Thursday, May 5, 2011

Exit Stage Left

I received instructions from the "staging unit" of Peace Corps this week.  I'll be departing Fayetteville on May 29th for Philadelphia, PA. I'll spend a few days hanging with home boys, and then I'll have a brief series of meetings with my fellow trainees on 01 June. June 2nd, we ride a red-eye bus to New York, and from there we fly to Quito. None of this seems very real to me, but I suspect it will be similar to my study abroad experience of simply showing up somewhere, clueless, and going about my life one task at a time until it is, quite real.

To know this news is so gratifying after waiting a year. I'm feeling a surge of excitement and energy going in to my service; this has been boosted by a random encounter I had yesterday with a PCV who's currently serving, who is also from my home town. We were able to sit and talk for a few hours, and she was most gracious with her time as I grilled her about everything from her living conditions to bureaucratic red tape.  More than anything, she made me feel more confidence.

Everything else will be history between now and 01 June. Moving, packing, finishing work, arranging affairs. Drinking beers with people I won't see for awhile - in no particular order. One way of characterizing my life over the last year would be to call it fast. This quality is probably typical of a graduate's first year of working full time as an adult. I never guessed I would be in a restaurant; restaurant work tends to fly by in itself (getting refills, taking food order, turning in ticket, getting refills, taking drink orders, explaining specials, washing soup cups, delivering food, BAM THE SHIFT'S OVER), and is only compounded by my anticipation and preparation for Peace Corps. One theory offered by David Foster Wallace in these situations had to do with cliches; he basically thought that cliches usually contain truths which are so obvious and timeless that we begin to blow them off or be skeptical of them through pure over-exposure. I remember my freshmen year of college being at a dinner for the senior scholars, and one of them standing to give his advice: "college is a four year minute, so pay attention while it lasts." Of course everyone in the room was like, Right, Thanks for the platitude. But, over the years, that advice has echoed in my brain like a bad song lyric, and probably adheres to the DFW theory. It doesn't really matter if people tend to sit around saying things like, "Time flies..." Time, in fact, does fly for those who are in over their heads. So, in the analogy, a successful life for someone with my particular outfit of perceptions will probably be like constantly riding a wave on the verge of asphyxiation, like an ill-equipped surfer, or Gilligan without an island.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stepped in the Right Cow Paddy

I was fortunate enough to participate in a Fayetteville original on Friday: the Cow Paddy Run. Most of the work for the race was done by my room mate Max Mahler, with help from our neighbor Ben Putman. As a model for activism, this was truly inspiring: a good thing done for the right reasons. I wrote a little summary of the race for the paper today which I will reproduce below. I think it's an important precedent for the emerging, affluent youth of America; we have the resources - we should be happy to use them as virtuously as Max and Ben.

The forecast called for rain last Friday (April 22nd), just in time for the 6:00 p.m. Gulley Park Cow Paddy Run, a 5k race I knew Max Mahler and Ben Putman had been planning vigorously for months. I hated this for them, and for the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation who would receive the run’s proceeds. They simply worked too hard in spite of full-time jobs and classes to be defeated in this way. We discussed “weather contingency plans” to the extent that we simply asserted, “It won’t rain.”

I even concocted a mock mind-over-matter theory to back this up: “in any given geographical area, the weather will ultimately conform to the wishes of the group of individuals who feel most strongly about its behavior, who are also doing the most good”. More specifically: no group of people in Fayetteville, at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, who wanted a certain type of weather, who were also doing good deeds, would be able to sway the rain more persuasively than Max, Ben, and their fellow volunteers. Silly, I know.

But the fact is, in spite of the forecast and the looming clouds (and alarmist text messages from my girlfriend about “TORNADOS IN GENTRY!”), the rain didn’t come until 8:30 p.m., as we loaded the last tents into vehicles, well after the results were in, the awards ceremony over, and the 5k run with complete success.

Though it was Max and Ben’s first race, Cow Paddy was far from amateur. Along with the Rush Running trailer and its huge, inflatable Starting Line, there were promotional tents for Pack Rat and Ozark Natural Foods, Cow Paddy technical T-shirts and trophies on display, and the Race Wizard electronic chip-timing command center. By the time I arrived, there were also a couple hundred racers milling around, registering, talking, buzzing in the unique way of runners before their event, which is an unmistakable atmosphere of celebration. In other words, it looked and felt as good any race I’ve ever attended.

After all, attendance itself is the real gauge of any race’s success. Cow Paddy enjoyed a loyal following throughout the ‘90s under the direction of Wade Caldwell, but petered out around 2000, until Max and Ben resurrected it this year entirely of their own volition. “As a general rule,” said Mike Rush of Rush Running, “first-year race directors can expect around 100 participants” - even with name recognition in their favor. Friday, Race Wizard registered the times of 232 finishers in the 5k alone; the 1 mile fun run timed an additional 32. At over 300 registrants (an impressively small fraction skipped out), Cow Paddy greatly exceeded expectations, and in doing so raised over $6,000 dollars for public education. Over $500 in donated merchandise from North Face and others was raffled away, and the top three finishers in every category received original Cow Paddy trophies (donated by Polytech). Ironside Photography covered the event for free, whizzing around on bicycles (pictures can be reviewed and purchased on

Finally, as a sign of the admiration Max and Ben inspired while assembling their race (along with Wade Caldwell’s advice), volunteer David Huey awarded them all “Golden Cow Pies” (honorary manure on engraved plaques). Where else but Arkansas?

However, in typical fashion, Max and Ben seemed only partially pleased with their success. We all sat around with a cool beverage afterwards, and soon the question was raised, “What can be done better next year?” Someone called out, “Make it sunnier!” Max laughed and said he’d make some phone calls. But on a serious note, they began a list.

I won’t divulge all the details, but in the years to come, improvements may include live music, more donated merchandise, more T-shirts, more volunteers, and better organization. No matter what Cow Paddy racers may see in the future, it is certain that a solid foundation has been laid to build upon; both race directors were gushing with praises and thanks for all volunteers and sponsors involved. At 24 and 23 respectively, Max and Ben have much time to continue perfecting Fayetteville’s greatest 5k. If bad weather couldn’t impede their first year’s success, it’s hard to imagine anything slowing them down.

Tumbling in the Wake of Geniuses

I just finished Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, an acclaimed biographical account of Paul Farmer. If you don't know about Paul Farmer, he is essentially the greatest doctor/humanitarian/anthropologist/practitioner-of-social-medicine of our generation. He started administering treatment to the poor in Haiti as a young Harvard Med student, and never looked back. He has spent over 20 years traveling the globe constantly, tirelessly implementing new epidemiological programs, from Russia to Peru, dealing with the "big three pandemics" (tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria) and more, while also teaching classes in Boston, being a father and husband, and continuing to return almost weekly to his original clinic in Haiti's central plateau (Zanmi Lasante). Along with his philanthropy, Partner's in Health, which he started with a few trusted and talented colleagues, Farmer has helped to re-structure the way huge social medicine groups (like the World Health Organization) approach the Big 3. Essentially, in a world where those in power said that there aren't enough resources to cure the poor, Farmer said, "Yes, there are." His life itself appears to be a monument to humanity's potential.

The "problem" with Paul Farmer that Kidder addresses well, though, is whether or not his legendary capacity for work, combined with his creative intelligence, his ceaseless drive, and his seemingly endless love for patients, can ever be replicated and/or sustained. He has done such an extraordinary thing that it's feared his projects will fall apart once he's gone. His response to this sort of inquiry is simply to say, "I'm a doctor, and I treat poor, sick people," like some sort of Zen master. I didn't take this as a false humility as much as I took it as Farmer's one-day-at-a-time philosophy - just like the Buddha pointing at the Earth.

I have struggled with this issue before while studying the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Unlike Paul Farmer's genius, which is predicated upon his almost inhuman ability to tirelessly practice and improve real-world medical strategies, Wallace's genius was staunchly intellectual, existing on paper rather than in daily clinical visits. That isn't to say that their minds weren't similarly effervescent; they are both, after all, winners of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called "Genius Grant". Reading DFW made me understand the literary phrase "tour de force." One can't help but be impressed by the sheer volume of his lexical knowledge, his ability to change and manipulate voices, all means to a carefully orchestrated, concrete end - a true master of motifs. And, as an English Major, I suppose I studied great authors in some sense so that I could learn to write well, or at least think well. But that's the problem: to understand why David Foster Wallace is a genius is to recognize simultaneously that you can never be on his level, you can never think as well as he did. The fact that I am even writing this blog post is evidence of the effect his creative shadow has cast on me.

So what? Well, the precedents and examples set by people like Paul Farmer are relevant to aspiring humanitarians everywhere - especially in an age when human creativity and resourcefulness will be tested to their limits. But no one can really be Paul Farmer; to aspire to his success is at once to miss the mark. The comparison invites defeatism; if we can't begin to unite the Globe in some field, as he has done, then why try? But then I remember the Farmer response to such inquiries, the Zen approach: there is only today, do what you can. Ironically, perhaps achieving a global cooperation on important issues is rooted in local, personal connections. You keep your head down, do what you can with good will at any given moment, take your opportunities as they pop up, and forget about all the speculation. Sort of.

Kidder mentioned towards the end of Mountains that Farmer seemed to depend on his interaction with patients (which is the reason he would make 11 hour hikes to visit them), that no matter how famous he became, these relationships were his real fuel. This analogy can probably be expanded to any field.

I write all of this to say, simply, that I am leery of what Farmer calls "personal efficacy," though apparently it is a trait we all seek.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

How Can I Have S'more of Something if I Haven't Even Had Anything Yet?

An outsider's perspective on United States relations with Ecuador, in addition to the impending federal budget crisis, does not bode well for Yours Truly's Peace Corps future. For reference, here are a couple of articles from Reuters addressing each point:



To summarize, here are two threats to my own personal future which are materializing from the world of news and politics, a world most members of my generation would agree feels historically disconnected from the average citizen. As a side note, I'll add that I suppose a part of early adulthood is beginning to understand how the gyrations of the Global Village can effect us.

In Ecuador, we have a situation involving the US Ambassador and Wikileaks. Thanks to Julian Assange and company, President Correa suddenly acquired access to sensitive US Govt. "cables" (electronic comm. threads) in which Ambassador Hodges was essentially conveying her concerns about corruption in the Ecuadorian Police's high command, corruption (bribery, human trafficking, misallocation of funds, etc.) which President Rafeal Correa knew about and allowed to continue. This is a serious accusation to be made by a US government official; however, it wasn't a public accusation in a strict sense. Instead, Wikileaks has exposed secret communiques between Hodges and other US agents. This reflects very poorly upon the supposedly "open" relations we maintain with Ecuador. The situation has a "caught in the act" feel to it, as if underhanded reconnaissance by the United States has been exposed. Correa declares Hodges "persona non grata," asks her to leave the country for disparagement of his character, and then in retaliation the US expels Ecuador's ambassador from our State Dept.

Here's the problem: The US Ambassador is the executive in charge of all US government activities in any given country, including Peace Corps. According to the handbook, Peace Corps always has a Country Director (CD) in charge in each country, and the US Ambassador is always the CD's boss. Thus, we have a bad situation for prospective Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador, given that their head honcho is no longer welcome there.

Of course, it is very possible that this situation will have no effect on humanitarian efforts. I would hope it has no effect; an aid program that can be swayed by the turning of minor political tides certainly isn't very inspirational. Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino has been careful to focus this incident on Hodges personally, presumably to avoid any major setbacks in trade or other dealings with the US.

Add to this whole affair the fact that a budget crisis in Congress could precipitate a government shut down in mere weeks, the loss or suspension of over 800,000 jobs and all "non-essential" government activities, and we've got a recipe for pessimism.

I was already doubtful enough about my future in Peace Corps, given the aloof nature of their communication habits (for example, I have received 0 personal phone calls from the Placement Office itself, ever, regarding any part of my application - just e-mails) and previous delays. I guess I expected a bit more attention at the beginning, given that I represent a 27-month investment of time and tax-payer dollars to them. But, I also feel a bit self-righteous saying that; there is definitely some ego-interference at play here. They have thousands of different applications to process.

In short, there is currently only one cure for my lack of faith in Peace Corps, and that is a piece of mail telling me when and where to be for my "staging event." I've been told to expect this some time in late April. Until then, I remain adrift in the doldrums of this waiting period, hoping (to extend this terrible metaphor) that corruption in the New World doesn't deter my successful settlement there.