Claire St. Amant The Traveling Gnome Mon, 11 Jan 2016 21:01:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Brian Timpone is Killing Journalism Sun, 08 Jul 2012 23:54:27 +0000 No one will be this interested in Journatic's stories. In the June 29 episode of This American Life, Journatic founder Brian Timpone posits that his sweatshop media company, which farms out “local reporting” to the Philippines and Eastern Europe, is saving journalism. He’s so far off base that I almost feel sorry for the guy. Then I remember he’s the Benedict Arnold of media.

A former reporter, Timpone knows the rigors of true, gum-shoe journalism. No writer goes into the biz for the money, but paying a reporter $12 for a story? Or, as it reportedly plays out for those scribes overseas, 40 cents? You get what you pay for, and I wouldn’t wipe my bum with a 40-cent roll of toilet paper.

In Timpone’s finest moment on the broadcast, and there are many to choose from, he challenges reporter Sarah Koenig to produce a “better solution” than Journatic for the declining newspaper industry.

“At the end of the day, what’s a better solution?” asks Timpone, in full school-yard bully mode. “Do you have one? If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.”

The fact that no one has a neat little solution to combat print publications’ landslide losses of subscribers and advertisers is not a point in Journatic’s favor. It’s a clear strike against it.

If the problem is that readers and advertisers see newspapers as increasingly less important in their lives, then giving them a poorer quality product will decrease interest ever still.

Let’s take a little stroll down hypothetical lane, shall we? Imagine instead of trying to bring local coverage to towns with no newspapers, Timpone was trying to bring medical care to places with no doctors. He can’t afford trained professionals, so he rounds up a crack team of people hungry for work, arms them with a medical dictionary and a couple textbooks, and sets up a call-in doctor’s office. The townspeople are getting some medical treatment, but whether more harm than good is being done is anybody’s guess. While journalism isn’t always a matter of life and death, giving people wrong information is toxic.

By creating an inferior product and passing it off as journalism in a shocking array of major papers, Timpone is perpetrating the greatest fraud in modern media. Hence, the fake bylines. It’s not enough for Timpone to pay his writers pennies. He also denies them credit. Now outed and rightfully shamed for this practice, Timpone has promised to do away with pen names like “Jimmy Finkle” and “Jeanie Cox.” But he still won’t use the name of an overseas writer, opting instead to go with generic taglines.

Now, I can see Timpone’s a clever guy, and, according to the bio on his website, one with four little mouths to feed. But I can’t sympathize with anyone who takes jobs away from journalists and produces an inferior product in their places.

You think you’re saving journalism? You’re manning the guillotine.

A Comment on Comments Tue, 20 Sep 2011 15:56:16 +0000 As a writer, one of my my favorite byproducts of an article is discourse. Good writing should make people think and prompt intelligent debate. But in the age of anonymous commenters, this seems like an unattainable goal.

For whatever reason, the majority of commenters say things that would never be heard in face-to-face conversations between adults. I’ve come to a few conclusions as to why this is so:

  1. Most people are actually irrational, callous, and incapable of empathy.
  2. The vast majority of commenters are in middle school.
  3. Normally sane, level-headed people let the crazy out when they comment behind a virtual wall of secrecy.

I really hope the last one is correct. Because if No. 1 is true, then we’re all a bunch of phonies, masquerading by day as caring doctors, kind teachers, discriminating scientists, and the like. But when we get in the comfort of our own homes, our true selves come out.

If No. 2 is true, we are vastly under-utilizing the Internet.

We’re left with the somewhat less disturbing reality that when no one’s watching, we say things we’d likely never admit to anyone.

This reminds me of the old pop psychology quiz where you ask someone what they would do if they were invisible. Normal people say they’d hop on a plane for free, or go to the roped-off parts of a museum, or something equally as harmless. Psychopaths say they’d commit crimes ranging from theft to burglary to even murder.

Obviously, I can’t speak as a psychologist, but as a human being I would venture to say that what we do when we perceive no one’s watching is actually more important than what we do under close scrutiny.

For the past two months, I’ve covered a family’s civil lawsuit against the Episcopal School of Dallas related to a teacher’s sexual relationship with a student. Obviously, kind and caring people could make an intelligent case for either the school or the family. But what has struck me is how the school’s defenders have leaned so heavily on smearing the 16-year-old girl, who is by legal definition a victim of sexual assault.

Say the school didn’t know, OK.

Say the only guilty party is history teacher Nathan Campbell, 34, who cheated on his wife with a child. I’d see your logic.

But don’t say that the girl, who was 15 when Campbell first started flirting with her, is a whore.

Would you, as an adult with full mental capacity, ever walk up to a teenager and call them vulgar names for any reason? How much more wouldn’t you do it if they’d been through some sort of trauma, even if you believed it to be self-inflicted?

Practically anyone can resist mocking a victim of a crime when they’re looking right at them, but somehow when looking at a computer screen, people call names without remorse.

Volunteer Death Sheds Light on Risks of Service Sat, 29 Jan 2011 23:23:13 +0000 Like many Returned Volunteers, I watched ABC’s 20/20 investigation on the Peace Corps with rapt attention. It was a gripping story on all accounts. And incredibly sad.

The death of 24-year-old PCV Kate Puzey was an absolute tragedy. It never should have happened.

Without question, the actions of Peace Corps administration in Benin put Kate in a vulnerable position. And that’s putting it mildly. Alarm bells should have gone off when Kate revealed that a fellow teacher and Peace Corps employee had been raping students. Clearly, this man was dangerous and capable of violent crimes. The alarm should have woken Washington before they decided to fire the teacher on the spot, in the middle of the school year. We’ll never know why Peace Corps didn’t swoop in and take Kate out of her village proactively before confronting and firing the teacher. They are refusing to share any insight into their strategy or protocol for this type of situation. Or if one even existed.

Perhaps the stickiest part of the story–and likely the one that got Kate killed–is that fact that the brother of the teacher in question worked for Peace Corps as well. I believe this is the root of the problem and the leak that led to Kate’s murder. This is also perhaps the most obvious element of risk that Peace Corps could have eliminated in this situation.

They never should have employed two members of the same family.

While they couldn’t have foreseen doing so would lead to a volunteer’s death, clearly the bonds of blood are strong. And even more so in developing countries, where families live together for generations. It’s not hard to understand how two brothers loyalty to each other would supersede company rules about privacy.

Without taking anything away from the egregious mistakes made in Benin, or the plight of any volunteer that has been raped or abused during service, I would like to step back and look at the inherent issue of risk in the Peace Corps.

I’m not making excuse for the Peace Corps in Benin. I’ve already addressed how they dropped the ball. But to say that the Peace Corps as a whole is to blame for these crimes would be short-sided.

Yes, Peace Corps Washington should make it against the rules to hire two members of the same family.  They should also establish a protocol for situations when volunteers need to share potentially life-threatening information with staff. This is a gaping hole in volunteer safety. But no matter what new rules Peace Corps implements, there will be another risk.

Sadly, there will likely be another death.

You can’t take all the risk out of Peace Corps service anymore than you can take it out of life in America. People will continue to die in senseless acts of violence. They will die because of accidents, because of negligence. No matter where in the world they are living. But there is a difference between all the senseless deaths in America and the ones that occur in the Peace Corps.

When someone joins the Peace Corps, they are opening themselves up to very different risks than those that exist on the home front. Tuberculosis, for one, Malaria, for two, and then there are the non-disease risks. Like the safety net that’s removed when you land in a country where you don’t speak the language with a native tongue. Or know the cultural nuances of life and love. If you’re in danger on the street in America, you know how to react to get attention. You know you can trust the police. You can scream “Help” and be understood.

I remember a story Peace Corps staff told in Ukraine about the importance of learning safety words. She said a volunteer had her phone stolen in a crowded train station. She knew it instantly but couldn’t find the words to express what had happened, so she cried out the first thing that came to her mind, “помідор!” or “Tomato!” The word for help still didn’t come to her, and she kept repeating, “Tomato, tomato,” with increasing desperateness in her voice. Needless to say, the phone thief got away.

But there are other stories of volunteers in Ukraine who knew how to say help, who confronted their attacker, and told police what was happening in perfect Ukrainian. But they still got robbed. In some cases, the police didn’t care. In others, bystanders thought the two people, a woman and a man, were in a lover’s quarrel, and didn’t want to interfere.

The risks in Peace Corps service are heightened because you don’t have the basic level of security that comes with being native born. But the rewards are also heightened.

A successful trip to the grocery store feels like you’ve graduated from college all over again. Navigating public transit with ease is like medaling in the Olympics.

These are accomplishments that don’t merit acknowledgment in America. But in the Peace Corps, they are huge.

The gravity of ABC’s investigation is real. Peace Corps needs to act quickly and decisively to make sure any risk that can be more effectively managed is being dealt with. Kate’s death exposed two prime candidates. But I hope it won’t discourage anyone from joining the Peace Corps. That may sound careless, naive, or overly optimistic, but I don’t think fear should determine anyone’s life choices.

If we all acted out of fear, we’d never leave the house. We wouldn’t drive cars, or go skiing, or ride in planes. And we’d never move halfway around the world to live beside strangers, learn a new language, and hand wash our clothes. But you could die from a house fire, or get struck by lightning in your own backyard. We all have to face risks, whether or not we join the Peace Corps.

But for the people who do become volunteers, there should be a confident, proactive, comprehensive volunteer safety strategy in place to manage as many of the risks of service as possible. While steps to ensure volunteer safety do exist, Kate’s death merits another look at them. I can think of no better way to honor Kate’s service than to seriously address what happened with new volunteer safety provisions. The midst of the Peace Corp’s 50th birthday seems as good a time as any.

p.s. I apologize for going radio silent since starting my job in July. When you get paid to write, it seriously decreases your motivation to do it for free.

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Doing Time for Committing No Crime Fri, 30 Jul 2010 15:05:26 +0000 I suppose there’s never a good time to be wrongfully imprisoned, but now is as close to good as it gets. Friday, Michael Anthony Green walked out of prison a free man after 27 years. Green is now the longest-serving inmate to be exonerated in Texas. He was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1983. I did a cursory google search for Green’s name after hearing about his story on the radio yesterday. There were actually two results for his name and the key words, “exonerated on rape charges,” one was for the Texas case, Michael Anthony Green, and another was for Anthony Michael Green, of Ohio. Both are African-American men wrongfully imprisoned for decades on rape charges. I find this coincidence highly disturbing. I hope you do, too.

The examples of gross delays of justice aren’t limited to those with variations on the name Anthony Michael. Two of the stories on the July 24 front page of the Houston Chronicle addressed men wrongly convicted of heinous crimes. One man, Allen Wayne Porter, spent 19 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. The other man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed in 2004 for the deaths of his own children based on evidence that is now being called “flawed science” by the state commission investigating the contentious conviction.

It’s about time.

Willingham’s case first caught my eye with this excellent article in The New Yorker from September 2009. It then enraptured me with this heart-wrenching article in Texas Monthly, which is well-worth the free account you have to make to read it.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting fire to his home, killing his three young children two days before Christmas in 1991. He maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration and refused to enter in a plea bargain to reduce his punishment to life in prison.

A year after Willingham’s execution, the Forensic Science Commission was created by the Texas Legislature to investigate “scientific negligence and misconduct.” When the commission investigated Willingham’s case, and that of another Texas death row inmate exonerated for arson, Ernest Willis, renowned arson expert Craig Beyler found that neither fire had been set intentionally. Willis and Willingham were both innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing. But Willis walked out and Willingham never will.

If you haven’t heard about this case before, there’s a good reason. Governor Rick Perry doesn’t want you to. On Sept 30, Perry effectively halted the official release of the commission’s findings. He replaced the chairman of the commission with Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, a Perry appointee in 2001. Among Bradley’s first tasks as chairman? Canceling the scheduled meeting between Beyler and the commission. Finally, on Friday, July 23, the commission was allowed to rule on the issue. While they didn’t find Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg negligent or guilty of misconduct, they did agree that state and local arson investigators (ie Vasquez, Fogg) used flawed science to determine the blaze was the result of arson.

How ironic that Vasquez and Fogg are spared the guilty verdict that Willingham was not. Official rulings aside, their findings still led to what is all but certainly the death of an innocent man.

I know the old saying that prison is full of “innocent” people. Of course nearly all inmates claim innocence. But what about the ones that really are? I’m not talking about crazy, hair-brained conspiracies on Prison Break. I’m talking about plain-and-simple, wrong place at the wrong time. Mistaken identity. False evidence. Just bad luck. One-hundred and thirty-eight times on death row they got the wrong man. And those are just the exonerations that have been proven so far. Rarely is there a 100 percent success rate in anything, so it is not a stretch to say that innocent people have been executed. It’s the most logical conclusion, actually, given the circumstances of 138 proven cases. The numbers spike even further for wrongful convictions not resulting in death row, 255 for post-conviction DNA exonerations.

Given the fact that the US has 2.3 million people behind bars, less than 500 wrongful convictions seems like almost nothing. Except when you remember these are people. American citizens who have spent decades locked up for crimes they didn’t commit. And those are the lucky ones. Some, like Willingham, were executed. When you can’t trust the evidence, a conviction beyond a shadow of a doubt is impossible. The death penalty as carried out in our fair land is anything but just. In light of these exonerations, and the most recent ruling in the Willingham investigation, the use of the death penalty should be suspended in the U.S. Once a better method of collecting and interpreting evidence is developed, the court can reevaluate the use of capital punishment. It won’t be an easy, cheap or fast process. Many may lose their jobs or election seats, but at least none of the casualties of the legal process will be an innocent life.

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Texas, Our Texas Wed, 26 May 2010 21:13:58 +0000 Texas: It’s a whole other country. While this phrase once caused me to smile and reflect fondly upon my native state, I’m not a fan of the latest manifestation of Texas’ rogue attitude: Rewriting History. On May 21, the Texas State Board of Education voted 9 to 5 to amend the social studies and history curriculum. The votes were taken right along party lines, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.

The board members voted to, among other things, downplay the civil rights movement, question the validity of the separation of church and state, and describe the U.S. Government, as a “constitutional republic,” not “democratic.”

I really like that last one. I say we take it a step further. Those mind-controlling media and academic elites have been brainwashing the public for too long with suggestive words like “democracy.” Pshh. While we’re at it, we should take a hard look at “demographic,” “demonstration”, and “demolition.” Let’s put ‘em all on the chopping block, and replace them with more Republican friendly alternatives. Instead of a demographic, it’s a “republigraphic.” A demonstration becomes a “republistration.” And demolition…wait…they can keep that one.

I almost forgot to mention the amendment that tried to give Thomas Jefferson the ax. Apparently being one of our founding fathers, overseeing the Louisiana Purchase, and starting the University of Virginia doesn’t make you a shoe-in for the history books these days. One of my favorite (read: sarcasm) amendments includes undercutting the beneficial role of the United Nations on the world. Rumor has it that we should in fact be “very, very afraid” of the UN.

To be fair, there are quite a few amendments that are perfectly benign. But that in no way makes this act defensible. The best description of what happened with the board in Texas goes to Rep. Mike Villereal, who voted against the amendments and said this:

“They have ignored historians and teachers, allowing ideological activists to push the culture war further into our classrooms. They fail to understand that we don’t want liberal textbooks or conservative textbooks. We want excellent textbooks, written by historians instead of activists.”

To me, that’s the crux of the matter. I realize everything is political these days, but this seems over the top.

Educational experts, (teachers, professors and the like,) who are qualified to develop school curriculum, spent a year and a half writing the textbook material. While I don’t expect the board to blindly approve whatever copy the experts provide, any alterations need to come with serious, academic backing, not merely political buzzwords.  The board attempted more than 200 amendments in the past week, some being presented on the final day, just minutes before the vote. As if it weren’t already painfully clear that this was a dig at Democratic politics, and not about providing the best education for students, Board Member David Bradley spelled it out for everyone.

“We took our licks, we got outvoted,” he said in reference to the debate 10 years earlier. “Now it’s 10-5 in the other direction … we’re an elected body, this is a political process. Outside that, go find yourself a benevolent dictator.”

Why do I feel like it’s entirely plausible that Bradley did a “nanny nanny boo boo” dance after that statement? Bradley also introduced an amendment that President Barack Obama be listed by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, in history books. Never mind that very few presidents are ever called with three names, or that the reason for using two or three names is left to the preference of each president. Let’s just make our own rules on this.

Truthfully, I’ve avoided writing a political post for a long time. And not for lack of material. I generally refrain from talking in absolutes, but it seems literally everything is polarized these days.  You can’t buy an organic apple without being a hippie. Anyone who wants cheaper healthcare is a socialist. If you’ve made money during the recession, you’re a greedy schemer. I’ve tried to watch the political arena from afar because I found it entirely too frustrating to explain that yes, I support Obama. But no, I don’t agree with the bailouts.  And yes, I’m pro-life, and that means I’m anti-death penalty. My political leanings don’t fit in the angry box that cable news networks have painted so neatly for both sides. I refuse to believe that I am the exception, but there’s this narrative out there that keeps trying to beat me down. It tells me there are only two sides, two colors, and it’s a cage match.

Despite my ribbing of this vote, I really don’t want to mock right now. I’m trying my hardest to view the extremists for what they are and look to the core of both parties for the good that they represent. But it feels like a losing battle. It doesn’t help that the nature of news is to bring to light the most interesting, unique, and by default, extreme position on matters. People like Bradley make headlines. To be frank, he sounds like one hell of a fun interview. But at the end of the day, he is further dividing our country.

These amendments embarrass me as a Texan, and are yet another sad sign that our country’s politicians are vehemently and fundamentally divided. Whether our citizens truly are, remains to be seen. It’s a challenge not to mimic the arguments we see congress and educational boards engaging in, but I hope we can rise above their poor example. Standing up for students’ rights to an unpoliticized education would be a good start.

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In Dog We Trust Tue, 11 May 2010 15:00:57 +0000 I feel I should preface this post with the fact that I do indeed, like dogs. All my life, I’ve enjoyed having a furry friend scampering about the house. Even though my first dog, Blanche, bit everyone who came over—family members included, I still have fond memories of her, tolerating our presence as she did.

Blanche was a rescue dog before there were rescue dogs. No, we didn’t get her from a special organization. We weren’t screened and deemed fit to handle her care. We didn’t buy her and the privilege of picking up her poop or washing the fleas out of her illustrious fur. We just found her, wandering our neighborhood, looking scared and needing a meal, a bath, and a bed. Funny, we don’t often invite people who posses these same pathetic qualities into our homes, but there is something disarming about an animal in this state that’s altogether alarming in a human.

My parents, being the humanitarians that they are, agreed the right thing to do was feed and wash the dog, let it rest, and then take it to an animal shelter where someone could adopt her. After all, they were already running a household of five, with a son who had a penchant for reptiles. Blanche didn’t seem to fit in the family picture. So one hot afternoon in Katy, Texas, we corralled a truck-owning neighbor and hosed the pup that would become known as Blanche down repeatedly with the full intention of sending her smelling of lilac right into the arms of her new family. Somewhere between lather, rinse, and repeat, my sister and I fell in love with the mutt.

We sent Amber in to give her most pathetic puppy eyes to our Dad and ask to keep Blanche. Like any red-blooded, American male faced with a little girl begging for something, my Dad caved. Blanche was ours, fleas and all. For fourteen years. She was a little dog, and they live a long time, mental health not withstanding. Despite all the love and care that we gave Blanche, which included birthday parties complete with cupcakes and pointy hats, she never really recovered from whatever horror her previous owners had put her through. She cowered when you went to pet her, bit new and old friends alike, and generally tried to avoid people. I recall my Mom buying her a faux leather jacket once, with a matching hat that had ear holes and an elastic chinstrap. This was really more of an ironic gift, poking fun of her biker-tough mentality, than an actual attempt to please Blanche or make her look presentable.

A lot has changed since the dog-owning days of my youth. Besides dog clothes making a fierce comeback, there are now dog car seats, dog diets, and my personal favorite, dog flu vaccines. One advertisement in a magazine devoted to none other than man’s best friend, pictured a sad looking puppy lying on the couch. The script below read: The only thing worse than having the flu is not being able to tell anyone about it. I happen to disagree. I think being manipulated to pay money for an animal to be preemptively injected with a strain of a human virus that is non-life-threatening and quite possibly doesn’t even affect canines, is a worse fate than suffering the seasonal flu in silence.

While walking around the neighborhood, I noticed the latest trend in pet ownership: Fence windows. It’s no longer enough to have a well-groomed backyard full of tennis balls. Today’s pet requires visibility. Some people only go the trouble of making dog-height level eye slits. Others screen in entire rectangles, allowing the dog to view the street activity with a wide lens. Our current family dog, Elvis, enjoys the aforementioned luxury. He also sleeps in his own bed at night with sheets and pillow. Although they both came to our house as strays, it’s not really fair to compare the temperaments of Elvis and Blanche.

Elvis was clearly the object of great affection and concern at his previous residence. His delightful disposition has prompted us to concoct many a tale of his escape or release into our neighborhood. Our favorite version has Elvis as a fraternity house dog who was dropped off unharmed by a the girlfriend/fiancé/wife of a fratastic dude who never took the time to untrain Elvis from sleeping on the sofa, getting in bed with you, or eating your ice-cream. Knowing he wouldn’t willingly part with the dog, she took matters into her own hands.

The very fact that we fantasize about our dog’s previous life shows the degree to which he has become part of the family. And we wouldn’t let our own kind sleep outside or live a life of wood-paneled imprisonment. Thus the burgeoning sector of luxury items for dogs. I don’t know if it’s because people are having fewer children now, or because they are waiting longer to start a family, or because we have more expendable income than before, but dogs are now a legitimate part of the economic sector. Although they don’t work themselves, they certainly know how to bring in the big bucks.

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Bring on The Madness Tue, 16 Mar 2010 19:47:58 +0000 I’ve always been a basketball fan. While I may not have the height to compete at a high rank, I enjoy everything from pick-up to play-off games, with ranging levels of personal participation. So when March rolls around, I’m in hoops heaven. With the NCAA Tournament starting on Thursday, I needed to stretch my basketball-watching muscles in preparation for the big dance. I decided on an old favorite—The Houston Rockets.

With a final score of a whopping 125-123 against the Denver Nuggets, this game sounds like a thrilling fight from start to finish. Oh contraire. Although the fans were on their feet, pacing, ringing their hands and going hoarse, the Rockets looked like it was the first quarter the whole game. The bench was calmly composed, with players leaning back in full warm-up gear as the clock ticked down the closing minutes.

Maybe I’m expecting too much. After all, these are professional athletes. This was just another day at the office for the Rockets, not an exciting diversion from lectures and exams. But the NFL isn’t devoid of emotion. Those players are paid handsomely and have a lot of pressure riding on each performance as well. And yet they don’t bore me. They jump up and down, and high five and chest bump after a big play like a couple of college kids. The Rockets celebrated, to be sure, but it was tempered and didn’t start until the final buzzer sounded. Despite the exciting write-up, there was no intensity, except that manufactured by the announcers and fans. The players looked cool as cucumbers, really talented, rich cucumbers.

College games with half as many points have twice the heart of the NBA and none of their salaries. March Madness can’t begin soon enough.

Slight Adjustments Fri, 12 Feb 2010 22:36:56 +0000 While my body is constantly in America, my mind is often in Ukraine. And I’m not talking about memories. My outlook on life is so changed that I routinely act in manner more befitting a Ukrainian than an American.

I realized I’ve been wearing the same clothes to work out in all week. I know to you this probably sounds disgusting, but it didn’t even register on my scale of abnormal. The clothes still smelled like laundry detergent. It seemed sacrilegious to throw them in the hamper after a mere 60 minutes of physical activity.

I went to a class at the gym on Wednesday morning. In lieu of a description, there was an acronym on the schedule “24 S.E.T.” For those of you who are as culturally illiterate as I am, I will enlighten you. It’s an hour workout on “The Biggest Loser” television show, and it is not for the fainthearted. Nor is it for those who haven’t picked up a dumbbell in 15 months. I was huffing and puffing like Joe Camel. The techno music and florescent lighting didn’t help.

My experience at the gym isn’t far off from my latest reassessment of American life in general. Both are loud, bright and clean. I left the gym with my head spinning and took refuge in the quiet, dark car, wearing my two-day-old shorts and T-shirt.

One of the things I missed most while in Ukraine was Church. I’d try to recreate the experience with music and Bible reading in my apartment, but I was really longing to be back in an American pew. Well, I got my wish. Sitting in a stadium style seat in Dallas, Texas, I was shocked by how cultural the whole experience was. I know, that’s what I said I was missing, American Church, and that’s exactly what I got. A blueprint of the new, hipster house of worship, complete with a chatty young minister wearing jeans and tennis shoes and confessing his former addiction to porn. Ah, pornography the most fashionable of sins. Drugs take it too far, sex is too political, but porn is just the right amount of naughty to be a permissible confession from the noticeably non-pulpit. This is an admittedly critical reflection of what I’m sure was a genuine worship service for many middle to upper class predominately white Texans. I just couldn’t get into it.

Since church isn’t about what makes me feel good but instead about worshipping and glorifying God, I decided to keep going. Not to the specific church in question (I don’t live in Dallas), but to another imperfect church for imperfect people. After the service, I decided to hit up a Sunday school class. What I really value about the church is the blending of age groups and sharing of wisdom. I don’t want to go to a class filled with people like me. I’m with me all the time. I know how I think. So I picked a class called “Blended by God,” and listed for “All Ages.” As I walked into the room I noticed young couples, older singles and then a familiar face, a high school friend’s mom. “Claire!?!? What are you doing here?” she exclaimed. Feeling slightly put off by the unwelcoming tone, I responded, “Going to church?” a little unsure of myself. “But you’re in the wrong class! This is Blended by God,” she said in exasperation. I tried to reason with her, “Aren’t we all blended by God?” Then she gave it to me straight. “This is for divorced families and remarried people.” Oops. That euphemism was a little too vague for culture-shocked me to pick up on without someone spelling it out for me. I need a lot of spelling out and directness these days. Americans are just too polite to give it to me.

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Rediscovering America Wed, 06 Jan 2010 20:31:14 +0000 I’d been warned about reverse culture shock. I’d been told it would be just as difficult to adjust to as the shock I felt my first weeks and months in Ukraine. But seeing is believing.

A week after I landed in Houston, I have already counted six people in their pajamas in public. I stare at them with an open mouth and judging eyes. Shaming them in the Ukrainian fashion. To be clear, I’m not talking about sweat pants. I mean legitimate nightwear: flannel fabric, patterned designs and drawstrings. After the high-fashion world of Ukraine, I find this appalling. I got stares for wearing flats, albeit nice leather ones, instead of heels. But this is too much. Of course, I quickly remembered several pre-Peace Corps experiences where I dawned nighttime garb outside my own four walls. I wore pajamas to take finals, to elementary school on several rebellious occasions, and undoubtedly to make a quick run to the store once or thrice, although I don’t particularly recall it.

My first full-day in America, my sister and I were going to get Tapioca Bubble Tea at the mall.

Pause for respect of the Bubble.

I emerged from my room in jeans, a round-neck sweater, and some slip ons. “Oh, you feel like dressing all cute,” my sister said from her hoodie and workout pants.  She reluctantly put on a pair of jeans. What’s funny is that I had purposely chosen a casual outfit. But after strolling around the mall, I realized by comparison I had in fact, dressed up.

In other fashion news, moms wear tennis shoes and chew gum and look and act remarkably like their children. I am trying not to be annoyed by this. Honestly, I don’t know how I missed this stuff before. Or why it should bother me. Such is the confusing world of being shocked by your own culture.

On a happier note: Grocery Stores. Wow. I grazed the gargantuan produce section, chuckling at both the selection (watermelons in December!) and the presentation. Misters rain down from above, sprinkling fruits and vegetables for extra shine and appeal, and all items are scrubbed to perfection to begin with. In Ukraine, not only do we eat in season (which has its benefits, I know, I know), but the food in stores is covered in dirt. I mean, if it came out of the ground, you can tell. Beets, potatoes, onions, carrots, etc are caked with earth and displayed haphazardly in bins. Presentation, what presentation? You know food tastes good. Why bother enticing you with bright orange carrots or brilliant beanstalks?

My first few days have been a sensory feast. Besides the optical offenses and delights, I’ve been amazed by how many good smells are in this country. I hug people and catch a whiff of detergent. It is enchanting. A walk around the neighborhood with my family (how wholesome) left me sniffing after dryer sheets. It’s not that everything stunk in Ukraine. It’s that I rarely noticed smells that weren’t food related. And yes, some things like trash heaps and crowded buses did not emit a pleasant aroma. But everything from pillows to carpet is scented to me now. I find myself walking into a room and taking a deep breath, and smelling people’s necks when I hug them. I probably should work on that last part.

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All Quarantined-up and Nowhere To Go Sat, 14 Nov 2009 15:30:06 +0000 It’s that time of year again: quarantine in Ukraine. Of course, this is no ordinary closure of schools. Generally, there are isolated outbreaks of the seasonal flu in January or February, causing individual regions and towns to shut down for a week or two. In addition to arriving in fall, this round of quarantine is nationwide for three weeks and affects all schools, universities, and public gatherings.

Filling 21 days is a daunting task, but I’ve been doing my best to stay entertained. The reopening of the best wireless café in town has helped exponentially. While this is far from a holiday for many people, for those of us who are still healthy, it oscillates from feeling like prison to one big party. With 25 national holidays, Ukrainians rarely need to invent reasons for celebration. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve raised my glass to the quarantine in the past 14 days. It’s never meant to be offensive. We are genuinely thankful for another day of health, another day of rest, and of course another excuse to crack open a spirited beverage.

I’ve never written a post about a Ukrainian holiday. This is not for a lack of them. It’s exactly the opposite. There are so many and the celebrations are so elaborate and exhausting that I don’t think writing about it can do them justice. But with another unscheduled week on my docket, I thought I’d give it a shot (pun intended).

Should you find yourself with about eight to 12 hours to kill and at least ten of your closest friends, then you would have the beginnings of a Ukrainian party. The entire party takes place around the table, guests seated and dishes rotating. The host spends the morning/day/night shuffling back and forth from the kitchen to the dinning area. The number of dishes served is generally seen more important than the quantity of any one dish. For example, your serving size of each salad is only a few spoonfuls because there are four or five of them. The host will rotate around, rinsing off plates between courses. The table is blanketed in salads, soups, and bread items first, then meat dishes, more salads, and other vegetables and fruits. Finally, after about six hours of this, you are ready for dessert, which will be several cakes, ice cream and chocolate, served with tea or coffee.

During all of this, you will be toasting the holiday, your host, your country, your favorite soccer team, etc with shots of liquor, preferably vodka or cognac. This must promptly be washed down with a choice of items including homemade juice, carbonated water, pickles, brown bread, or, a crowd favorite, pig’s fat, salted, peppered and sliced, called “salo.” Everyone is allowed and encouraged to make toasts, but only one person can pour the drinks all night. It is custom for it to be the man of the house, but any old Y chromosome will do. There are a few breaks throughout the party for which you are permitted to leave the table: dancing is always encouraged, and answering your cell phone is not considered rude. The men take several smoke breaks throughout the party, and the women often rearrange the plates or help in the kitchen when this happens. The rare man who doesn’t smoke becomes the darling of the night, getting more attention and time with the women than any of the others.

One of my more memorable Ukrainian party experiences was on New Year’s Eve 2008. In my experience, NYE is pretty overrated. The excitement builds until midnight and about half an hour later people start heading for the door. I think Ukraine is possibly the only place NYE celebrations are bigger than the hype. I was wholly unprepared for this level of festivity. At about 2 a.m. I noticed everyone getting coats and shoes on. I had been dosing in my seat and was thankful for the exit opening. I gathered my things and headed outside with all the other guests. But to my surprise instead of leaving, we were grilling shish kabobs in the snow. Nothing like a nice marinated stick of meat before you hit the hay. Had I known the party would continue until 2 p.m. the next day, I probably wouldn’t have considered it a bedtime snack.

While all other parties pale in comparison to an 18-hour bash, the last night in my training village where the owner of the local bar opened a case of champagne and turned on a strobe light as we were trying to exit certainly makes my list, as do all the in-school celebrations that still shock my western sensibilities. My favorite quarantine bash had a four-course dessert that I will not soon forget. With my vacation to America coming up next month, I wonder how our celebrations will stack up. For one thing, I know I’ll be shocked when the meal ends after only an hour or two.

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