Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist

A while ago I was in the car on the way downtown to a meeting, staring out the window, letting my mind wander, when I saw something so unexpected I did a double-take. What I saw, which I found so unbelievable I had to look again to be sure, was a white guy driving a black guy around. And almost as soon as I took that second look I realized the assumption underlying it, and I was ashamed.

In the States that would never have happened. Almost no one at home has a driver, certainly not enough to make a racial stereotype about it. The Driving Miss Daisy days are long over. A white guy and a black guy in a car are friends or colleagues or dating or married or whatever. In Guinea they’re a white guy and his driver, or so my subconscious tells me anyway.

The privilege that comes with being in the white majority in America is nothing next to the privilege that comes from being in the white minority in Guinea. It only takes a sideways glance to mark me as someone foreign, probably well educated, by Guinean standards filthy rich, and possibly somewhat important. There are rich, educated, important Guineans too of course – many who are much more of all three of those things than I am – but they don’t have it emblazoned on their face like I do. And apparently like every other white person in Conakry does, because now I’m seeing it too.

The human mind is a great generalizer, a tremendous pattern-finder (or pattern-maker). I find it a little disturbing how quickly and thoroughly mine has picked up on the patterns of my new home. I’m certainly not about to generalize myself into taking up the white man’s burden or joining the Klan, but it makes it a little more clear to me how those sorts of ideas take root.

By the way, what did I see on that second look? It turns out they were in a right-hand drive car; the black guy was driving after all. That did not make me feel any better.


4 Americans Died In Benghazi Over A Movie

As I’m sure you know by now, four American diplomats, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, were killed yesterday in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Over a movie. A movie that had absolutely nothing to do with them or the State Department or the U.S. Government, but they happened to be the most convenient target for misplaced rage, and they died for it.

This morning I came into work. I read the news. I raced through my mental list of FSO friends; I didn’t know anyone in Libya yesterday, but many of my colleagues are not so lucky. It could have been my friends. It could have been me. I watched the footage of the consulate building in flames, and I felt sick. And then I went to the window and adjudicated visas, because that’s my job, and even for a tragedy like this the work doesn’t stop. All around the world FSOs did the exact same thing: they watched, they grieved, and they kept doing their part to represent our country abroad with dignity and honor, no matter what. This is what we signed up for.

When you join the foreign service they tell you that you are now the face of the United States of America, on duty or off, in the office or at home, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And we are expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects well on our country. Well, guess what America. You are – all 314 million of you – the face of the United States of America. In this interconnected modern world you don’t even have to leave your house for a foreigner to meet you and judge you and your country by your words and deeds.

No one, especially not me, is going to argue that these killings were in any way justified, or that the individuals who perpetrated the attack do not bear ultimate responsibility for their actions. Nevertheless, those of us who are, knowingly, voluntarily, the most convenient targets would sleep a little better if some of our countrymen remembered that they are ambassadors too and conducted themselves as such. It’s hot enough out here already without our fellow Americans fanning the flames.


US Foreign Service Censorship And Other Matters

The topic du jour in the FS blogosphere is nipples, or the lack thereof on the official State blogroll. It seems some bureaucrat went through and pruned the official blog list recently, and one of the blogs removed belonged to Jen Dinoia: trailing spouse, wife, mother, breast cancer survivor. When she emailed to ask why, she was told that too much of the blog was “personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies,” and not necessarily FS-related. The blogosphere cried foul, saying Jen’s blog is too an FS story, and a compelling and well-told one that potential officers would enjoy. The Washington Postpicked up the story and it spread around from there until State succumbed to the inevitable and put a link to Jen’s blog back up. “State Department restores Foreign Service spouse’s blog to its Web site after censoring,” trumpets the Post.

I read Jen’s blog. I like Jen’s blog. But I think this whole thing is a little bit overblown. There is a word for what State is doing in putting up an official blogroll, and that word is ADVERTISING. State is selling a product – the FS lifestyle – and they choose the blogs on their list based on how well those blogs sell it. This is an entirely sensible marketing strategy. When you get that email from State asking if they can link to your site, they are asking if they can use you as free advertising, as a recruiting tool for future FSOs. I got one of those emails, and I said yes. I had to think about it for a few days, to decide if I wanted to shill for The Man. But I like my job and my life, and I decided this was a product I was willing to push.  I’m apparently still good advertising, since there isn’t a hell of a lot to do in Conakry but work and blog about it. But if and when I decide that the time has come to talk of other things and I stop being good advertising, they can dump me. There are plenty of FS blogs I don’t read and I don’t link to because I’m not really interested in pictures of their kids and such. That doesn’t make them any less “real FSOs.” Not being on the State list doesn’t mean that your experience isn’t a real and valid FS life; you just didn’t get cast for the commercial.

What State did with Jen’s blog – and especially the response sent to her email – may have been insensitive and ill-advised, but it wasn’t censorship. Jen’s blog will live on and delight its readers whether State links to it or not. However, that doesn’t mean censorship isn’t a problem in the FS blogging world. People DO get pressured to stop blogging by bosses or coworkers. Their jobs, their livelihoods get threatened because of their blogs. Not mine thank god, at least not yet, but it happens. Those blogs go dark, and that’s where the censorship charge starts to be more realistically applied. THAT’s where the risk is. THAT’s where the battle is. Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill when the mountain’s already there.


Why Foreign Service EER Season Is Awful

To every thing there is a season. There’s the traditional spring/summer/fall/winter rotation of course – or in Conakry, wet and dry – but the Foreign Service as an entity has seasons of its own. There’s budget season, strategic resource planning season, and the frenetic spending spree that marks the of the End of the Fiscal Year. Today is the final day of EER season, a period of several weeks during which the entire service withdraws to semi-hibernation in their offices to produce and push around the mountain of paper that is the annual Employee Evaluation Review. I could explain the EER process to you, but fortunately the internet has already stepped up in that department so you can read all about it here. But for the lazy, here’s the quick and dirty:

The report consists of: the rating statement- prepared (in theory) by the supervisor for employees at or below the rank of 02 and by the rated employee at 01 and above, the review statement- prepared by the next level of management, the dreaded “room for improvement” box and the rated employees final statement, affectionately known as the “suicide box.” Each report has to address issues such as leadership, management, communication skills, intellectual skills, job knowledge and of course EEO [equal employment opportunity].

The process of writing the report is intended to be collaborative and transparent, with the rated employee, the rater (immediate supervisor) and the reviewer (usually next step up the chain of command) working together to produce a report that places the rated employee within the organization and measures his or her performance against the work requirements of the position.

In reality, for all but the most junior of officers and the total screw-ups, the employee writes at least the first draft of his or her own rating statement-it is a simple matter of time and wanting to have the best report possible. Combine this with the unwritten policy of “damn by faint praise” for the screw-ups and it becomes extremely difficult to tell who is actually a standout employee. It is only with slight exaggeration they 
[sic] I say some reports use phrases like “when Dick is not walking on water he is busy turning it into wine.” Smiley wrote a bout [sic] visits recently- when the Secretary of State visits your post everyone of any elevated rank ends up with credit for the success of the visit- whether the visit was indeed a success or not. Much like grade inflation in our colleges, relative worth of an employee’s contribution is inflated to help that person stand out among a group of peers who all have basically the same job.

So basically my annual performance review is a joint essay project for me, my boss, and my boss’s boss, with the goal of convincing my future promotion and tenure panels (who most likely have never met me or seen any of my work) that I am not merely awesome, but the most awesomely awesomest with an extra coat of awesomesauce. Awesome. As a low man on the totem pole I only have to be concerned with my own EER, but the DCM has to come up with two or three glorifying paragraphs for almost every single person at the embassy, so you can see why this takes some time.

There is also mandatory section to list and briefly explain an area of improvement, but I’m learning that even this is precisely gamed to make the rated employee look as good – or as least bad – as possible, rather than addressing any actual professional shortcomings. Some areas of improvement are informally considered to be worse than others in certain career tracks and at certain points in one’s career and are therefore strategically avoided, with “Interpersonal Communication” widely rumored to be the universal kiss of death.

Since I haven’t been at post a year yet my EER isn’t due until next month, but my boss and I have already started work on it, picking out my greatest accomplishments since I arrived and polishing them up for that extra shine. I haven’t started my personal statement for the “suicide box” yet. I don’t really know what to say. I’ve never been especially good at tooting my own horn, despite being told by any number of teachers and career counselors and other mentor-type figures that this is a – if not THE – vital professional skill. But if I have to compete with all those other gilded lilies out there I guess I’d better have my sparkliest gold paint ready.


I. Hate. Moving. So. Much.

Moving is just the worst thing ever. EVER. I’ve done this a couple of times by now; you’d think I’d be getting good at it. You’d be wrong.

My pre-packing turns out to have been rather amateur; some important things like my checkbook (which I will need in Houston to buy a car) and my yellow card (which I will need to enter Ethiopia) are in boxes somewhere instead of in the suitcase pile where they need to be. Oops. These are not unsolvable problems, but they create extra work and stress that I could have saved myself with just a little more forethought.

Meanwhile, I leave Ireland for good in two days and I feel like I am making zero progress on all the little things that need to be done before I get on that plane. I packed out last week, but found out today that my air freight shipment is overweight and needs to be altered or paid for. Yesterday I took the cat to the vet and got his health cert, and in so doing discovered that I have every single piece of paper related to his health and moving history EXCEPT his most recent rabies vaccination cert, which is of course the one I need. His vet in Houston made me a new one but they can’t get it to me because they don’t have a scanner, so Mom has to go pick it up and email it to me. I love you Mommy! I got my house cleaned today at outrageous expense to be nice for the new tenants, but now I have to figure out how to pay the cleaners since they don’t take credit cards and I closed my Irish bank account last week. All of these things are supposed to be checked off my to-do list by now but for one reason or another they remain stubbornly unchecked.

Not panicking, not quite yet, but definitely feeling a little overwhelmed. Does it get better? By the next move, or the move after that, will I have enough skill and experience for things to be smoother, calmer? Or, as I expect/fear, is it total chaos every single time? Can I at least hope to reach some kind of moving zen state, where having to get my orders amended AGAIN no longer drives me to distraction? Remind me again: WHY do I do this every 2 years?


5 Things I Love (And Hate) About Addis Ababa

Here we are again, halfway through tour #3, which means it’s time to sum up how I feel about living in Addis Ababa. On the whole this has been a good tour for me so far, but nothing’s ever perfect is it?

Top Five Things I Love About Addis

1.   My Job 

Man, my job is so great. Working at USAU I get to cover a huge range of really interesting economic and political issues with a continent-wide scope. Sure, it’s a lot to keep track of sometimes, but I never get bored, and I feel like I’m doing things that matter. People in Washington read and value my reporting, which I know because I get a lot of positive feedback on it. That doesn’t always happen.

 2.   The Country 

Ethiopia is an amazing place. Astonishing natural beauty, rich history and culture. And, with one recent notable exception, it’s been relatively easy to get out and experience all that Ethiopia has to offer. I still have barely scratched the surface of the country, and I hope to see much more in the time I have left. 

3.   The Food

I love Ethiopian food. But there’s also really good Italian food in Addis, plus hipster burger joints, jazz brunch, Korean barbeque, French, Indian, all kinds of stuff. And the coffee, of course, is unparalleled. Food is a key morale issue for me, and Addis makes me happy in that department. 

4.   My Social Life

Addis is the diplomatic capital of Africa with over 100 missions, and there are lots of other expats here for other reasons. This means endless parties and cultural events, and lots of great people to hang out with. Addis has live music and festivals and new-release movies, (even in 3D!), so there’s plenty to do. 

5.   The Weather

One of Ethiopia’s tourism slogans is “13 Months of Sunshine.” While this isn’t totally accurate, 75 degrees and sunny is the usual state of affairs for most of the year. My house has no heat and no A/C, and doesn’t really need it. It’s lovely. 

Top Five Things I Hate About Addis

1.   The Driving

Driving in Addis is terrible, even worse than Conakry. Pedestrians, taxis, minibuses, motorcycles, giant honking tour coaches, overstuffed trucks, handcarts, donkeys, flocks of sheep, stray dogs, all moving around on the streets in whatever way seems best to them at the time, sometimes seemingly oblivious to the presence of other vehicles. Despite the scattered existence of lane lines and traffic lights, the only real rule of the road is whoever gets in, wins. And watch out for potholes! In some places half the road washes away in the rainy season. I have been lucky enough to avoid any serious accidents so far (knock on wood), but my swearing has increased 10-fold since I first got behind the wheel. 

2.   The Air Pollution

Addis isn’t Delhi, but it’s not crystal mountain air either. The embassy installed Africa’s first EPA-standard air quality monitors in Addis earlier this year, and the readings aren’t looking great. Living in a city packed with fume-spewing 40-year-old Ladas is not ideal for one’s long-term bronchial health. 

3.   The Internet

Ethiopia has Africa’s most expensive internet, and you’re not getting much bang for your buck. Sometimes you can do a little low-res streaming, and other times a simple Google search is too much to ask. As a state-owned monopoly, the local telecom has little incentive to improve, and sometimes shuts service down altogether for political reasons. On the bright side, I read a lot more books then. 

4.   The Altitude

A year and a half in and I’m still gasping for breath after two flights of stairs. Every time I think I’m getting acclimated I go on vacation and seemingly have to start all over again when I get back. Send me back to sea level! (Ideally in the vicinity of the actual sea. I’m not a fan of landlockedness either.)

5.   City Living

I got spoiled in Dublin with so many wonderful options to just go take a walk or a bike ride. Addis does not have those. There are hardly any parks or green spaces to speak of, and with broken sidewalks, pickpockets, and the aforementioned diesel fumes, the streets of Addis are hardly ideal for a stroll. Driving everywhere all the time makes me fat. And swear a lot. 


How To Make Coffee From Scratch

As soon as I discovered the coffee trees growing in my yard, I was determined to turn those beans into coffee of my very own. And then I forgot about it for a while. But as my time in Ethiopia is drawing to a close, I finally pulled it together and got it done.

Processing coffee is a lengthy, multi-step process. I used these instructions for what is known as the “wet method,” where you remove the beans from the cherries before drying. The traditional Ethiopian way is the “dry method,” which dries the beans still in the cherries in big sheets in the sun. This works best when you’ve learned at your daddy’s knee how to tell when the beans are ready. For the rest of us, the wet method provides more easily observable benchmarks.

These are the beans on my coffee tree, or one of them anyway. Yields per tree are pretty low and with variable sunlight and rain in different parts of the yard all my trees have their own unique growing schedules, so I only got a handful of beans. Make sure to wash the cherries really well!

My instructions told me to squeeze the berries by hand or tamp them with a piece of wood in a bucket. After an hour or so of painstaking squeezing I hit on a (much preferable) third method: squish the cherries gently with a bench scraper or the flat of a chef’s knife. The beans pop right out, and you can do 4 or 5 at a time. Keep the cherries, as you can use them for a special bonus drink.

Next you ferment the beans by leaving them in a bowl of water for 24 hours. You’ll know they’re ready when you wash a few and the beans feel gritty, not slippery. Once that’s done it’s time to dry the beans. I did mine on a wire drying rack lined with cheesecloth in my dining room, which gets lots of sunlight. The beans are sufficiently dry when the outer hull is a pale straw color and feels brittle, and the bean inside is grey/blue and hard, not chewy, between your teeth. I was kind of paranoid about this, so I dried mine for three weeks, stirring occasionally. After that you need to rest the beans in a can or jar for another two weeks to let the remaining moisture resettle.

Your beans still have a tough parchment layer on the outside that needs to be removed; this can be done by hand, kind of like shelling very small pistachios, or if you have a food processor with a plastic blade (to avoid cutting the beans) you can give them a gentle spin. At this stage you finally have green coffee.

Those coffee nerds with their own fancy roasting and grinding equipment can take it from here. I don’t have that stuff, so I roasted my beans the Ethiopian way, in a dry pan. Keep the beans moving for a more even roast. They’ll start popping and smoking when they’re getting close to done, so keep a window open. Once you have reached your desired roasting level, cool the beans by swirling them around in a fine metal strainer. This also helps remove the very last layer, a papery skin. Rubbing the beans in a clean dishtowel finishes the job.

Run the beans through a grinder (or in my case, a mortar and pestle) and you’re ready to brew your coffee in whatever manner seems best to you. I made mine in an Italian-style Moka pot. And it was good! Smooth and mellow, with some hazelnut undertones. Success!!

Special Bonus Drinks: Cascara Tea and Coffee Leaf Tea

Cascara tea is made from dried coffee cherries, often mixed with cardamom and other spices. It’s popular in coffee-producing areas where the beans are all sold off, but the cherries are available for free as a byproduct. Just dry the cherries at the same time as you’re drying the beans, grind the dried fruit, and add spices as desired. Pop it in a tea strainer with some boiling water, and you’re done! Add sugar or honey to taste. When I tried it without anything added I got a mild beverage with a light melon flavor (and some unpleasant terroir – I guess my quick rinse wasn’t quite enough.)

Coffee leaf tea is exactly what you think it is: coffee leaves dried, crushed, and brewed in boiling water. I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s on my list. It’s apparently full of antioxidants and whatnot.


We Need a Little Christmas

I love Christmas. LOVE IT. I love the lights and the sparkle. I love the wreaths and the tinsel. I love Christmas carols. I love how everything smells like pine and cinnamon. I love Christmas cookies and peppermint hot chocolate. I love the surprises and the anticipation.

Unfortunately, Guinea can be a difficult place to get your Christmas fix. It’s a Muslim country so for most people Christmas isn’t on the radar. Those who do celebrate Christmas generally do it pretty quietly – being one of the poorest countries in the world, Guinea certainly can’t support the insane levels of commercialization of the holiday you see in the States. After paying for food and shelter and school fees, for most people there’s not a lot left over for Christmas light extravaganzas (or reliable enough power to make them run).

I know, I know, the decorating is not the point. But dammit, I LIKE that stuff! The weekend after Thanksgiving I got out my Christmas box. I clipped the stockings on the freezer and put out a tablecloth and a centerpiece on the dining room table. And then I thought, crestfallen, “oh. I guess that’s it.” After last year’s incident I am without a Christmas tree, which represented the majority of my seasonal decorating, and it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without one. Dipping into my arsenal of Christmas movies has helped a little, but it still feels a lot more Blue Christmas than Jingle Bells around here.

So I have decided to take charge. I will find a tree – any kind of tree – and put in in my living room and cover it with lights. I will have a Christmas party. We will decorate cookies and listen to Bing Crosby. We will eat gingerbread and drink mulled wine. I will drum up some holiday cheer if it kills me, because I, for one, need a little Christmas now.


Things I’ve Liked on the Internet Recently

Wiped out from the holidays? Kick back with the most relaxing song ever. If eight minutes aren’t enough for you, give it a try on infinite loop.
How tongue twisters work
The University of Chicago received a mystery package – for Indiana JonesMystery solved, thanks to the internet.
Google – Mad Men style. This is fun to play with but only reaffirms my amazement at the thought that anyone got anything done before the internet.
Folding origami house. For people who want to take redecorating to a whole new level.
Creepy critter close-ups. Nature is insane.
Meet Peggielene Bartels – the secretary who’s also a king.
American Girl doll music videos. Kind of creepy, also kind of cool. Check out the Ke$ha video in panel 6.

And here’s a kitten playing ping-pong:


Ejusdem Generis

I know a lot of lawyers. I’ve always known a lot of lawyers. And when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, a lot of lawyers said to me, “Meredith, you’d make a great lawyer.” So I thought about it. In college I took a constitutional law class, for undergrads but taught by a law school professor with the law school casebook. It was a fascinating class and the hardest-earned A-minus I ever got. At the end of it I knew for certain that I did not want to be a lawyer.

I decided that I did not want to live my life entombed in paper, surrounded by piles of files and giant heavy law books. I didn’t want to spend my working hours painstakingly picking through page after page of dull legalese and dense contractese and other uninteresting -eses (all in tiny print, of course) to find the one phrase, or sometimes the one word, that the whole case was hanging on. I didn’t want to put the results of my research into bland but thorough letters to send to other lawyers or bureaucrats in an attempt to get them to do things. None of that sounds like fun.

Guess what I did all afternoon. I sat at my desk, surrounded by piles of files and the consular officer’s bible – Bender’s Immigration and Nationality Act Pamphlet. It’s 1900 pages long. I spent my working hours painstakingly picking through page after page of dull legalese like:

“A spouse or child (as defined in section 101(b)(1)(A), (B), (C), (D), or (E)) of an eligible alien who is granted asylum under this subsection may, if not otherwise eligible for asylum under this section, be granted the same status as the alien if accompanying, or following to join, such alien.”

to find the one phrase the whole case was hanging on so I could put the results of my research into a bland but thorough letter to send to bureaucrats in an attempt to get them to do things.

Looks like I haven’t escaped the lawyerly life after all. But at least I managed to avoid going $150,000 into debt for the privilege.


I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Achievement unlocked: Christmas Spirit!

My little Christmas party was just what I needed, thanks to a little help from my friends. One donated a tabletop tree (as seen at left); another provided cookie decorating supplies; a third brought an iPod stuffed with Christmas tunes. I handled the food, of course. There was mulled wine and gingerbread and pumpkin pie and assorted savory snackables. The hand-imported Texas beef tenderloin morsels were particularly well received. Things in general are beginning to look a lot like Christmas, in a way that they absolutely were not a week ago.

On the other hand, Christmas is now pretty much all I can think about. In particular, my Christmas R&R. With nine days to go I cannot stop thinking about the amazing food to eat, people to see, tasks to accomplish, and things to buy in the States. I’m even dreaming about it. The other night I had a terrible nightmare that I got to the airport to go home and found that I didn’t have my passport or a suitcase with me. TOTAL PANIC. I have (so far) resisted the urge to actually start packing my bags, though that doesn’t mean a fairly detailed mental packing list hasn’t been made.

I don’t remember being this obsessed last year. A cursory perusal of last year’s writings suggests that I was not; while plenty of holiday enthusiasm is displayed, the gnawing hunger for America that’s been creeping up on me lately is nowhere in evidence.  Last Christmas I has only been here six months, so Conakry was still fresh and exciting. I was also wrapped up in work, whereas this year the comparatively relaxed and predictable pace of consular has left me with more time to daydream about Tex-Mex and high-speed internet.

But I only have to obsess for nine more days, and then I can hop on a plane and make my American dreams come true. And in the meantime I can try fending off that gnawing hunger with leftover gingerbread and pie. It’s worth a shot.


Pack Rat

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of cat like a suitcase being pulled out of the closet. Its appearance can mean only two things, both more or less unpleasant. He may be stuffed into his loathed cat carrier and dumped unceremoniously with his mean Uncle Seamus*, who doesn’t let the cat interrupt his sleep or claw his leather recliner or do anything else fun. Or, even worse, he’ll be jammed into the reviled carrier and brought to that horrible crowded place where he’ll spend forever waiting in lines, get manhandled at security, and then be forced to spend hours and hours and hours in a noisy tin can with no leg room. (Jabberwocky and I have similar feelings on air travel.) It’s the lesser of two evils in this case, not that that makes it okay.

I am much happier than he is to have the suitcase out, though deciding how best to fill it is turning out to be a bit of a challenge. I am trying to pack for a travel itinerary that will require a bikini, a parka, and just about everything in between. T-shirts and sweaters. Heels and hiking boots. I will need clothes to ride horses in and clothes to wear to fancy restaurants. Clothes for clubbing and clothes for spelunking. And since I don’t yet have a lot of necessary pieces (not much call for ski pants in Conakry), there needs to be plenty of space left over to accommodate new acquisitions. It’s like fashion Tetris, and it reminds me why I hate fashion in the first place. However, attempting to pull together 3 cubic feet’s worth of flexible travel outfits out of my pathetic excuse for a wardrobe is as good a way as any to pass the time until I can finally, joyfully, get in that noisy tin can with no leg room and go home. THREE DAYS. Can’t wait.

*Not his real name, but he picked it out.


A Christmas Story

Ah, Christmas at home. The house smells all spicy, the tree is covered with lights and sparkles, and the air is filled with carols, courtesy of the Christmas music channel on Mom’s TV. For visual interest, in addition to the album information for each song, the channel has a “Did U Know” box with holiday-related “fun facts”. Most of them are so obvious and banal that they scarcely qualify as fun and have little educational value, though I suppose they are still technically facts. However, one piqued my interest. It said something like “when Parliament banned Christmas, mince pie was forbidden.” The mince pie bit is of no consequence, especially since I hate mince pie, but what about this banning Christmas thing? “Did U Know” declined to elaborate on the subject, preferring instead to next inform me that Natalie Wood starred in Miracle on 34th Street (well DUH), but that’s what the internet is for.

(The following information and quotations are all pulled from Wikipedia, because that’s the highest level of scholarship I’m willing to go to for a blog post during my R&R.)

Turns out Christmas was banned in England from 1647 to 1660, as the Puritan Parliament ruling at the time objected to it as “‘a popish festival with no biblical justification’, and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.” They felt that the holiday was so hopelessly tainted with pre-Christian winter solstice rituals – yule logs, wassailing, holly and mistletoe, etc. – that it was better to ditch it entirely and replace it with a day of fasting. This led to pro-Christmas riots in Canterbury, with protestors carrying holly and shouting royalist slogans.

Colonial Puritans were no less Grinchy; Christmas was banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Though most other Protestant sects didn’t take things to the same extreme, the holiday’s pagan associations led some groups to reject some aspects of traditional Christmas celebrations and/or de-emphasize the holiday in favor of Easter and Epiphany, which had more obviously Christian themes (easter bunnies aside). “Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans.” Congress didn’t recognize Christmas as a federal holiday until 1870.

Christmas in its modern form is largely a result of a mid-Victorian Christmas revival led by Charles Dickens and exemplified by A Christmas Carol,  in which “Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” American celebrations followed suit; “[h]istorian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to refocus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one centered on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response.” (How did that work out?)

So there we go. I did end up learning something interesting from the Christmas music channel, despite its best efforts. I also have new respect for Dickens, who I had no idea was so instrumental in rescuing my most favorite holiday from the grasp of dour papists and Puritans. I’ll raise a glass of eggnog in his honor.


Things For Which I Am Thankful

Pork sausage. Travel books. Kitty snuggles. Cushy white Land Cruisers with good shocks. Beaches. Beach umbrellas. Waterfalls. Savings accounts. Decongestant. Comp time. Internet. Surprise mushrooms. Stamps. Patience. My sunroom. The student loan repayment plan. Pumpkin caramel tea. Support networks. Feeling pretty sometimes. Mail day. Dinner invitations. USB. Magic cleaning elves. Breaks in the routine. Friends who know all my flaws and like me anyway. Lazy Saturdays. Learning new things. Chocolate pecan pie. Family who are always there when I need them. Employment. My Kindle. Sunshine. Something to look forward to.

Etc., etc., etc.


Philanthropy for Cold-Hearted Hard-Nosed Realists

With the day of giving thanks behind us, the season of giving has arrived.

Dad sent me a link to this great TEDx talk on a series of studies that illustrate how spending money on other people makes you happier than spending money on yourself. Science! I recommend watching the whole thing, but I’d particularly like to draw your attention to the part around 06:15, comparing buying your mother a scarf (in Canada) to paying medical bills for a friend’s kid with malaria (in Uganda):

From the giver’s perspective, how much you give or what exactly your gift buys doesn’t seem to matter very much – when you feel like you have done something nice for someone else the psychic payoff is about the same. This is great for encouraging everyone to give a little bit, but it also means that sometimes well-intentioned people who give without thinking end up getting their warm fuzzies by giving gifts that are suboptimal, ineffective, or even counterproductive.

I saw some pretty dramatic examples of this in my last job at the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, during the response to the earthquake in Haiti. Thousands and thousands of people saw the footage of the devastation on the news and gave with their hearts instead of their heads, so they donated things like old winter coats and frozen microwave dinners to people who live in the sweltering tropics and who never had access to freezers or microwaves before the quake, let alone afterwards. Those gifts did no one any good at all, and in some cases did harm by using up limited resources (like shipping containers) that could have been put to work providing more useful assistance. But the givers still got to feel good about themselves, though they probably wouldn’t have felt that way if they knew how utterly useless their gifts were to the people they honestly did want to help.

How do we fix this? Information! Research! Knowledge is power! (And cash is best.) Charity Navigator is a great place to find out how efficiently charities use their donated dollars and how transparent they are about where that money goes and what effects it has. You can look up organizations that you know to see how they rank, or browse by category to find groups that are doing good work for a cause that you care about.

But what if you are a detached, disinterested Homo economicus who cares neither more nor less about spotted owls than baby seals? What if you have no inherent preference to fight breast cancer rather than prostate cancer, or to fight cancer at all rather than saving the rainforest, ending child hunger, or protecting women’s rights? What if you just want to find the single activity that maximizes the global increase in human happiness and well-being per dollar spent and put your money there? That’s a much more challenging question, but fear not! Cost-benefit analysis is here to help!

Earlier this year a crack team of five economists, including four Nobel laureates, plowed through the most up-to-date research on how to best tackle the world’s most pressing problems for the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 Project. They weighed the evidence and distilled all that data down to a ranked list of the 16 actions that provide the best overall bang for the buck. And the winner is…bundled interventions to reduce undernutrition in preschoolers! Sexy, right? Other highlights include subsidizing malaria treatments, deworming schoolchildren, investing in early-warning systems for natural disasters, and getting people to consume less salt. The project even has a handy Guide to Giving to help individual donors like you or me funnel their charitable gifts in ways that will help meet these goals.

So there you are. Go forth and give – generously, intelligently, effectively, and efficiently! It’ll give you those warm fuzzies you’ve been wanting, and help save the world too. However, if these carefully reasoned rational arguments have failed to sway you, go give some money to the ASPCA. Because KITTENS!


Things I’ve Liked on the Internet Lately

At face value: what people can (and can’t) tell from your face alone
Recreating Thanksgiving overseas can be challenging enough; how would you like to try it on Mars?
Ever wonder what brain activity would sound like as a piano score? No? Someone did.
Dancers +  powder = amazing photos
The patron saint of the Internet: St. Isidore of Seville
The cyborgs are coming
The world’s greatest screenplay was written more than 30 years ago – the movie still hasn’t been made.
Fun with fancy paper folding: origami zoo and Starwarigami 

Living bridges made from the roots of fig trees. Just more confirmation that the world is an incredible place and I haven’t seen nearly enough of it yet.