Per aspera ad astra

Tis the season… for alternative gifts

December 16th, 2008

Okay, the real origin of my last post (how easily distracted I am):

In the spirit of complaining about Christmas shopping, my boss mentioned that this year she isn’t giving gifts to most of the adults she knows; instead she’s donating money in their names to UNICEF, an organization she regularly contributes to.

Now, I’ve previously been one of those people who would much, much rather have a toy/doll/CD player/computer/cell phone than to hear that someone gave NGO XYZ $20 for me. But as much as I love getting gifts, they’ve been diminishing in number/unique coolness over the years. Someday (but not yet, parents!) I’ll get to the point where I don’t really need, or really want, the generic gift card or hand lotion.  And there are some people (like aforementioned boss) who I would rather gift in alternative ways.

So what’s a girl who hates charity to do? Fortunately, I found at least two solutions fairly quickly!

Central Asia Institute: I’ve already gushed about Three Cups of Tea (please go read it!), so it’s fairly natural that I’d support the foundation that came from the whole adventure. What makes them different from the aid organizations I was so blatantly bashing last post? Well, they are refreshingly guilt-free. The book and the website focus on the fact that change needs to happen in Central Asia (Pakistan/Afghanistan specifically) and how it can happen through promoting education, particularly women’s education. Like Greg, I am a firm believer that education, when done properly, is the key to alleviating poverty, disease, and a great majority of human rights issues in the world today. CAI doesn’t accept materials (they’re cheaper in-country) or foreign volunteers (more overhead cost and safety issues). What greatly appealed to me, as I was reading Greg’s story, was that he built a school and then put the control in the hands of locals. There are no Peace Corps volunteers running around teaching about HIV prevention; Afghan children are taught by an Afghan teacher. This is specific, sustainable and localized, and the results speak for themselves.

Kiva: Maybe I’m sort of selling out with CAI because of my crush on Greg Mortensen, but I promise I have no political or romantic affiliation with Kiva, a micro-lending website. The essentials: The site has profiles of several hundred entrepeneurs in the developing world (from the Dominican Republic to Bolivia to the ‘Stans). You loan (not give!) money to a single entrepreneur, who then uses the loan money to work on Project X that  they’ve previously planned out). They improve their community, make a little money, and repay the loan. You get your money back, and can choose whether to invest in another entrepreneur or take it  back entirely. During the project, the entrepreneur keeps you/Kiva posted on how their project is impacting them personally, as well as how it is affecting the community. Kiva is the first of its kind and is good at what it does- make it possible for a person to gain an economic boost and improve his community, while not robbing him of his independence and dignity.

Feeling charitable

December 16th, 2008

I have serious reservations about donating to any foreign aid organization, no matter how reputable and well-meaning. Start: Look at the advertising. Christian Children’s Fund commercials , and others like them, all follow the same general format. Fade in with some clips of wide-eyed, too-skinny children in dangerous surroundings, cut in to a melodic spokesperson (double points for a celebrity!) who needles you for putting off donating because you’re too busy, then lures you in by mentioning the low cost and how great you’ll feel in the morning about sponsoring a child (this is usually the point where he picks a child up and/or ruffles a kid’s hair). The phone number pops up and the scene, usually one specific child (emphasizing *your* sponsored child) fades to black.

Don’t have time to adopt a foreign child or volunteer abroad? Don’t worry! For the low, low price of $1a day, you can validate yourself and not have to get off your couch! The growing penchant for efficiency (not only in America, but worldwide) means hands-off, quick-fix solutions are substituting more and more for real effort. This isn’t always bad- efficiency can be productive, but it increasingly almost never is. The basic overused example: Don’t have time for a nutritious home-cooked meal? Go to McDonald’s.

This fast-food charity appeal wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the implied guilt trip you get to take as a result of the marketing. Sure, call me a terrible person. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t sponsor a child and, yet, I manage to feel great in the morning anyway. Yet somehow this commercial is supposed to insinuate that I should (or that I’d feel better if I just gave them $1/day). But I refuse, as Rand would say, to accept as guilt the fact of my own existence. I am grateful for every opportunity I have had, whether it’s getting a good education, staying in a secure job, and generally living a cushy lifestyle. So I agree with the basic mission of a lot of these organizations- that all people should have the ability to have a certain standard of living if they work hard enough towards it. But these organizations want me to donate because I pity the poor, and I most emphatically do not pity them. Pity is an emotionally manipulation and 99% inefficient (I have even less tolerance for self-pity). Lest you think I’m a terrible person, realize that I do fully support human rights, recognize the need for change, and would like to be part of that change. Just not because I feel sorry for anyone.

But for all that rhetoric about advertising, guilt trips, etc, there’s a fundamental flaw in all of this: Charity is not a sustainable solution to these- or any- problems. For all the accountability an aid organization can throw out, the results are ephemeral, if any. There are plenty of articles and books out there about how aid organizations are only multiplying the problems they’re trying to solve. When money/resources fall into the hands of a corrupt political system, is inappropriately allocated or causes dependency, organizations are doing more harm than good.

Some problems that are glaringly obvious: Aid organizations and those who benefit from them rely on donors (or the stock market- whoops!) to continue the program. A community that has grown accustomed to receiving tubs of water during the seasonal drought have less motivation to develop new agricultural methods. “Sponsor a child money” goes to community development projects rather than individuals (fortunately, eh? otherwise only the cute kids get to go to school :) )- but all too often these organizations channel their resources into totally inappropriate areas, whether through an overzealous idealism or the ulterior motives of a government.

Bottom line: Charity will not sustain itself, and it will not sustain a community.

As a final note, I’m really excited to see this documentary whenever I can find a way to get hold of it.

Ferry Nice!

December 15th, 2008

No first-time trip to New York would be complete without a visit to the Statue of Liberty. If you’re trying to see the Statue on the cheap, and don’t really mind not going up in it (a hassle with the new security system)- hop on the Staten Island Ferry (free!) and enjoy the 30 minute ride.

Fortunately, we went on Friday, which ended up being the least windy of the days I was in town. Still, I’m really glad I had my scarf.

Jenni got in on Friday morning and the three of us got to play tourist in Manhattan.

The Statue from a distance as the sun sets. *cue patriotic hymn*

Your MoM-A.

December 15th, 2008

When I was in Korea, Eunice and I met up with a high school friend of hers who found her on Facebook.  Good times (and Korean BBQ) were had by all, and she gave us her business card at the end- she’s a research manager at the Museum of Modern Art and told us to contact her if we ever came to New York. I did, and scored a bunch of free MoMA passes! (Let this be a lesson; Facebook CAN indeed be used for networking and not just stalking).

Keeping in mind that my opinions about artwork are completely uneducated. I like what I like- and that’s based primarily on aesthetics and my own preference for artistic rationality.

This was one of my favorite exhibits- Wall Drawing 260 (subtitle: “On black walls, all two-part combinations of white arcs from corners and sides, and white straight, not-straight, and broken lines”). Long title, and I don’t go for all concept art, but I liked the logic behind this one.

I feel that Andy Warhol is pretty highly overrated, but I do find a certain guilty pleasure in some of his work.

Jasper Johns. Colorful, vibrant but blurry, and otherwise aesthetically pleasing.

I have mixed feeling about Picasso, but really liked “Girl Before a Mirror”. While his work is rarely realistic in the traditional sense, I tend to prefer his *less* unrealistic paintings (like this or Blue Nude) to his ‘weirder’ work (say, Seated Woman with Wrist Watch)

One of Katya’s favorite exhibits was the ‘lobby’ area of the exhibit hall. Wall to wall projection of a nature movie (including flowers, a nude woman and lots of color) with trippy New Age music to go along with the general relaxing atmosphere.

Even if you don’t particularly dig modern art (I have a low degree of patience for Jackson Pollock), I’d recommend checking out MoMA. They’ve got a pleasant mix of paintings, sculpture/design work, photography and media– definitely worth seeing at least once. :)

Too soon?

November 25th, 2008

With my upcoming months full of travel (NYC, Texas, Ireland to name a couple), of course I’m already looking ahead at summer ’09  and what I’m going to do with the 2 months of free (though unpaid) time I get from Cornell. Unlike last year, I’ve already narrowed it down to two quite appealing options:

I applied for an intensive summer language fellowship in Russia. The two month fellowship covers all associated costs, which is great as long as I pay my summer bills (car, credit card, etc) in advance. I feel under-practiced in Russian and, as this program is the equivalent of a year of language study, it would bring me up to an advanced language level and (I think) let me stay there comfortably. Plus, I’m in love with Russia.

If I don’t get the fellowship (I applied for Arabic last year, but didn’t get one of the few slots- there were over 400 applications), I’m planning to volunteer through International Volunteer HQ’s education program in Kenya. If you’re at all interested in volunteering abroad, check them out. There are a lot of companies that charge exorbitant fees and/or are less than legit, but everything about this organization seems really positive. I’d have to do some fundraising (a month program would run me about $2k, all-inclusive), but it would be doable and more than worth it.

There are worse things to be addicted to, right?

Tick-tock

November 11th, 2008

I love writing. And once I get down to it, I become totally absorbed in my work, manipulating words until the sun comes up (usually literally). Until that particular mood strikes, though, I’m what might be considered the most easily distracted person alive. (There’s really no other rational explanation for how I plowed through the first three Twilight books last week). OCAAT was great for me for just this reason; deadlines were tangible, ruthless and always just around the corner. I’ve currently got three writing projects and a presentation on my plate:

November 14th: Critical Language Fellowship application deadline (4 essays)
November 20th: Paper (20-25p) on internationalizing curriculum at Cornell due for my independent study course
December 3rd: Group presentation on language policy & globalization in South Africa
December 10th: Final group paper (30-35p) due

And I’ve sort of started the first essay for #1. I’m not worried, though maybe I wish I were- it’s good motivation. And instead of just sucking it up and finishing my first essay, here I am blogging. Positively absurd. :)

three cups of tea

November 6th, 2008

I missed the bandwagon on this one, but if you haven’t read Three Cups of Tea, please go get a copy now. Like, stop reading my blog, change out of your pajamas (or not!), and go to Barnes & Noble. Or borrow it from me. I got mine on a whim wandering a mall in Fargo– and am so glad I did. It’s one of those ‘true story of inspiration!’ books that I usually despise but, several weeks after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it and and am just in complete awe.

Long story short (spoiler alert? I don’t know if that counts with real-life events): The catalyst of the story- Greg Mortenson- is a former mountaineer who got lost coming down from K2, stumbled upon a Pakistani village and promised to build them a school. The book chronicles how he raises the money to do so, and then goes on to show how he co-founds an organization that has built dozens of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One of the things I liked most about the story was that Mortenson isn’t an imperialist or a missionary. He doesn’t try to force Western culture on the people he meets and he doesn’t try to push his God on anyone. This is rare enough in international volunteering operations that I was pleasantly surprised to find that his motivation really is simply to educate.

The writing isn’t anything spectacular, but doesn’t have to be, given the incredible story. The particular focus the book takes at the end on women’s education (and how empowering women can directly alleviate povery, decrease infant mortality rates, and promote equality) was incredible. As was the thought that, if we spent a fraction of our military spending on organizations like Greg’s, we would go so much further in terms of stopping religious extremism (by targeting its source- the madrasas).

At any rate, the story is stunning and, yes, inspiring. For people like me, it makes you look on Kayak to see how much a plane ticket to Central Asia costs. For the less excitable/foolhardy, it makes you want to write a check ASAP. At the very minimum, it makes you think. And with so much misguided hate and misunderstanding towards Islam and this part of the world, I think that this first step- thinking- is crucial if tolerance is ever going to be possible.

Uncomfortably energetic

November 5th, 2008

If you haven’t, I’d highly recommend listening to both Obama and McCain’s speeches from last night. Very classy and eloquent. I’m not really either of those things 99% of the time, so I’ll also recommend this:

POWERTHIRST

CH-OICE

November 4th, 2008

It’s Election Day. But if you needed me to tell you that, you’re a Facebook-less hermit who is missing out on that free cup of Starbuck coffee. And if you need me to tell you to vote, whether via blog, status, or phone call– I’m sorry. That’s your call.

Of all the things I enjoy about America, the privilege to choose- in all aspects of life- is perhaps my favorite. I can choose whether to have a child. I can choose whether to carry a gun. I can choose whether to wear mismatching socks and a burqa on my head. I can choose who to vote for. I can even (*gasp*) choose not to vote. Under our political system, I was given this privilege as a right- and that’s pretty cool.

With that in mind, I would advise you to exercise your right to choose today, but it’s totally unnecessary. Whether you choose to vote McCain/Obama/Nader/Barr/Cthulu/Bill Pullman, whether you choose to be informed, whether you choose to eschew voting (for whatever reason) and spend this lovely afternoon napping in a park–making a choice is inevitable. I won’t criticize, judge, berate or guilt you into doing anything differently. If you’d be so kind as to return the favor, that would be great. :)

October Goals

November 3rd, 2008

I made some goals for myself at the beginning of last month, and- for accountability’s sake- thought I’d look over them to see how well/poorly I did!

Mind:
-Read 10 books, min. I’ve been slacking and/or too busy for my 100-book goal
Made it to ten exactly! Doctor Zhivago, Address Unknown, Persepolis, Hunt for Red October, Ishmael, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Moloka’i, What Do Jews Believe?, Midnight’s Children, Three Cups of Tea
-Get cracking on grad school readings and research for my group project. Basically kick my ass back into school-mode
Have gotten through Week 5 of class readings in my detailed note-taking project. Need to get a little more serious about the two papers I should be working on, but I’m excited to do so.

Body:
-Whilst dog-sitting, take at least one hour-long walk a day.
Not quite to the hour, but 30-45 minute walks aren’t bad.
-After dog-sitting, resume work-out schedule that, since Korea, I’ve been slagging on.
Fail. Signing up with the roommate at Elliot’s Uptown Fitness tomorrow afternoon. Yay family plans :)
-Eat more fruits and veggies!
Went apple-picking this weekend and made veggie lasagna last week. Starting South Beach this Wednesday, which is primarily veggies and lean meat/cheese for the first part

Soul:
-Celebrate my birthday and buy myself something pretty!
Done! Celebrated with friends last Thursday and with the family over the weekend. After some debate, bought myself a pretty ring (see previous post) in lieu of travel (bad timing) or skydiving (bad location). Am actually also going to NYC in December, courtesy of AA’s great fares.
-Call my family more often
Doing well! Saw them over my birthday weekend, text my sisters a lot, talk to my mom on gchat almost everyday :)

And the otherstuff that seems to matter more than the aforementioned sometimes:
-Money: Put all Limolink/house-sitting money into savings and keep it there.
Well, this sort of worked out. All of the money was in savings, until my old apartment loaded a $850 charge on me. There went that.
-Work: Set up new goals for this year. Get organized on budget-stuff (work-wise, not me-wise) that I sucked at last year.
Made some awesome budget reports for the first two off-campus courses. Have a list of projects to work on this semester.

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If I give you a penny, you will be one penny richer and I'll be one penny poorer. But if I give you an idea, you will have a new idea, but I shall still have it, too.

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