28 December 2010


On Christmas Day, in the evening, we went to visit my grandma at the independent living center, on the same floor where Oma died in May. We sat with Grandma in her room, trying to talk, repeating ourselves, and then we started singing carols. After a while, we went into the hallway and sang there. Old men and women began to peek out of their rooms and shuffle out to stand near us with their walkers. They joined their voices with ours, and we filled the hallway with song.

23 December 2010

chronic delays

I was going to try to leave earlier in the day, but I had to do [work task] at [place] (WHAT GOOD IS HAVING AN INTERESTING JOB IF YOU CANNOT TALK ABOUT THE MOST INTERESTING PARTS OF IT?), and so I was stuck in Universe City until 2:30 pm, and then I needed to deal with a [work task] that needed an interpreter who was only available at 2:30 pm, and so I was stuck in Universe City until 3:30 pm, and then I had about 100 phone calls to return (not all of them got returned, by the way; it was an impossibility), and so I was stuck in Universe City until 5:00 pm, and then I realized that I had forgotten some things at home, and so I was stuck in Universe City until 6:00 pm, and then I spent 35 minutes searching my entire house for my old iPod to bring to my sister, and so now it is 6:55 pm and I still have to load up the car and get fuel and check the pressure in my tires and go back to work to print my boarding pass and drive two hours to Gone West.

My flight tomorrow morning is at 5:45 am.

22 December 2010


Only three of us made it to our fighting class today, and we worked hard. The instructor was there alone, with no backup at the desk, so when people came in to ask about subscriptions and gear to give as Christmas gifts, he set us to push-ups and agility drills and crunches and went to deal with the customers. One of the three of us had his sister and her friend visiting, and as they watched from the sidelines, as we lunged at each other trying to tap shoulders, as sweat dripped off of our faces, I wanted to say to them, "I know it looks impossibly miserable, but this class is so. much. fun."

It really is. Even on days like today, when I can't leave work until five minutes before class is to start, when I am exhausted and have so much to do, I still go. I have not missed a single day except the ones where I was in Gone West. I go, and I do the 210 crunches. I run,* and I punch, and I kick. I was vindicated today when the instructor said, "You are really dedicated. Keep this up, and I'll be inviting you to the advanced class soon."

I feel approximately the excitement about being invited to the advanced class that one would feel about, I don't even know. Being upgraded to the varsity team as a freshman? There just really isn't much in life that results in that much satisfaction in one's hard work anymore. I mean, getting a job, fine. But there is so much chance involved. And there isn't much room for promotion in my line of work. This is the beauty of sports: you work hard, and you earn something. I am going to be pretty ridiculously, excessively excited on the day I get invited to the advanced class.

* On the running: I think I might be in the best shape I've been since I played soccer in high school, and I credit Singul@ir. Did you know that it is possible to run without painful gasping for breath? Yeah, me neither. Asthma: another fake disease not to make fun of.

21 December 2010

grown up

Sometimes, I just really don't want to be an adult. It seems like being a grown-up is just one annoying thing after another: bills and insurance and bank accounts and stolen IDs and credit reports and I'm noticing a theme here that everything seems to involve money. I would like to ban money and all of the associated anxiety. The thing I would most like to get rid of is that sinking sensation when you know that something is about to cost you way more than you can afford, like a car accident or a medical procedure.

When I was 25 or so, I used to wonder how my parents managed to be grown up at 25, which is how old they were when I was born. I felt very far from being grown up at 25. I wondered how they managed to seem like they knew what they were doing, even when there was no way they possibly could have known, like at checkpoints in Liberia.

Now, though, I have it figured out: you fake it. You just do. I don't have kids, so I don't have to fake it quite as well, not yet, but I still fake it. I pretend that I'm calm about making that phone call. I pretend that I know what questions to ask when the bank calls to tell me that my debit card was used at an electronics store in New Jersey (New Jersey?!? I haven't been in New Jersey since 2006, and I didn't have this bank account then). You just keep doing the next thing that has to be done and somehow, hopefully, it all gets done.

I guess I thought there was more to being a grown-up. I thought someday I would feel like one, but now I'm not sure that day will ever arrive. Maybe being grown up is more about what you do than about what you feel.

19 December 2010

one for the money

On Friday, we sat around in the living room throwing dice. Every roll, it seemed, there were new rules. "No, you don't get those points, because blah blah blah," "No, not those points, either," but somehow the explainers weren't getting points either, so they must not have been making them up solely to spite us. Long after I went downstairs to get ready for bed, I could hear my roommate M. upstairs throwing the dice and then simply saying, "What do I have?" since the rules were too complicated to be deciphered.

On Saturday, we sat around the K.'s dining room table up in Gone West playing Texas Hold 'Em until 1 am. It only took a few minutes to start to enjoy the feel of the chips clicking as I threw them into the middle. I came in second, but there may have been some accusations of cheating.

"I didn't cheat," I told N. this morning, defending myself when he told S. that I had cheated. "In fact, you were the one who said that I shouldn't have folded right then, so I picked the cards back up. So really, you were the reason for my win. Thank you."

"I meant," he said, "that next time you shouldn't fold in that situation. I didn't mean that you could take the cards back on that turn."

15 December 2010


For the record, I did a whole push-up today. Ok, a whole GIRL push-up, but still. My nose touched the ground. For someone with gimpy ulnar nerves who has used their arms as little as possible for the last six years, that is quite an accomplishment. Someday, if I keep up this fighting class thing, I am going to do a whole real push-up.

You have to have goals in life, you know, small though they may be.

14 December 2010


When I stopped for coffee this morning, there was an older African man discussing science at a table with an Asian college student. I kept straining to listen to him, trying to figure out where he was from. After a while, the girl went to the bathroom, and the man pulled out a cell phone and there was something about the way he held the phone that he could have been Pastor B. in Rwanda, and then I realized that the way an older man holds a mobile phone in Africa, the way it is somehow the same across the continent, the same slight skepticism of it and the same way he peers through his bifocals, all of that is so familiar to me that I felt a pang of homesickness there in the coffee shop. And then I thought how strange it is that my dad wouldn't even recognize it.

When I was last in Liberia, I called him from Buchanan and let him talk on my mobile phone to Pastor K., and when I got the phone back, my dad and I were chatting and he said, "Well, I'll let you go. I want you to still have money on your phone in case something goes wrong," and I realized what a different world Liberia is now, with little telephone airtime kiosks on every corner, communication available anywhere, how very much more connected to the rest of the world and yet, somehow, four years ago when I was there, Buchanan was still without one single restaurant that served anything but chicken and chips and/or was open on Sunday.

They say that Africa has leapfrogged past land-lines and dial-up internet and gone straight to wireless, and this is mostly true. (I did have a land-line and dial-up internet in Rwanda, along with a mobile phone. Wireless internet was just beginning in some big hotels around the time I left, but my laptop didn't have a wireless card.)

Someone who had lived in Liberia in the 1960s asked me the other day about logistics there now, and I explained how, if you are wealthy, you have a generator for lights and air-conditioners, and an electric pump for water, and you buy drinking water. "But what about communication?" she asked, and I almost laughed, because communication is almost the easy part. Everyone around the world is desperate for communication. There are cell phones, I explained, and you buy a little receiver and get wireless internet from towers, or, I suppose, if you were far out in the bush, you would have a satellite receiver for internet.

The world is so very much smaller than it was when my parents waited in line for the phone at the telecommunications building in Buchanan, or when the photos of my sister's birth never made it by mail to the US.

12 December 2010

wandering loop around western Uganda

One weekend near the end of the two years I lived in Rwanda, I needed a break. I decided to take my break by driving to Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. I didn't have a guidebook for Uganda, but some Canadian friends did, so I borrowed it and called the lodge at the park and made a reservation for two nights, and I set off across the border.

I am fairly certain that this was the first and so far only time I ever crossed a land border, with a vehicle, by myself. I've done it other times when I was by far the most knowledgeable person and I was the one responsible for the car, but I think that was the only time I've ever done it completely alone. I crossed the border without incident, drove up the tarmac road toward for a while, and then turned off onto a dirt road per the sketch map in the Lonely Planet.

The story I am about to tell is why I do not trust Lonely Planet maps.

After I drove up this wide, smooth dirt road for a while, I stopped to look at the guidebook and discovered that the overpowering smell of rotting bananas in my truck was due to a bag of, well, rotting bananas that were under the driver's seat. I had not put them there. I do not generally choose bananas as sustenance. They had been put there by someone else using my truck. Yuck. I threw them out on the side of the road.

I studied the guidebook for a while, trying to decide if I was to continue straight on the wide, smooth road, or turn off on the tiny, bumpy road that went off to the right. The guidebook showed no turns at all, all the way to the next big town, Ishaka.

I carried on. They were working on widening and improving the road, but soon I had passed all the construction equipment. The road got smaller and smaller. After a while, I was choosing my turns at each fork in the road based on the sun: I tried to go north, toward the park, rather than west, toward Congo, where there happened to be some fighting at the time. Periodically I stopped and asked someone. "Ishaka?" I asked, and they nodded and pointed ahead, so I kept going.

I might get stuck out here, I started to think, and wondered where I would spend the night, until I remembered that I was in Uganda and I could probably stop anywhere and stay at someone's house and be perfectly safe. So that was my plan, if it got dark: stop, befriend people, sleep in their house, thank them with money and words. I felt as safe as I've ever felt in my life.

Eventually I got to a town, and someone at the petrol station spoke English and told me which way to go, and after a while longer I suddenly came to a corner and hit a normal sized road, and a few miles later I bumped up onto tarmac again. (If you would like to see the round-about road I took, here is the google map. That nice yellow line straight up the screen is the road I was supposed to take. That squiggly line that makes a big loop off to the left is the road I actually took, including the tiny gray line.)

I got to the park right around dark and barely made it through the gate before it closed. I had a lovely time at the park and then, on the way home, the road was much clearer and I popped out onto the wide, smooth road just exactly where that tiny, bumpy road had gone off to the right, despite there having been no turn whatsoever in the Lonely Planet map.

Moral of the story: Lonely Planet maps, do not trust.

(Note: the exact same thing happened to S. and me on Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam, except on a motorbike. Anecdote number two in support of my moral of the story.)

11 December 2010

almost Christmas

My tiny little bright green Christmas tree is up on the side table and the room is warm from the gas fireplace that we finally got working yesterday. The gas guy came out and turned on the gas and showed me how to clean the glass. I got out the vacuum and he vacuumed the white powder from the inside of the fireplace.

Then I wondered if I should tip him, but he said goodbye and left while I was packing up the vacuum, so it wasn't like he lingered as if he was expecting a tip. I never know what to do in these situations. When do you tip and when not? I regret not having tipped him. He seemed like he could use one, like he had a family at home depending on him, and it's almost Christmas, after all. Sigh. It's hard being a grown up.

But here I am, with a gas fire and a bright Christmas tree and a cup of peppermint hot chocolate and it's nearly Christmas. Except that I haven't really gotten into Christmas music this year. I continue to linger on the Patty Griffin station. Still, it's cozy and festive here in my living room, if by festive you mean that colored lights are twinkling and fiddles are fiddling in folk music, because that's what I mean by festive, and that's what it is.

10 December 2010


Someone left a set of keys at the fighting class studio (how do you leave your car keys?) and I set off for the parking lot to see if any cars would beep when I pushed the button on the key ring. My instructor sent one of the gangly teenagers from the next class, a martial arts class, with me. "I'll be fine," I said. "Isn't this why I'm taking this class?"

"The whole point is that you don't have to use it," the instructor said.

So I was back to being escorted by a boy in order to stay safe. A skinny, awkward 16-year old, no less, who is probably some sort of martial arts whiz. My 16-year old self would have been thrilled. Now? Not so much.

08 December 2010


Did you know that you can bargain at the MAC store? Last night the guy offered me 20% off a $30 item and I said, "Will you take $20 for it?" and he said yes and I said, "I think that's the first time I have ever bargained for something in the mall," and he laughed and said, "We have a lot of freedom on that kind of thing," and I paid my $20 and left.

It was weird.

07 December 2010


I have never been one of those girls who feels particularly vulnerable. I am pretty tall, and I don't seem to give off the vulnerable vibe that screams ROB ME, ATTACK ME! At the same time, I am a girl, and so there are times, on a dark street at night when someone seems to be lurking near me, when I do get nervous.

After nearly three months of fighting class (I just call it fighting class now, when people ask. It makes me seem tough), I feel less nervous. It wasn't even a conscious thing until I realized it tonight.

But now, driving home tonight, it didn't scare me to have that car following me for three turns. It doesn't scare me to walk past that group of drunk kids on the corner. I am not unwary, now, just more confident. A whole lot of practice punching and kicking people, not to mention taking them down, will do that to you.

It's a very strange feeling, in a really good way, not to feel the vulnerability of being female.

06 December 2010


Last night I got in the car and, as usual, got out my headset to get ready to chat on the phone all through the drive down to Universe City. (It is illegal to talk on the phone while driving without a hands-free device here.) It is a long drive, and boring, especially in the dark, so I usually call my mom or my sister and blather to them for two hours. I put the headset on my lap, planning to get some gas first and then make the first call.

The gas station was closed. I pulled in and found only darkness. By then I had realized that I needed to get something out of the trunk, though, so I parked in a space, got out, got the stuff out of the trunk, and got back in the car.

Right around the on-ramp to the freeway, I realized that I couldn't find the headset. Disaster. I thought about turning around, but surely it was in the car somewhere? And driving the couple of miles back to the gas station would take a while, and be a pain, and I might as well keep driving. Surely it could not have just fallen off my lap as I got out of the car back at the gas station.

Thirty minutes later, having wanted but been unable to talk to someone on the phone because I could not find that headset anywhere, anywhere, anywhere, I stopped at the outlet mall for fuel and please, please, let them have a cell phone store.

They did, but they didn't have the right kind of headset for my phone. They had the kind with two earphones (annoying) and the bluetooth kind (my dad has one, and I cannot stand the way it picks up background noise). The girls at the counter told me there was another cell phone store twenty minutes down the road.

By the time I got off the highway and drove circles around through the shopping center and found the store and got out of the car and discovered that the store was closed, let me assure you that I was very, very annoyed with myself for not just turning around and driving the two miles back to the first gas station.

So I called my sister and we talked on speakerphone. Except I had to hold it up to my face to hear her over the sound of the road, and I'm pretty sure that makes it not hands-free. I put it down whenever I passed someone.

And now I have to buy a new headset.


04 December 2010


I almost bought a very expensive coat today, just because I was freezing. I did the same thing the day after I moved to Gone West. It was raining, back then, and I stopped at REI, feet soaked through, shivering, and came out wearing a softshell and boots that are good down to -15 degrees. Today it was just cold and windy, and I was severely tempted to buy that ski jacket I've been eying, but I ended up with just a warm layer at 1/4 the price. I really, really despise being cold. Really.

03 December 2010


My Universe City coworker D. and I were eating lunch, sitting in a park in Gone West, the same park where I used to spend all my (non-rainy) lunch hours when I lived here. A group of kids came by and I said, "There are always school groups in this park."

"Those are Boy Scouts," he said.

"There is a girl, though," I said.

"Oh, yeah, there is. But they are doing some sort of service project," he said.

We watched the Boy Scouts (more accurately: the Boy Scouts' leaders) take scarves out of an old-lady type grocery pull cart and give them to a group of young possibly-homeless* guys sitting in a park across the way. The most prominent scarf was baby blue and white, more a receiving blanket than a scarf by its color.

"A friend of mine was once waiting for a bus in downtown [Gone West]," D. said, "and a project like that came by. They gave him some gloves, and he just said thank you and put them on."

We watched the kids and their leaders make a circle and then come past us. I was hoping they would offer us scarves, but I guess our dress coats and clean shoes, not to mention our non-scavenged restaurant lunches, gave us away.

* This would be my biggest concern if I were doing this type of project. How would you know who would appreciate it and who would be offended? It involves making assumptions that people need your help, and I don't like assuming that.

02 December 2010


Driving back to work today, I realized, for the second time in two days, that I hadn't had to think about where to turn. I didn't check street signs. I didn't watch for that one store. I just turned, without thought, onto the right street.

I think I do that automatically in my hometown in Michigan. Very rarely do I have to look for street signs. I did it automatically in Rwanda. Most of the time, I even do it automatically when I'm driving back in Gone West, except for those three streets downtown whose order I never will get right, no matter how many years I spend here. But in Universe City, a new town and one in which so much of the town is made up of neighborhoods, just house after house after house, I still have to check the signs, even on a couple of the turns on my drive to work.

I felt almost affectionate about Universe City for a few minutes after that. I don't mind the place, really. It's only when I come to Gone West, when I remember what I'm missing, that I want to leave it. Mostly it's work and FIGHT class and friends and home, and actually I haven't spent a weekend there alone since the weekend that I moved and then three weeks before that. I'm too busy not to like the place where I live.

01 December 2010

bar fight

I went out to a fundraiser drinks do after FIGHT class, and I ended up beating people up in the bar. Ok, not beating people up. More just demonstrating. Yes, I will disable you if you come at me with a knife. Next.

It's bizarrely fascinating to girls and boys. I might also be the best advertisement my FIGHT instructors have ever had. I get so excited about it (it's seriously one of my favorite parts of the week) that I end up convincing people that they might even want to try it. Today, for example, I had a 7-weeks-postpartum woman (possibly) talked into trying it. That, my friends, is contagious enjoyment of a class.

I do the same thing with Africa. At a law school function once, I convinced two people that they just had to go there, by expounding on its beauties. I wasn't even trying to convince them to go there. I was just talking about how great Africa is, and suddenly they were saying, "It has never even occurred to me to go to Africa, but now I really want to go." (I brushed my hands together and said, "My work here is done," in my head. And then I walked out into the snow.)