked about such things)
General Stats (What a Difference a Few Months Make)
What I'm Listening To

Happy New Year! My Austrian friends and I ushered in 2008 with a party, a movie, and a lot of conversation over schnitzel. It was great. I'm blessed to know so many fun people—and humbled because God has provided an amazing sense of community in a foreign country. (But I became a schnitzel addict in Vienna about a decade ago and have been in recovery since. These friends encourage my once hard-to-feed habit—and they know it. Lousy enablers.)

Because of the Orthodox Church's influence, Ethiopia runs on the Julian calendar and is more than seven years behind the rest of the world (probably 70 or more metaphorically). Their huge millennium celebration was in mid September. Thankfully, I wasn't here for the chaos. But the cruel joke is that even though you're seven years younger in Ethiopia, living here for only four months might age you about eight years.

Life has been "interesting" for the past couple of months. Of course, you cannot live in such a place and not have something unique to share with those in the "real" world. I have so much to write about that a newsletter doesn't suffice anymore. (Case in point: I live on the same compound as the African Union, the African equivalent of the United Nations. They're having their annual summit meeting this week, so Momar Qadafi [how DOES one spell this?] and other famous leaders are literally twenty feet away from my bedroom. And every time I walk out of my gate I'm greeted by a heavily armed sniper every thirty yards. It's a bit jarring to be surrounded by AK-47s and lunatic dictators.) .

For those who want to know, here are a few snapshots of this place. Such is life in Addis.

(By the way, I am woefully behind on e-mail because I usually have poor access to it. Please don't take my radio silence personally if I haven't responded to your messages!)

I Am Racist (Which Is Why I Live in Africa)
I hesitate to share this. It's unpleasant and painful, and not a typical part of a newsletter that hopefully serves as a little pick-me-up. But it's part of the ride. This is for those who claimed they want the good, the bad, and the ugly of Ethiopia—you're gonna get it.

(Bear in mind that I am certainly tainted by culture shock. There are also many wonderful Ethiopians, and I really have enjoyed my time here overall. But teaching can be overwhelming.)

December was a horrible month at school. Students here are not like my hardworking, driven Chinese kids whom I loved and poured my life into. Not to put too fine a point on it (so unlike me, ha), but many students at xxxx can be arrogant, selfish, and lazy. Their marks were not good enough for acceptance to the better public university, so they must pay for classes at private schools in order to work their way into a degree program. Because they pay high fees (public school is virtually free), many feel entitled to good grades without working to earn them. And because all subject areas are taught exclusively in English, many students don't comprehend much about their majors. Even if you're a math wiz, you're still missing a huge part of your education if you don't speak the language of instruction well. The government refuses to change the system despite public outcry and the obvious problems it causes. Ethiopian teachers often push kids through the system.

One of my classes makes little or no effort to learn despite my efforts to help them. Yet they feel superior. A couple times a month a young man will challenge me in the middle of class. He'll shake his fist and test paper in my face and shout, "You am wrong! I am right! I answers right! (Like I haven't been speaking English for 35 years.) I shake a bit, but stand up to him even if he's 6 feet tall and could toss me like lint. I say calmly but firmly, "I failed you because you did not answer the questions correctly. SIT DOWN NOW before you make a bigger fool of yourself." (This probably does make me a horrible teacher. I agree.) He usually sits down. If not, he storms out and I shut the door behind him, feeling happy he left and will likely transfer to an easier teacher—a teacher who "understands" him and will shove him through the system without asking him to work.

A number of foreigners say I should herd students through the system because that's what's cultural. Unfortunately, I cannot do this and live with myself. I still try to hold them accountable for a few things. One day last month I waded through about 60 writing assignments from students who clearly plagiarized and did not follow the very simple instructions I had given. It was the proverbial straw. I lost it. I don't lose it often, but this time I spewed nuclear fallout that probably hovered over Kenya. I am not proud of this.

I stood in front of the class that afternoon and said, "You are immature, arrogant, ignorant and lazy. You would not succeed in a different university because you wouldn't work hard enough. My job is to help you learn how to write. I would love to do that, but you will not allow me to. I have decided to fail all of you on this assignment."

They understood me. Most don't speak well, but they understand more than they can produce. They didn't protest this time, though. I think it's because they couldn't deny they were in the wrong—even their self-delusion has its limits. Several actually apologized.

Still, because of my attempts to hold students accountable and my tell-it-like-it-is personality, I have been labeled "racist" by some students. (Naturally, racists move to foreign countries in order to be surrounded by all the people they hate. Note heavy sarcasm.)

Add to this the fact the school's administrators give me incorrect information and then lie about it to cover their … um … derrieres. For example, the final grades I submitted last week are completely wrong—but I calculated them according to the instructions an administrator gave me. Now students are protesting and calling me names (not only am I racist, I'm also stupid). The man who told me to calculate grades this way is, of course, lying and telling the dean that he did not speak to me at all.

I have washed my hands of these people. I try to be duck-like—letting it all slide off me—though I still have days when I feel sick with anger and frustration. There is no point in trying to work out the problems. Their culture, their lies, and the general stupidity of it all kill any possible understanding or good relationship.

And aside from the classroom mayhem, people in general are often unpleasant. From the very beginning, perfect strangers on the street have laughed and pointed at me, saying things like, "You are so fat!" (even though I'm not …). African colleagues tell me not to accept this, but I can do little about it besides bite my tongue off in order to refrain from telling them exactly what they are. My Dutch colleague Truus is twice my size and she gets teased more frequently. She just doesn't let it get to her. Maybe being 60 years old and European have something to do with this. :-)

I try to teach well regardless of the hassles and impossible situations. And even with the difficulties, students and I do have fun in class at times (not all of them are awful, of course). But my time is not devoted to teaching. It's hard to care about people who don't care about you or what you offer them. My energies are invested in developing deeper relationships with other foreigners. There are many here. These friendships, I am finding, are more important than working in a ludicrous, corrupt school system that ties your hands.

Forgive me if this negative report is a downer and, therefore, not what you'd like to hear. My bevy of foreign teacher friends and I are in exactly the same sinking boat. One friend even got a note on her office door that reads: "You'd better go back to your home soon, foreigner." She taped it to her refrigerator, weird Aussie that she is. We kvetch or brainstorm possible solutions over a meal at least once a week. We call it group therapy. Through this therapy, friendships and discussions about much deeper and important issues arise. That's one reason I'm still here. I love to talk to people who hold various worldviews, and about fifty percent of my friends here have significantly different beliefs than mine. It's fascinating to find out what makes people tick, and why they believe whatever they believe. (And some of them think my beliefs are just as bizarre.)

But we all suffer because of the Ethiopian school system. At least we suffer together.

Travels With Chicken Little
I won't send a February edition of the Herald (hence this issue being longer). I'm hoping to be in South Africa and other countries for a month. Yes. Alice and I decided to go for it. We've been planning for weeks—and I've been mentally prepping to carry a backpack in a world without asphalt. We still don't know what the heck we're doing, though. Lonely Planet tells you only so much, Internet access is difficult, and just a handful of folks we know have backpacked Southern Africa. Today we finally bought roundtrip tickets to Johannesburg. We'll wing it from there with the ubiquitous cloud of Rastafarian-patchouli-wearing-hippie types who flock to Africa. (But if I come back to the States with dreads and a newly pierced body part, it will be because I was ambushed.) This is so unlike me and my white-girl-Republican world that I can't begin to explain what caused the change of heart. But here I am. You know you're approaching psycho-adventurer status when you use abbreviations such as Joburg, CPT, Vic Falls, the Zim side, Baz it, and "Vint" (Windhoek, Namibia's capital—pronounced Vinthook). Sometimes I think my life's purpose is to expose people to weird geography and terminology.

Last month, over fish and wine, Alice and I decided this trip was a brilliant idea. What were we thinking?!! This afternoon I smiled and told her that friends in the States sometimes write to say they wish they could live my "glamorous life." I didn't even finish the sentence before she blurted, "No they don't," and started laughing. So as we sat in the Ethiopian Airlines office for yet another three hours waiting for the 1:20 attendant:customer ratio to improve, we giggled like two punchy teenagers. If most people spent one month here they might flee for their lives. We, however, were apparently unbalanced before we arrived. :-)

Alice was an attorney in New York City and Chicago for twenty years. She uses her negotiating powers when dealing with the U.S. embassy and her superiors in Washington, D.C. Technically, a Fulbrighter is not allowed to leave their host country for more than two weeks. But Alice, with her wheeler-dealer schemes, problems with authority, and generally skewed sense of her own mortality, has wormed her way into a sweet five-week vacation. While my time off is fully legit, hers is … well, dubious. But on the other hand, the official we deal with in Addis (who is incompetence personified) has screwed up her Fulbright project so inalterably that she has nothing to do for the next two months anyway. Why not travel if governmental ineptitude has barred her from anything else? (I should probably shut up about this, but the amount of government funds lost or misused because of miscommunication, corruption, or complete incompetence is phenomenal and disheartening. Lately my cynicism has been poking out.)

But back to Alice. Oh my gosh, Alice. If we don't hurt each other, we'll have a blast. But she's the kind of person who anticipates the worst, overreacts to simple frustrations, and sees the negative in even the most positive situations. Calling her Chicken Little on steroids is an understatement. Thankfully, I'm reasonably mellow (after years of being banged up) and am able to handle her—I've done it well for four months now. But if she gets out of hand on the trip, I might gag her. That, or force four tranquilizers down her throat. Possibly both. She needs to chill. Wow. WOW. Otherwise, I'm gonna ditch her in Maputo. And she might ditch me.

We shall see how this turns out. South Africa, etc., are not the safest places on earth. Prayers for protection would be appreciated. (Really.)

Trip-Planning for Dummies
We're in for some ride through who knows how many countries. Yesterday I got our passports back from Mozambique's embassy. That in itself was a chore. I want to write a pamphlet on "Trip-Planning for Dummies." The passport section would read like this:

How to Get a Visa in 120 Easy Steps:
1. Find the embassy and/or chancery. This could take up to eight hours of your free time. There are no valid phone books, and no one (not even the U.S. embassy) knows where anything is in Addis. You operate on cobwebs of information and your own street smarts, weak though they are.

2. Once you've located the chancery—which in Mozambique's case means a 1.5-mile walk off a main road, where taxis don't run—figure out when it's actually open. Sometimes this could be every ninth Tuesday or the twelfth of Never. And, even if they have posted hours, nothing is written in stone. It's more like Silly Putty.

3. Look at the flag flying over the chancery. Mozambique's flag boasts a semiautomatic weapon and something that resembles a machete. Thought question: Do you really want to visit this place?

4. Once you catch the chancery on a day it's open (you can't call ahead to their disconnected number, so catching them could take numerous attempts and pairs of shoes), get the list of visa requirements. In Mozambique's case it was the following: an official letter from the U.S. embassy; two passport photos; exact travel dates (almost impossible to get in the slippery African world); $60 US deposited into an Ethiopian bank account; official—and expensive—forms from the chancery; and relinquishment our passports (which no one likes to do for very long, especially to a country that has a semiautomatic weapon and machete on its flag).

5. Once you know the country's requirements, get busy fulfilling them. This in itself requires at least 100 steps. Don't get me started on the bureaucracy involved in getting embassy letters. And even getting enough U.S. dollars requires the black market. (Our embassy bank accounts haven't been available this month, which is often the case when we most need them.) Thankfully (?) I have a student who's a hustler. He likes me (even though I'm the teacher from hell who won't change his grade) and he was willing to do the heavy stuff for us. I have no desire to go to dark pool halls or bars and deal with Ethiopian men who probably wear fedoras and dangle cigarettes from their lips.

6. Once you have dollars in hand (my student got them in one afternoon), you try to find the obscure branch of the obscure bank with which Mozambique has an account. You ask everyone you know—and even some people you don't, Ethiopian and foreign—if they know where it is. Again, it might take you a week or more to narrow down possible locations. You take taxis to hunt for the mythical spot. You endure self-righteous drivers who illegally raise your fare and say things like, "Sister, if you don't know where you're going, why didn't you ask someone?" You practically chew your lower lip off to keep from snapping back, "Buddy, don't you think I #@%* did this???" (I don't like or want to swear, but there are moments of extreme culture shock and pure sinfulness when I do. This might come as a shock to some of you—thankfully, these moments are few. Life overseas will test you in ways you didn't know you could be tested, and ALL of your junk comes out in its entirety eventually. God deals with you. Believe me ...) Instead of snapping this time, you just start pulling out your hair.

7. When you FINALLY find the bank (yippee!!), you feel like primordial ooze as you pass beggars on the street. You are carrying more cash than they make in a decade, and, if you happen to have your iPod and MacBook on you that day, you're carrying more money than they will make in their lifetimes. They have one leg, no financial power, and HIV-related tuberculosis. You had the mere inconvenience of finding the bank. You are scum. (Truly, I struggle every day with the unfairness of life.)

8. Once at the bank (again, yippee!!), you're frisked so thoroughly you feel violated. You must also empty every crevice of your bag. (You didn't see this coming, so you hope no one mugs you on your way out if they see what you're carrying.) Once in the bank, you are shuffled around to no fewer than five tellers, each of whom tells you with great authority exactly the wrong things to do. Finally, you find someone who knows his stuff. But this person scowls and orders you to sit down. You sit. You proceed to watch him stare at the counter for ten minutes. (He might be on a power trip because you're foreign. He might be thinking, "This stupid American woman with a fresh bald spot on her head won't hurry me.") Then, miraculously, the teller motions to you. You go to the window, hold your breath and smile a lot. You show him Mozambique's account number, explain the procedure, and continue to smile. He looks at you, blinks, and says, "Impossible. It cannot be done."

Internally you are Vesuvius and Krakatoa, and you coin new compound nouns such as "snake-eating-scum-banker" and "evil-idiot-teller-feller." But externally you are the South Pacific on a beautiful day. You smile, slip him $2 US and say, "I'm sure it can be worked out." He is a changed man: "Oh. That account. Yes, I can do that." Again, you sit. He glows. You watch him process the money. Then he gives you the magical receipt. You dance out of the building hoping never to return.

9. You go back to Mozambique's chancery (on your third pair of shoes) with all of the visa requirements in your bag. It's Monday and the guard at the gate tells you the secretary is out for the entire week. Nothing can be done for you. But you smile sweetly (it really helps to look years younger than your age), pull out the magical bank receipt, say "urgent" a hundred times, flash your American passport, and eventually schmooze your way past the gate and into the secretary's office. It turns out he IS there and they can cut you a deal after all. (It just takes persistence and great frustration on your part.) T.S. Eliot once said, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." This is especially true when dealing with embassies—even with those that employ lethal weapons as part of their PR campaign. You get the passports back the next day as opposed to the next seven to ten.

All of the above is a mere sampling of the games one must play in order to function in developing countries. And people wonder why I'm quirky. Duh.

10. You need a break now. Take a day or two off from planning. Read chick lit. Eat pizza. Relax. The actual travel comes next, and you're going to need your strength.

Cookware Humor (?)
So my intense vegetarian friend Jamie called me two weeks ago and said breathlessly, with no greeting, "I have a joke for you. It's from Readers Digest." She could see my eyes glaze over even on the phone. "No. Really. This one is good," she added, though I'd said nothing.

The joke went like this:

Women are at a bridal shower and the bride-to-be is opening gifts. The whole time a single woman is complaining that she'll always be alone—there just isn't anyone out there for her. A grandmother type says cheerfully, "Honey, there's a lid for every pot!" Another women, clearly irritated by the complaining, says, "Yes, but you might be the skillet."

"You and I are skillets, baby," Jamie said triumphantly, as if being a skillet were the greatest thing in the world. I didn't know whether to laugh or reach through the phone and shake her. (I'm beginning to believe a Ph.D. isn't all it's cracked up to be; I've seen her transcripts, and she got flawless marks. There must have been a mistake.)

But last weekend at an American friend's wedding, Jamie leaned over and whispered "skillet" in my ear. It during an especially emotional part of the ceremony, and she must have known it was getting to me. Her little joke actually made me stifle laughter. And when she shared the anecdote with another friend, the woman said, "Pampered Chef has at least one covered skillet. You could still find your lid."

Well, I don't know about that. I think I am a permanently lidless pot. But I'm gradually becoming more OK with that. People like Jamie make this process more fun.

The Saga of Microbiologist Dude and English Teacher Girl
(I swear there should be music for this. Maybe something like a spaghetti western soundtrack.)

Enough people have asked me what happened. I will share. But a friend in the States summed it all up nicely last month in one sentence: "Prolonged singleness makes idiots of us all."

The first week of January I was in my office trying to catch up on e-mail while I had access. Out of the blue, Microbiologist Dude popped up on the screen. I hadn't known instant messaging was running, and I was in a broken office chair when he startled me. (This means I banged my knee on the desk as I nearly tipped over).

"Hey," he typed. "Are you there?"
The cursor was blinking way too fast. I couldn't think—especially with a broken knee. The frantic line wouldn't go away even when I tried to delete his message. "Depends on what this involves," I finally wrote.
"Let's talk about the elephant," he typed. (He meant, of course, the "elephant" we'd been dancing around for three weeks in our e-mail exchanges.)
"Do we have to?" I said. "It's hiding behind a bookcase. Just its butt is showing now."
(He didn't think this was funny. What is wrong with him?)

To spare you the whole conversation—which should not have been over a computer, but that's what we could do from two continents—this is the gist of our chat:

He said our friendship is a huge blessing to him. He can overlook my irrational love of olives, and he will always pick them out of his food for me. He appreciates my passion for God and concurrent knowledge of Chinese swear words. He thinks I'm intelligent, attractive, witty, cool, and fun. He wants my companionship. He's just not "at that point" in life. God hasn't laid it on his heart to be in a relationship. With anyone. He hopes I can try to understand. He's not hiding anything or protecting my feelings because we're way beyond that point now. He doesn't want to lose our friendship.

Here's a side note on this guy: He's too busy with work to notice a Christian version of Heidi Klum. He's doing TB research among other things; he's usually surrounded by HIV/AIDS-infected blood, stool, sputum, pus, and urine. (The only thing I ever want in his lab is out as soon as possible.) Besides this, he's 29 years old and has never, ever pursued a woman. Not in high school, college, grad school, or as an adult.

(Jamie and I have discussed this epidemic at length and are 200% convinced there's saltpeter in U.S. and Ethiopian drinking water. Consequently, we also whisper "saltpeter" to each other when it's fitting. People wonder why we're laughing.)

His olives comment made me smile. He caught me off guard with his thought on God's involvement, though. Israelite that I am, I forget that God has the ultimate say in these things. It's not about what I think I want. And ultimately, it's not even Microbiologist Dude saying no. It's God saying no.

But I was still angry. This guy is a perfect illustration of an intelligent but clueless man who has never felt the sting of singleness. I, on the other hand, have been grappling with it for the last few years. I typed back quickly, smacking the space bar. He "listened" and asked a few questions. Then he wrote in response (I could practically see him stroking his Vandyke and smirking slightly):

"So, basically, you're telling God He's wrong. Your heart's desire is not to be content. You're mad because you can't control Him. You are showing Him your own logic and holding it up against His perfect plan in keeping you single. That's really smart."

I didn't reply for two minutes. I just stared at the screen and breathed. Eventually he wrote, "You're frustrated now, aren't you."

(I hate it when he's right.)

Finally, he typed:

"You don't know how God is using your life or what He will do through you in the future. He's always working even when we can't feel it. Just keep toughing it out. I can tell it's hard on you to be single, but don't be discouraged. He is sovereign. He will use you. He has a plan—even in this situation."

Twenty minutes after our chat, I was back home and smoking a cigar on my patio, watching the Ethiopian Airlines sign down the road light up the sky in red, green, and yellow. (My doctor friend gave me the cigar. Since college, every five years or so I smoke one for just such guy-related occasions. It's a long story.) I flicked ashes into an old evaporated milk can and talked on the phone to an older single friend about how utterly miraculous it is when men and woman actually do get married. She said she doesn't have a clue how it happens either; that's probably why we're still single

I felt gutted that evening. But I couldn't deny that Micro Dude is right. And God began to reveal the edges of deeper issues in my heart. I vented to Him. I thrashed around spiritually like an angry two-year-old. I was still sulking when He "spoke." Softly. Out of nowhere, so it startled me. He "said": "Trust in Me. Hope in Me. Not him."

I know it was God because a) the thought was a one-eighty from my murky self-centeredness and anger; b) I wasn't looking for it; and c) it stopped me dead in my tracks.

Identify what makes you feel like jumping off a bridge when you lose it, and you've probably discovered something you find your identity in instead of God. Identify what you find the most hope in, and, if it's not God, you've just named one of your spiritual masters. When something good becomes something ultimate, it's no longer good. In my case lately, this has been marriage, or the lack thereof. But marriage is not anyone's life. It is not a solution for anything, and it causes problems of its own. I need to remember this as I enjoy gallivanting around the world as a single.

Still, I wouldn't change anything with Micro Dude. HE did the calling and inviting and initiating. What was I supposed to do? Stay home and wonder what could be? No. As usual, my buddy C.S. Lewis explains relationships well:

"Love [or care deeply about] anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. … We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him, throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it."

(I do read other authors besides Lewis. But he's more quotable than Dr. Seuss and The Economist—though a compelling case could be made for quoting Sam I Am in many situations.)

I'm not in love with Microbiology Dude. I just really, really wish I could have the opportunity to be. But to show you how quickly we got over it, we're already planning a potential trip somewhere during the summer. Jamie, Attorney Guy and I vote for Turkey or Morocco, but Micro Dude is holding out for Kenya. (We're calling him insane and will probably vote him down when he returns to Ethiopia.)

By the way, his Christmas gifts (via Jamie) were thoughtful, well selected, and a lot of fun. And no, I'm not telling what they are. A girl's gotta keep some secrets …

General Stats (What a difference a few months make)
I've been here about four and a half months. Here's a collection of important (or almost important) stats on life so far:

*Cups of coffee enjoyed: roughly 2,000 (Hey. It's cultural.)

*Number of Amharic phrases I can say comfortably: 4 (My language is ghetto—I don't plan to study Amharic because I can get by with English. And I'm still trying to stop speaking Chinese to locals who look at me like I'm from Mars.)

*(Mom, don't read this) Number of times I've almost been hit by a car: 7 or 8—depends on how you define car

*Number of times I've been attacked on the street (Mom …): 2 (no real harm done)

*Number of papers graded: far too many (I have to stop giving so much homework.)

*Favorite place to grade papers: Kaldi's—a Starbucks knockoff with better coffee than Starbucks

*Text messages sent/received per week to/from friends, colleagues: 25 to 35 (one colleague doesn't text well and accidentally wrote "Hell! I'm @ the meeting now." I snorted for an hour.)

*Number of books read since arriving: 12 (but this includes and Pat the Bunny and Green Eggs and Ham—kids, you know)

*Number of books on Africa: 1

*Number of zebra, lions, giraffes, and other African animals I've seen in Africa: 0

*Number of sheep in the street at any moment anywhere I am in Addis: about 35 (They rain poop and pee. It even sounds like a rain shower as they pass by and deposit their … stuff. It's alarming that God compares us to them.)

*Goats: 20

*Donkeys: 8

*Oxen: 5

*Random cow meandering down street: 1 or 2

*Drunk and/or high taxi drivers on the road : only God can count them

*Hours I spend waiting for public transportation every day: between 10 minutes and an hour and a half

*Rough number of foreigners I know: 70

*Rough number of foreigners I hang out with regularly: 20

*Number of cafes with free Wi-Fi: 2 (when it works, which apparently is every fifth Tuesday at 2 a.m.)

*Cost of one hour of Wi-Fi at the Sheraton (the swankiest place on earth): $13 US (worth every penny every couple of months)

*Times Jamie has clandestinely said "skillet" or "saltpeter" and made me laugh so loudly that people wonder what's funny: 5

*People we've told about our jokes: 1 (not counting you, and she is MORTIFIED that you know—though she's relieved I've changed her name)

*Number of times I've been propositioned on the street: 7 (What are these guys thinking? That if they gesture crudely and say, "Hey, baby" I'll magically want them? Right.)

*Number of dogs howling in my neighborhood at this moment: 7 million (ugh)

*Times I've wished I were back home: 8 (but this was mostly during my first few weeks here)

*Days until I leave for the United States: I don't know anymore, but not enough. (Yes, despite the nightmares at school, I'll be sad to leave this place.)

What I'm Listening To
Quite frequently (and surprisingly to me), people ask what I'm listening to. I guess I'll finally answer. For the aurally motivated who wonder what the Addis soundtrack is, this is what my iPod plays most lately. Picture me scurrying about to music:

Patty Griffin
Aretha Franklin
Sufjan Stevens
Caedmon's Call
Indelible Grace
John Lennon
Sandra McCracken
Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC—his sermons are incredible)
Nickel Creek (voted by Attorney Guy as one of the top ten "Way Too White" bands. He's half Indian—dot, not feather. For a man who weighs a buck 40 soaking wet, he'd be smarter not to criticize ...)
Badly Drawn Boy
Led Zeppelin (don't tell me you've never gotten the Led out)
Amy Winehouse
Billy Joel
Erik Satie (Any guy who titles songs Bureaucratic Sonatina, Dreamy Fish, and Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear is pretty cool in my book.)
Aaron Copland
Emmylou Harris
Monty Python (I grew up on Python, which is much of what's wrong with me today.)
Alison Krauss and Union Station
Various African stuff—Drums, baby. Drums.
Indigo Girls
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tori Amos
Sara Groves
Ray Charles
Bob Dylan
Collective Soul
Allen Ginsberg (Yeah. This was a gift from my Green Party friend. I hang with a lot of people who tell me I should repent from everything I've ever believed politically ... so far it's not going well for them, though they are strident.)

And here ends the January issue (if you've hung in there and read it all). Till next time.