29 November 2010

Old dog, new tricks.

I’m racking up a pretty sizable list of life lessons this year. They cover a broad range of topics, but one of the simplest and most easily glossed-over is the importance of cutting myself some slack. This lesson isn’t new or particularly revelatory. I’m pretty sure my parents started down this line with me about 20 years ago. Well-intentioned friends, mentors, bosses and even an adversary or two have repeated the refrain in the years since. As a certain sage family member has been reminding me recently though, you won’t hear even good advice until you’re ready to. It seems like two decades might be the maturity date on this particular lesson.

This was all intended as a prelude to my explanation about the recent lack of blogging and trying not to pressure (or pressurize, as everyone seems to say here) myself into having some complex and well-honed plan for each entry before sitting down to write. The short story is that I’m struggling between my desire to put something vaguely interesting together, maintain the right balance of what I want to be public and private, and find enough time when I’m in the right headspace to write. The result has been, well, nothing. Sorry about that.

In my attempt to follow through on the aforementioned life lesson though, I’m trying not to pile more pressure onto myself about this. I’m going to write when I can and try to cut myself a little slack when I can’t. I’ll let you know how things go on that front. In the meantime, here are some odds and ends I’ve had on the brain but haven’t managed to meld into some comprehensible narrative:

- Things feel like they’re getting better in Monrovia in some actually visible ways. I’ve often scoffed at the broken-windows theory of urban revitalization, but I’m now wondering if there might just be something to it. Watching cleaning crews attack trash-filled thickets with cutlasses and seeing clean new buses (gifts of the Indian government) pick up passengers along Tubman Boulevard provide a sense of progress. These are small and reversible steps to be sure – weeds grow back and a vehicle in this country is only as good as the maintenance budget allocated to it – but they are also signs of some wheels of government turning in tandem. That makes me happy and hopeful.

- I made a pretty fabulous new dish the other night that involved sautéed pumpkin and onions over bouillon-infused couscous. I need to try it a few more times before I’m ready to write down a recipe, but the leftovers this morning were even better that I expected, so the exit polls look pretty good.

- I’m going to Europe for a few weeks in December. I thought I wanted to go the whole year without any winter, but it turns out that I kind of miss wearing sweaters and coats. Two weeks sound just about right. My mom and I will be eating our way through Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and possibly Hungary, just for good measure.

- It seems like every week I’m really happy about a different thing I brought with me from home. I didn’t actually bring that much stuff, but I’m feeling remarkably good about some of the choices. This week’s winner is definitely my iPod dock. Between morning radio, evening cooking/dancing music and nighttime jazz, I’m well accompanied in my otherwise eerily-quiet apartment.

- After ages of slogging through Middlemarch (which I’m actually enjoying, though can’t handle that much fiction in a row) I set it down a few weeks ago to read a book by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild. I had high hopes for the book (Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy) but was somewhat disappointed. Most of this was really a problem of inappropriate expectations. I was quite excited about reading the book because I really like both Ehrenreich and Hochschild and couldn’t believe I’d somehow missed a book they had co-written. I also thought it was a new book (explaining how I’d missed it). In my haste to get the book before I left the States, I didn’t bother to check either of these assumptions. It turns out it was a decade-old collection of essays the two had edited together. Though its statistics and aggressive use of the term third-world were dated, most of the essays (save the last, which was pretty awful) were still interesting. There was even a piece on IHSS workers in California, just for good measure. It was fine overall, but not particularly illuminating. Now back to Middlemarch, with possible time out for Little Bee while I’m traveling.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m off to enjoy the rest of President Tubman’s Birthday…

07 November 2010

One alley, two lives

Yesterday morning I drove across town to pick up a friend. There are two ways to get to her house and, being earlyish on Saturday morning, I decided to take the more direct route, assuming that the normal weekday traffic wouldn’t be an issue. Cruising past a mostly empty University of Liberia campus, I felt pretty good about my routing decision. A few blocks later, I felt a lot less good about it. While I had correctly remembered that it was Saturday, I had failed to calculate that it was the first Saturday of the month – cleaning day in Monrovia. As the rules were explained to me this summer, cleaning day means that you’re either meant to be off the streets or out cleaning until eleven. I have no idea whether these terms apply to drivers as well, but as I came around the curve on the backside of Capitol Hill, I got stuck in a massive traffic jam. 

There were scads of people wearing Monrovia City Corporation cleaning campaign t-shirts wandering somewhat aimlessly through the streets with brooms in hand. Cars were stopped cold and there wasn’t much to do but wait. After fiddling with the radio a bit and acknowledging that from Monrovia I could not, in fact, solve the BBC News labor unrest to bring the regular correspondents back to work with new content, I began to look around. Despite the clean-or-stay-home edict I’d heard, there were plenty of Monrovians milling about, neither cleaning nor staying home.

For some reason, my eye was caught by a small group of people standing near the mouth of a narrow alley. There were a few steps leading down from the sidewalk into the passage. Some people were gathered at the bottom of the steps, some standing at the top; all were watching the traffic and cleaners. Suddenly, there was movement and yelling. A girl, maybe eight or nine years old, was getting walloped on the backside of her head by a woman, presumably her mother. As the girl ran away, the woman lashed out again, this time kicking her down the two or three stairs into the alley. The girl kept running and the woman moved on.

Not five seconds later, there was a bit more motion in this same spot. Another girl, just the same size and probably the same age as the first, came bounding up to the top of the alley. She catapulted herself over the steps and into the arms of an older man who was waiting there. She wrapped her legs around him and hugged him with great gusto. He returned the hug with a grin nearly as big as hers.

A moment later, traffic began moving again and I moved on into the heart of the city, totally bewildered by coincidence of the contrasts I’d just witnessed.

04 November 2010

Despite my best efforts

[Before I start, I should note here that despite the hard time I’m having on a lot of fronts right now, I’m incredibly grateful for the support and valuable advice of many friends old and new, near and far. I’ve been deeply touched by the amount of time and effort people have invested in making sure that I’m doing alright. Notwithstanding that effort, this is bound to still be difficult, and I’m doing my best to honestly communicate how things are going, even when it doesn’t make for particularly uplifting reading. So please bear with me (or don’t, that’s fine too), and know that I realize how blessed I am in so many ways.]

I had a grand plan yesterday to write a new blog post. It was going to be called something like “Anatomy of a Better Day.” Having crashed somewhat early the night before, I woke up early enough to go for a decent run. I set out at 6:50, headed into the still-rising sun. I ran the mile and change to JFK, the biggest public hospital in the country, just as the the first round of morning commuters began pouring into taxis. By the time I turned back, Tubman Boulevard was its normal weekday morning self, filled with school kids, workers and vendors.

I’d listened to the BBC broadcast the whole run, so already knew the gist of the disappointing though unsurprising elections results by the time I was home. As I turned on the shower, I switched over to the house radio, catching the tail end of the general news broadcast and then Network Africa, my usual shower-time program. Running a few minutes ahead of schedule, I decided to splurge a bit of time and make oatmeal and tea in place of my standard cold cereal and banana breakfast. Warm breakfast on the table, I settled in front of the computer to dig through the more detailed elections returns. As expected, it was mostly good news from California (though I remain remarkably out of sync with even theoretically progressive California on initiatives), mostly bad news from everywhere else. I even got some up-to-the-minute updates on numbers from a California political friend who was still awake and on Facebook.

By 8:40, I was out the door and walking to to Ministry. Despite the heat, I’ve come to really enjoy walking to work, in roughly equal parts because it gives me some time outside, it means I don’t have to cobble together a ride on someone else’s schedule every day, and it gives me more time to listen to the radio and get a little thinking done. Yesterday’s thinking was about committing myself to a better attitude about life and work, to having a better day and then coming home to write about it.

As I was about to cross the street in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where, with a few waves a day, I’m trying to build a rapport with the small group of female Bangladeshi peacekeepers who guard the President), a co-worker pulled up to the curb and offered me a ride for the second half of the trip. I got in the car, grateful to skip the only part of the pedestrian commute I dislike – slipsliding down a road that’s become more of a rocky hillside to get from the main road to the Ministry.

After about three minutes after settling in at work, someone from the administrative side of the Ministry came to ask for my passport, with a vague explanation about dealing with my visa and residence permit. As I’m not in the habit of carrying my passport around these days, I then had to roust up a car and driver to take me back home, pick up the passport and get it back so it could be taken to the Bureau of Immigration. Half an hour later, I returned to the rowdy conference room I call an office these days, and things started to go south.

I won’t go into all the details here, but the day ended without my passport and with me canceling my holiday plans for today (Liberian Thanksgiving, a national holiday) and required to show up for a meeting from 3-6 on said holiday. Somewhere in the middle there were many emotions, none of which were the uplifting, happy sort I’d aimed for at the beginning of the day.

After my grand start to the morning, the only other highlight was getting to drive a Ministry a car again, this time a massive Landcruiser. Even with traffic tangled in inconceivable knots and driving what handled like an empty milk truck, I felt somewhat liberated again, moving on my own schedule even if not my own pace. I managed at least half an hour of stop and go traffic and hills without stalling once. I suppose that was yesterday’s bit of life progress, though it definitely came at the expense of an already worn clutch.
Yeah, I drove that. No, I'm not responsible for the bumper.
So, my plan to force myself into having a better day didn’t turn out quite as imagined. Back to the drawing board to try again tomorrow…