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.


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.