31 January 2009


There is an article in Time magazine called "Why Your Bank is Broke." I started to read it and then I got bored and stopped, because it's about things like finance and accounting and there is nothing more boring than that, although I do have the window open still and I intend to go back and read it and edify myself. But the fact is that I don't even need to read it, because I know why my bank is broke.

Illustrative story:

I called Citibank this week (I am not even bothering to disguise their name. Citibank: please google yourself and find this, and know that I hate you. Hate, hate, hate. HATE.) Anyway, I called Citibank this week to try to organize my student loans, which I have been trying to do for literally three months and things never all come together at the same time long enough to settle my accounts, and I explained to them what I needed in order to be able to make my payments. (This is a long story; it has to do with documentation that my law school needs and paperwork that Citibank needs to fill out, and timing, and blah blah blah.)

The woman to whom I spoke at Citibank Student Loans said, and I quote, "We don't care if you repay your loans. If you don't pay them, we'll get the money from the insurance company."

Double-you. Tee. Eff.

Here I am, trying to repay my student loans, as one ought to do with money that one has borrowed, and Citibank DOES NOT CARE if I pay them back, because they have insurance, probably paid for with taxpayer dollars. In fact, it is probably easier for them to get the money from the insurance than from me. After all, it will take years to get it from me in my little dribbling payments every month. All that bureaucracy. Better to just get it back in one swoop from the insurance company.

Meanwhile, Citigroup wanted to buy a $50 million corporate jet, until Wonderful-President-Obama laid down the law.

This, my friends, is why banks are broke: they have stopped acting as sustainable businesses. They are not just lending out money that they know cannot be repaid, they are lending out money that they don't WANT to be repaid.

What they want, of course, is bailouts. So they can pay their bonuses. And not bother with all those pesky BUSINESS DETAILS.

Word. The free market has failed. Greed has won. NOW can we finally regulate this nonsense?

(I mean regulate in a useful manner, obviously. I know that there are already regulations, but they don't seem to working so well, do they? Well? Do they?)

29 January 2009


I had one of those moments today when you look at something, just briefly, and what your head registers is not at all what is really there when you look back. What I saw was a pickup with armed soldiers in the back. What was really there was a perfectly normal black SUV with a roof rack.


In the morning, riding the bus to work, I saw other people walking toward work, on the sidewalk, and I knew them, and it was a nice feeling to know that I live here, and I work here, and I know a lot of people, by name at least, to say hello.


I got a hard copy of the New Yorker that contains the article that inspired this post, and I was reading it while doing the elliptical this evening, and it all hit me again, the losses that we incur when we have to choose between the lives we love. They are nothing, these losses, compared to the losses without choice that come from fleeing your country after your home has been burned and your family members killed, but they are losses nonetheless.

I can be here, eating my delicious dinner of toast with cheese and tea while burning my spice-scented candle, but then I cannot be sitting in a make-shift shelter under a tarp eating warm, fresh flatbread with a cup of hot, sweet tea in a little clear glass.

I can watch the buildings on the far hill glow like fire in the setting sun as the bus crosses the bridge on my way home from work, but then I cannot be pacing under the overhang of the roof, trying to stay out of the rain and get reception for the satellite phone.

Things come back: the brilliant green of the grasses in the swamp in Southern Sudan, the view of Monrovia at night from just behind the Ducor, the Lebanese restaurant in Ethiopia with the huge circle of thin bread that we used to mop up far too much hummus and fuul late in the night.

You can't be everywhere; you have to choose, and you can't be everything, either.

A part of me wants to be an aidworker, that part of me that almost gave up law school for Chad in 2004, that part of me that almost gave up moving here for moving to a refugee camp on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia 16 months ago.

I could go back to that - I have the education and the experience. But you give up many things, like stable friendships and, in many places, a diet whose vitamins come from real food rather than pills.

A part of me wants to work in development, to be J & K, in Honduras, or K & P, as they were in Uganda, a family with kids growing up overseas, like I did.

Still, you give up many things. You can't go to the same parts of the country as a lone aidworker would (the interesting places), and you can't go to that raging party in Juba with the open bar. You give up Christmas at home with your extended family, and a place to belong in your home country.

A part of me wants to be right here, but I'm always aware that here, too, you give things up. It is not "sacrifice" to live there, and it is not all wonderful to live here. To be here, you give up the feeling of possibility, and many places that feel like home. You give up the chance to sit outdoors at restaurants all year long, and sometimes, it seems, truer friendships in exchange for pleasantries.

We all make choices, and we all have losses. Sometimes, I almost wish I could be oblivious to my options, because the choice would seem much easier.

28 January 2009


Well, hello, long-abandoned space. I've been EXTREMELY BUSY, you see.

Okay, that's a lie. I haven't been busy. I don't know what I've been doing for the last few days. Certainly nothing of value, although my itsy bitsy shoebox apartment does, upon observation, appear to be considerably cleaner than it was over the weekend. Go me.

I even managed to take down my Christmas tree. Yes, I left it up almost all the way through January. I did this for several reasons: 1. sheer laziness, 2. pretty lights, 3. I only had it up for six days before Christmas and didn't feel that I had gotten my $6.50 of enjoyment out of it yet. I kind of miss it now that it is in a box under my bed, but I have to keep the tree at least a little bit special. Otherwise next December will be rather tedious and just like the other 11 months of the year.

Also, I finally managed to get my television to Goodwill. I bought that television at Goodwill for $20, and then it somehow got off channel 3 and I've never been able to get it back on channel 3 so I can't use my cable that I pay for and the tv doesn't get any channels without cable, so it has generally been a huge space-suck for months. And let me tell you: a studio apartment approximately the size of a double hotel room does not have space for useless things. But Goodwill is fifteen blocks away, and fifteen blocks is a long walk with a television in your arms. (A tv, even a small one, does not fit into a backpack, by the way.) So finally I took advantage of the fact that a friend dropped by to drop off some magazines to get a ride over there. Now there is more space on my table. Unfortunately, that space already seems occupied by a profusion of papers. Hmph.

Then I bought some red plates to put under my rapidly-multiplying forest of plants. (I am, by the way, turning into my mom. Yay!) Here's the thing about Goodwill: these plates were actually more expensive there than they would have been at Ike@, or even at T@rget. But they were not created just for my consumption, and that makes me happier than brand new plates that cost a little less. It seems a little scary that new places can cost less than old ones. Because something was used to make those new plates, and fuel was used to transport them, and still they are less than the plates that were dropped off at Goodwill's door by someone who had already used them? All wrong.

And there you have it: EXTREMELY BUSY. Obviously. (Also, apparently, extremely boring.)

22 January 2009

on race and politics

I realize that I have an, eh-hem, mixed crowd here, politically at least, and so I probably should move on from the amazing fact of the amazing President Barack Obama (tears), but I can't. I just can't. Right up until Tuesday morning when he walked out of the Capitol onto that stage, I thought I was going to wake up and find that it had all been a wonderful dream and that some old white guy had stolen the election away.

Here's the thing about that moment, when he walked out there. The reason that it meant so much to me was that the two Marines standing on each side of the doorway were black. Did anyone else notice that? And I watched them saluting President Obama, and I felt the weight of 233 years of everyone, whatever their race, always saluting some white guy. I know that some (white) people will say that it doesn't matter, as long as the president is a good guy and has the right politics (whatever you think those are; let's agree to disagree).

But the fact is that it DOES matter. It does matter because it has ALWAYS, up until Tuesday, been a white guy. It hasn't been a white guy one time and a Hispanic woman another time and an Asian guy another time and a black woman another time. It has always, always been a white guy, and the rest of us have always had to salute him, literally or figuratively. And for members of the Armed Forces, who are disproportionately not white, and who are commanded by the president, who has always been white, it matters even more.

Given that I am white myself, I know that I can't feel the fullness of what this means for people of color in this country, particularly African-Americans, but I know that it matters, and that it is the reason why I wept rather than lept and screamed at the election and at the inauguration of President Obama. I have spent 13 years of my life living in places where the leaders are black, but most black Americans have not. This is the first time.

Every person who walked through that door, between those two black Marines, was white. Until President Obama. You may disagree with his politics and mine, but you can't tell me that the race of our new President doesn't matter or that you "don't see race." It matters, and it changes everything, for the better.

21 January 2009

still the tears

I have, once again, been crying every time I see anything related to the new President. Michelle and Barack dancing? Tears. Photo of Michelle fixing Sasha's shoe in the White House? Tears. The President signing proclamations? Tears. I'm in love with all of them.

Do you think they need another member of the family? Like maybe a 29 year old white girl? I could babysit...

Right, they already have a Grandma for that. Well, if you hear of any Obama family openings (human roles only, please), let me know. I want in.


Isn't it beautiful to have a black First Family? I just keep looking at that family, at the two adorable girls and the elegant parents, and thinking how wonderfully they fill the White House.

A black, biracial man is the most powerful person in the world. (Assuming the US is still the most powerful nation in the world, which it might not be. Actually, maybe a Chinese man is the most powerful person in the world.) But regardless, Barack Obama is so perfectly presidential after eight years of watching Bushie bop around desperately.

I cried in Liberia the first time I heard a woman introduced as President, and I suspect that I will be crying for a while every time I hear Barack Obama introduced as President. This has been such a long, long time coming. So many years of slavery and Jim Crow and civil rights - and so much work left to do - but for just a few days, I want to enjoy this victory.

And funny, it really does feel like my victory, and the whole country's victory. I read something, somewhere today that said that the reason we love Barack Obama is not because he will fix our country but because he gives us the confidence that we can fix it. I agree, and I suppose we had better get started. Right after we all repeatedly watch this video of the President and First Lady dancing last night, singing to each other. I plan to cry every time I watch it.

20 January 2009

Number 44

I feel some kind of obligation to write about President Obama, but the truth is that Inauguration Day felt anticlimactic to me. We elected this man MONTHS ago. Where have you all been? Why hasn't he been running the country since then? He's been my president since about 8:30 p.m. on November 4, 2008.

It also felt anticlimactic because, well, it was a normal work day. Funny that, how the world does not stop so that I might watch the inauguration. I missed the moment. I caught the "so help me God" at the end, but I missed the very moment. I missed history.

I should be more upset about that. I am sad, a little, but I'm not upset. This is how life goes. On. And as I said, I have thought of him as our one and only president for over two months. (George WHO?)

The transition was accomplished, for me, when President Obama walked out onto the platform. His face, calm and resolute, made it all real to me. He is exactly the President I want and we need.


Five things I want to remember:
  1. "I, Barack Hussein Obama..." - We have a President whose very name links us to the rest of the world, instead of dividing us.
  2. The Chief Justice saying, "Congratulations, Mr. President."
  3. This quote from the front news page on my yahoo email: "A jubilant crowd of more than a million waited for hours in frigid temperatures to witness the moment as a young black man with a foreign-sounding name took command of a nation founded by slaveholders." (I don't know about that "young" part, but I suppose that, comparatively, he is pretty young.) "A nation founded by slaveholders..." I almost believe, today, that we may someday overcome the past that cripples us.
  4. The tears in the eyes of Bakary Kamara, an immigrant from the Gambia, in this photograph in the New York Times.
  5. A campaign sign in the window of an apartment on my way home from the store tonight that read, "President Obama." It's finally true.
Congratulations, President Barack Hussein Obama. I am honored to call you my President. Officially, at long last.

19 January 2009

at the top

I climbed a mountain today. It was just a little mountain - 2.5 miles up the trail and 2.5 miles down - but it was the tallest mountain in its general vicinity and at the top, looking out over the series of snow-capped mountains that form the proximate slice of the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire - Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood - I felt victorious and strong, as one should feel at the top of a mountain. I looked out at the world stretching in water to the west and in wooded hills to the east, and I was content.

On the pebbles and shale of the trail, I thought of Rwanda, as I have so often lately. I told S. and E. that they should see it. "We could climb Bisoke, which is a dormant volcano," I said, "and see the gorillas and hike in Nyungwe to see the colobus monkeys and maybe climb Nyiragongo, the active volcano, if there is no fighting in Congo right then."

But what I want to do the most is walk out the peninsula at sunset and smell the fishermen's cooking fire and watch the boys swim the cows back from the little island and see, from afar, the smoke rising from Mt. Nyiragongo.

Despite that, the top of a little mountain was enough today. I looked out over the world, and I was content. It is possible, it turns out, to miss a dozen places and a hundred people, and still be content where you are.

I walked out along a little ridge and sat on a rock high above a chasm. My stomach felt a little funny every time I looked down, but I stayed there anyway, and I looked down anyway. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear a plane that I could not see.

someone else's words

How hard it is to escape from places.
However carefully one goes they hold you -
you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences -
like rags and shreds of your very life.

~ Katherine Mansfield

18 January 2009

you have a boat

I meant to go outside today. It was all pretty out there, and I was going to ride my bike to RE1 and look for hiking boots. But then I got caught up in catching up on some emailing and got a headache from looking at the computer screen (this happens to me at work about three days a week) and then I spilled hot tea in my lap and now I am icing my lap.

So my advice to all is this: do not attempt to hold your tea upright between your legs while reaching over to get your computer. It will hurt, unless your tea is lukewarm, in which case there is no point to it anyway. In that case, make some new tea.

I have been slightly obsessed with this plane that landed on the Hudson. I love planes. I love them partly because I am a little afraid of them. Like a rollercoaster, they wouldn't be any fun if they were completely and totally safe. And I seriously need to learn how to fly them myself.

Given that I lived for a year four blocks from what used to be the World Trade Center in New York, given that I have friends from law school all over that city, the words "plane crash in New York" made my stomach drop into my toes. When I opened the NYTimes website, I was flabbergasted. "People survived that crash!" I told my coworker. "They are standing on the wing!" And they even rescued the plane. If I were in New York, living where I lived two years ago, I would have walked over to the pier where the plane was tethered, just a few blocks from my apartment. That is where I walked when I needed to get out and see sky.

It is not just because it is New York. I swore off New York, after all, when I left there, beaten and exhausted from three years of city chaos and law school. (I think now that I might have liked that city better if I'd had a happy light back then...) But watching ferries converge on that boat, I kinda sorta thought I might be willing to go back. It is a city, after all, where bike messengers stop to help you carry your couch up five flights of stairs. And, as it turns out, a city where commuter ferries pull the survivors of plane crashes out of the water.

How, I kept wondering, did people know what to do? Then again, what else can you do? There are people in the water, and you have a boat.

17 January 2009

one of those days

On the weekends, when I don't have to run off to work half-awake, when I'm procrastinating on fitting in all the errands that must, must be done today, when I look out the window and the sky is so blue that it hurts me in my stomach, sometimes it all catches up with me. I made some calls to former colleagues in Rwanda this morning, and as I talked to them I looked out my window here at the blue sky that could almost be mistaken for Rwanda's chronically blue sky were it not for the fact that I'm cold even inside.

Do not start living in multiple places, people. You will leave parts of yourself in every one of them, and you will miss them all.

I talked to my two former colleagues - almost my only two colleagues from those days, although they worked in Kigali and I worked in Kibuye - and it all came back to me: waking up at the Beausejour, eating toast and passion fruit with thick, milky tea in the sunny dining room, driving over to the office on the cobblestone streets, the noise on the street outside as we went over the accounts or wrote reports or met with partner organizations.

I talked to D.'s daughter, now 13, and I have nothing to say to her but to ask her the questions that adults ask teenagers they don't know, about school and her family, and when I ask if the school she was going to when I knew her has a secondary school, the way the rest of the world says it, she says, "Yes, I'm in high school," and I remember that it is run on the US system. High school. Of course.

I am getting old.

It's funny, because I'm happy here in Gone West. In many ways, I'm happier here than I have been since my family left Liberia in 1990. I don't know how much of it is this city, where I have a place and where I am freer to be whomever I want to be and where I have a job that I love. Some of it, maybe a great deal, is just getting older and more content, more me. I like myself and my life at almost-30 far more than I did at almost-25. I know myself much better.

But I miss the people, and the job, and the place I had in Rwanda. The sound of C.'s voice, grown-up but still the same lilt of Kenyan-Rwandese-American English, the way I switched to giving the numbers in French to the other D. and almost gave them in Kinyarwanda just to be sure, the way the first D. says, "God bless," at the end of a conversation: I miss the life I had there.

14 January 2009

choices made

I have been thinking lately about the one time, when I lived in Sudan, when we went to Bigger Town Three Hours Away. Bigger Town lay over the river and through the woods, er, over the oil fields and through the swamp, and there was really, genuinely nothing there. It is a mark of the extreme deprivation I was experiencing, trapped in a compound of five mud tukuls and a cement office, that I still remember this trip in so much detail. The big deal in Southern Sudan is permanent structures, as I have recently mentioned. One finds oneself, like a builder, asking questions like, "Are there permanent structures in your town?" Let's put it this way: I could probably have counted on two hands the number of permanent structures in Bigger Town. (I could count on one hand the number of permanent structures in Tiny Little Town.)

From the way my colleagues had described Bigger Town, I expected something of a, I don't know, grocery store. My expectations were not high. I had seen what passed for a grocery store in Elsewhere and in Juba. (Think neighborhood convenience store in most of Africa or Latin America - a few bottles of water, a few packets of Omo, a few shelves of biscuits.) But I expected something. DO NOT BE SILLY. There was no grocery store. There were market stalls. Oh, and a shelf of BEAUTIFUL, GLORIOUS Pringles, at the petrol station.

My favorite part, other than the little three-wheeled, motorized cart-things that I called rickshaws (and desperately wanted a ride in, but that wouldn't happen until Ethiopia), were the water carts, and they are the part I keep seeing in my head. The town was full of men and young boys driving donkey carts that were nothing more than a barrel on wheels, carrying water. Half the town was flooded from the rains, but potable water was scarce, and therefore valuable - worth carrying around in barrels. I was fascinated by these things.

(Please-ignore-excessively-pale-arm-and-armpit-in-mirror-thank -you. This photo was hard to get from a moving vehicle.)

Only days before the trip to Bigger Town, I had faced the decision about whether to stay or go. As some of you know, I came very close to leaving Southern Sudan early, for a thousand different reasons. (And that is not a decision I ever expected to face in Africa, because living in Africa has always felt so familiar to me - and yes, I know Africa is not a country, obviously I know, but there are some similarities within continents, even one as vast as Africa.) One night just before the Bigger Town trip, Visiting Colleague and I were talking about various things, including how there really was not much in the way of concrete things for me to do and so on top of culture stress and heat and pit latrines, the days stretched endlessly before me while I tried to think of useful (or at least not harmful) things to do when it was too hot to move. I came very close to breaking down, and Visiting Colleague asked me straight out, "Do you want to leave?" and I said, "I don't know." (Mostly I said "I don't know" because I would have started crying if I'd said anything else. I really wasn't sure, just then.)

One of my Sudanese colleagues used to make me laugh when he quoted another Sudanese friend of his who said, about the state in which we lived (and by state, I mean governance area, not condition), "Ai, ai, ai, ai, ai. I don't know why God created [this state], and I don't know why people live here."

I didn't actually say that I did not want to leave, but somehow the mere fact that I had the choice and I chose to stay changed my attitude completely. By the time we went to Bigger Town, I was finally beginning to enjoy my stay. It feels, when I look back, like the beginning of the good stuff. By the end, I didn't want to leave. And now? Now, I would go back, even to that same Tiny Little Isolated Town, in an instant.

(More on the trip to Bigger Town can be found here. I just went back and read much of October and November 2007 and I laughed out loud, several times. I was funny in Southern Sudan.)

12 January 2009

cash money

I don't have my W-2 yet, but I started a 1040 and calculated my (federal) tax refund today based on my last paycheck in December.

I think I'm going to get $500 back.

I am blown away. I had forgotten, with all those years of school, that one could actually pay taxes and then get them back. For the last four years, money has been something that one borrows and is given, and then has to try to live on. Taxes are a joke when one is making $5000 in a year and paying $40,000 in tuition. Would anyone like to tax my -$35,000? Anyone? Anyone? You could give me a few thousand dollars, maybe?

Even before law school, I was working overseas (making virtually nothing) and took the Foreign-Earned Income Exclusion for at least two years. Obviously I have paid the taxes required of me, but I haven't been required to pay all that much in the way of real US tax money since 2002.

But in 2008, I had a real job and I paid real taxes. I feel so proud of my little (prospective) $500 refund. "That's my money!" I want to exclaim, like a proud parent. "I earned it, and I'm getting it back!"

I am awash with ideas of what to do with it. "It's burning a hole in your pocket, huh?" someone asked me today and I said, "No! I want to invest it! Maybe I can open an IRA! I am going to have savings!"

I am exuberantly and excessively excited.

(Now that I said that, just watch: I'll have to pay money to the state. Oh, and I owe my parents money. Durrrrr. Forget it. I have no savings. Nor any excitement.)

10 January 2009

thought processes

My friend J. called me this afternoon and asked, "Could it BE any more gray out today?"

"Well," I answered, "it could be a darker gray."

"You need to stop using the happy light," he told me. "It is making you annoyingly happy."

Then he hung up on me. Or I hung up on him because I thought he'd hung up on me. Or something. That part isn't clear.

But you wouldn't know that I'm annoyingly happy by the fact that I spend my time on here whining about the darkness, the eternal darkness of the Pacific Northwest in winter.

An acquaintance sent out an email alerting people to the fact that he has accepted a job in Hawaii and is moving there. Jerk. Living my fantasy.

A question that one might think to ask, given the title of this blog, is why my weather fantasy involves Hawaii or, say, Southern California, not some country in Africa. There are a lot of reasons why, but they boil down to these:

  1. I can't practice law in Africa. Not in most places anyway. And really, I wouldn't want to practice law in Africa. I can imagine few things worse than some white girl coming in from outside and playing lawyer in Africa. I am not arrogant enough to think that Africa needs me. I could do something law-related, but I could not practice law. And I do want to practice law, so I have to be in my own country for a while.
  2. The lonely, the lonely. In the direction that I was headed in international work, one spends at least a few years working in the middle of nowhere. Obviously there are people even in the middle of nowhere, but often there are language barriers, and frequently there is no one with whom one shares a culture. I have lived overseas for too long to feel the need to pretend that I never need to be around people with whom I share a culture. I need it. Everyone does.
  3. Stability. International work almost universally involves frequent moves, at least until one has the seniority to avoid it. And even if you are not moving, people around you are. This can be avoided by exclusively choosing to be friends with people from the country where you are living, but see No. 2, above. When I moved to Gone West, I wanted to have friends who I could count on to be in my life for more than a few weeks or months. I wanted to live in the same place for long enough that it felt worth my time to put pictures on the wall, and buy bookshelves.
At some point, you have to make a choice about what you want most, and the truth is that while I do want to live in Africa, it is not the only thing I want. I was reading Africa blogs this morning, and feeling all nostalgic, and then I came across an article in the New Yorker about Chad, and it included these paragraphs:

One night, she took me to a tiny restaurant run by two Chadian women. She drove through the dark, chaotic streets of N’Djamena in her agency’s jeep, past sheds and mud-brick buildings where groups gathered around small cooking fires, past an endless procession of people along the road, all coming into view and going out again as the headlights swept by. The restaurant was in a dim, stony courtyard lit by kerosene lanterns, and consisted of a few plastic tables and chairs. She knew the women who ran the place and greeted them warmly. She ignored the cold stares from a table of men drinking beer in the shadows.

Over a meal of fried plantains and bony fish from the Chari River, she told me that, among the variety of aid workers, two broad categories stood out: the runners and the seekers. The runners were fleeing their past lives; the seekers were looking for adventure or enlightenment. She was a runner, she said, but offered no details.

She went on to say that she had reached a point in her life where she must make a choice. She was thirty-three, young enough to return to her country and try to establish a life with marriage, children, and a home. Or she could continue on as she was, with reassignments every few years and little chance for marriage and children. “Look around,” she said, “and you’ll see that this business is full of women thirty-five to forty-five who are strong, competent, good at what they do, and single.” She had never had a long-term relationship. She must make a choice, she said. It seemed to me that she already had.

Jonathan Harr, "Lives of the Saints", The New Yorker, January 5, 2009

Fifteen months ago, in Southern Sudan, I looked around and saw the same thing. It is mostly women (rather than men) from the West who go to work in Africa,* and they are some of the most amazing women I know. They are beautiful and independent and, well, lonely. They make friends, and then those friends leave, or they do. I didn't want that for myself. I wanted to have good friends, who knew me well, and I wanted to date, and I wanted to be a part of a community in which I could truly participate, not just forever be that person from outside.

I read that description, though, of N'Djamena, and I miss it all, even though I've never been to that particular capital city. I miss crowded streets and tiny outdoor restaurants. I miss those ubiquitous plastic chairs. I miss firelight and lanterns. I miss the whole grilled fish. I miss the camaraderie that I had with friends from so many countries. I miss it.

But most of us have to make a choice, someday. (A few lucky people - scowl - get it all.) The girl in those paragraphs made hers.

And I made a different one.

* It would be fair to criticize the fact that I am primarily talking about Western women here, when there is an entire continent of women and men already in Africa, but the fact is that I am a Western woman, and that is what my experience in Africa forever will be. I cannot become someone else.

09 January 2009

way up north

I feel drunk with tiredness. For a normal-length week, this week has felt interminably long. I guess it makes sense that I would be particularly tired this week. I probably never quite caught up from having arrived back home at 12:30 a.m. Monday morning.

There were Multiple Things going on tonight, but I ditched all but the quiet of dinner with a friend because, as I said to a different friend when we were talking about maybe doing something, "I am too tired to be nice to people, and I don't have to be nice to you."

I woke up this morning from that deep dead sleep, the one from which it feels nearly impossible to claw your way to being awake and upright. It does not help that it's still dark when I wake up. I know that I am dwelling on this darkness, but it feels so fundamental. Something is missing, and that something is light. I think I need to move back to the tropics. I do not miss the changing seasons when I live in Africa. In fact, when I lived in Rwanda, I felt personally affronted when the weather back in Michigan was nice. My mom would tell me that it was 80 degrees F and sunny in Michigan and I would think, "Hey! That's my weather. You are supposed to have cold and snow and rain."

I woke up every day to sunshine in Rwanda.* I slept until I woke up, and I usually woke up around the same time every day, without an alarm clock, feeling rested. Ditto in Sudan. There is something about going to bed in the dark and waking up when it gets light that feels very natural.

I think I've just convinced myself to move back to the tropics. This northern weather is for bears and raccoons and mammals that can hibernate. Not for people. There is a reason humanity came to be in the tropics.

The summers here are glorious. Everyone tells me how the summers in Gone West make the winters worthwhile, but I'm not convinced that the trade-off is adequate, not when I know that there are places in the world where you can have that gloriousness all year long. In the summer, as we sit outside at cafes, I find myself thinking, "Yes, this is nice, but in Rwanda you can do this all year long. It's never 100 degrees, and it's never 40 degrees. It's just always a happy, beautiful medium." I have to find a way to get back to that. I was not intended to live way up north here. I need some sunshine, year round. Hawaii? Hm.

* Okay, not quite every day. It was mostly-sunny about 350 days a year in Kibuye. And then about 250 of those days it would rain for an hour or two in the afternoon or evening, and then it would be sunny again. I really miss that.

07 January 2009


The one good thing - the really basically only good thing - about the short days of winter is the moment, which happened to me today, when you look at the sky at 4:56 p.m. and it isn't quite completely dark. I almost cried with relief. Two weeks ago, it was dark at 4:30.

This evening I was sitting and enjoying my new favorite supper, the delicious combination of nutty toast and sharp cheese and golden tea, and I felt quite pleased with myself for discovering it and then I realized, oh. This is what the Dutch eat all the time. I am not the genius I thought I was. In fact, I am nothing but an imitator. But, genius or imitator, these three things together are delicious. I wonder if I am genetically predestined, from the evolution of generations of Dutch before me, to love the combination.

I still feel the urge to hibernate. I don't want to go anywhere after work but to my warm little room. I wonder how people lived this far north lived before electric lights. I wonder if they just nestled into shelter with fires and warm furs and didn't come out until spring. That's what I want to do. I want to stay warm and dry and all snuggled up.

01 January 2009

one more new year

Someone had the brilliant idea to hold a concert in 20-degree weather on top of an ice rink. I was perfectly bundled in sweater tights and wool socks and long underwear and two sweatshirts and a knee-length down coat and armwarmers and a big scarf and a hat, in a manner similar to a toddler unable to bend at the waist after bundling. Every part of me was warm except my feet. Stupid ice rink. My boots are snow boots, allegedly good down to -32 Fahrenheit (which is something low in Celsius too, and that’s all I know). And did I forget to mention the sweater tights? And also the wool socks?

I still got frozen feet.

So then I went to warm myself by the warming station and my feet hadn’t even gotten unfrozen yet when some guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Your coat is smoking.” And lo, I had set myself on fire at knee level.

Fortunately, my coat didn’t burn through so much as it melted.

We left. If you can’t get warm without going up in flames, it is wise to leave. So we missed the dropping of the ball, a ball which appeared, from what I saw during the concert, to be suspended on a cable from a crane. Once again, my life is held together with duct tape (although in this case, an entire city’s life seems to be held together with duct tape. Improvisation, baby.).

J. turned off the light in A.’s apartment at 11:34 p.m., and I woke up from my dozing and protested, “It’s only 25 minutes to midnight! Can’t we stay up for 25 minutes?” but apparently they could not, so I brushed my teeth and read Breaking Dawn and wrote until my clock beeped 12:00 a.m., whereupon I said Happy New Year in the direction of J. and A., and J. groggily responded, and I was asleep by 12:03 or so.

I would complain of my own lameness were it not for two factors: first, both J. and A. are in college, and if college students can’t stay up until midnight, an elderly lawyer like me cannot be expected to do so. And second, who made up our current calendar and gave this day meaning, anyway? It seems so arbitrary that I can hardly mind missing the exact moment of year switching. It would have been one of my best New Year’s Eves even if I’d fallen asleep for good at 10:30.

Carry on.