Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Holidays 2011!

The year opens: a hot day in a dusty, apocalyptic valley of crushed homes and rubble. But on the hillside, one of our heroines is still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. It is January, and Petra is in Haiti…

Petra spent the first three weeks of the year working with Explorers Sans Frontiers (ESF), an NGO that provides mobile medical clinics to people in Port-Au Prince tent cities. Petra reviewed ESF’s activities and recommended ways to improve their efficacy, looked at how ESF works with partners, and helped out in the clinics. Many aspects of daily life were difficult, but she loved the heat and the sounds and smells of the camp waking up in the morning. She also became fast friends with her ten-year-old host Reggie, spending many hours in the sun learning Creole and playing tic-tac-toe.

REGGIE: Ah! Reggie a gagner!
PETRA: Oui, magnifique! Reggie a gagner perfectment: Formidable. Tu as gagne mon coeur aussi.

Meanwhile, in a dark, wet, ancient, brick alleyway thousands of miles away, our other heroine shivers in the cold while contemplating the beauty of a solitary Christmas tree backlit against a medieval cathedral. It is still January, and Erika is at the other end of the global experience spectrum…

Erika spent a delightful Christmas and New Years enjoying the beautiful architecture and cuisine of Italy with her sister Lisa and their mom Lilli. The three of them hiked in the Cinque Terra, one of Erika and Petra’s favorite places on earth; explored the city of Siena – where Lisa now lives – from top to bottom; and had a revelrous New Years in Venice.

LISA: Each neighborhood in Siena has a distinctive identity and history, and they’re very competitive. Each is represented by a proud animal symbol: dragon, rhinoceros, porcupine, lion, caterpillar, seashell …
ERIKA:… Seriously? That must be a fierce caterpillar! What neighborhood are we in now? Ma, check the map?
LILLI: Um…snail. But it looks like a very fierce and proud snail… I wouldn’t want to mess with that snail.

Back in New York: Having sailed through the fall semester, Petra decides to tempt the academic fates by signing up for five spring courses. Erika works in academic administration with various charter schools in Harlem and the Upper West Side…

ERIKA: Hey sweetie! Want to meet me for a coffee in Little Senegal after work today?
PETRA: I want to but I have to study for my economics exam! What did you do at work today?
ERIKA: Created endless databases: Excel and I have become one. But didn’t you just take your economics exam?
PETRA: No, that was for my OTHER economics course. I’ll see you… come summertime?

Summer finds our heroines separated by thousands of miles of ocean. They strive to contribute their skills and enthusiasm to solve the world’s toughest problems, from southern Africa to Central America …

Over the summer, Petra went to Zambia as the leader of a research team gathering and analyzing local client quality- of-life information for global microfinance organization FINCA. She loved it: though based in capital city Lusaka, it was her job to spend most of her time traveling around Zambia with a fantastic team of co workers, interviewing more than 400 financially-insecure people about their lives and businesses. She managed to squeeze in a wildlife safari in South Luangwa National Park and two trips to the stunning Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean border: in the process, she fell in love with warthogs and almost learned to cook nshima. Petra still misses the call of the muezzin in the morning, and looks forward to exploring more of the beautiful continent.

Erika spent three months interning in Costa Rica with CIRENAS, a new environmental education and conservation non- profit located on a pristine peninsula in Western Costa Rica, surrounded by thousands of acres of protected rainforest and coastal ecosystem. To say it was “remote” is an understatement. CIRENAS is off the grid, and getting to the nearest town requires fording two rivers and a many-miles trek on dirt roads through the jungle: horses are frequently the preferred means of transport. Erika absolutely loved it, and is pleased with the contributions she was able to make to CIRENAS’ education programs and developing organizational structures. She misses the quiet, the warm Pacific Ocean, the natural beauty, the fun of learning a new habitat, and especially the friends she made there. She does not miss being surprised by giant hot-purple crabs crawling out the shower drain.

Our heroines are joyfully reunited for Autumn in New York, where they settle in for their second year (the first time in four years that they’ve been somewhere for a second year!)...

Petra’s fall at Columbia was busy and productive: Her favorite courses are Advanced Statistics, Research Design, and Water and Sanitation in Complex Emergencies. The time has gone faster than she would have imagined possible, but she’s learned a ton and is confidently looking forward to reentering the professional field in a few months’. Actually, she’s already working part-time at the Earth Institute (a Columbia think-tank) working on monitoring and evaluation approaches for oral health in the Millennium Village project. It’s exactly the= kind of work she was hoping to do upon graduation, and so is super-psyched to be getting started already.

Erika started school again herself this fall, jumping back in with enthusiasm and dedication. She’s started pursuing a MA in Nonprofit Management at The New School, which she has been surprised to find is even more progressive and action-oriented than Smith. Erika has also been surprised to discover that she’s very good at Financial Management as well as Statistics; she, of course, is the only one surprised by this. She loves her fellow classmates and has been delighted to make several awesome new friends: it’s convenient for socializing that the school has hand-selected such an inspiring group of radical change-makers as her school peers.

Other highlights of the year included playing in the snowy aftermath of last January’s NYC and CT blizzards, visiting Erika’s brother Reed, sister-in-law Sue, and their boys in Maine, learning some great new soup recipes, spending time with Petra’s parents on the coast of Maine, celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary soon after New York State legally recognized same-sex marriage, cleaning up a friend’s garden, volunteering at a community garden in Brooklyn, visiting Erika’s mom and attending the Hebron Harvest Fair, seeing Erika’s extended family and celebrating despite the snow at her cousin Corban’s October wedding, a warm and delicious and relaxing Thanksgiving at Petra’s parents’ home, and the joyful hectic visits of many friends who came through the city.


Next year promises more excitements: Petra is off to Haiti again in January to consult with World Vision Haiti as part of her work at Columbia. May, when Petra will be graduating and starting full-time work (job offers gladly accepted!), is coming faster than the speed of light. Erika’s eager to start her new courses for the spring, and is considering finding a part-time position to expand the breadth of her non-profit experience. But for now, it’s a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets: who knows what the future will really hold? Until next year… [Fade to black]

P.S. We hope you enjoy the picture on this year’s card. If you will allow us a moment of sincerity (to borrow from John Stewart), our idea was to playfully raise questions about the commercialization of Christmas: hence, the image of us facing down the Wall Street Bull bedecked with reindeer antlers as it has apparently rampaged through Christmas. The various festivals that combined to form the modern winter holidays are celebrations of birth, hope, redemption, renewal, peace, family, and love. We’d like to focus on those values at this time of year (and all year long), rather than let capitalism and materialism charge through our holy days.

The imagery also references the “Occupy” movements that have captivated the country. Being in NYC, we are very aware of the movement’s presence: protestors occupied a building at Erika’s school, friends have participated regularly to the point of arrest, and we have visited the encampments several times. We strongly support many of the movement’s central themes, including a drastic redistribution of wealth. And we feel incredibly blessed to live in a country that (at least usually) makes space for free speech, productive dissention, and change. We hope that the radically progressive movement can survive being judged by its worst members, and can someday effect real change, making America a more equitable and fair society.

Monday, July 25, 2011

If this is America, where is my home?

I’m back on US soil. Suddenly I am surrounded by rudeness, impatience, judgement, disapproval, selfishness, obesity, poor parenting, intolerance, stress. Everyone criticizing everyone and everything else: assessing and sneering and glaring and rolling their eyes and huffing and muttering and shifting impatiently and making snide comments. The weather is horrible, that guy can’t drive, what was she thinking with those shoes, don’t sit there, you’re a freak, what a loser, omg I can ‘t see the tv, shut up, because I said so.

And that’s just the people physically present. Let us not forget the messages coming from the TVs, which btw are absolutely everywhere. I have learned: My hair is not silky enough. I need a better tan and a bigger TV with lots of channels. Coke; no, Pepsi; no, Coke; no, Pepsi. I should let ‘my man’ have fun this summer while I enjoy special time with the kids, at whom I will bemusedly shake my head. I am fat, and should get fit (process unspecified, seemingly involving hanging out laughing at cafes with girlfriends). I should get plastic surgery: specifically, a nose job, face lift, and botox, which are no big deal. I should go blonde(r). I should drink more, and shop at J.C. Penny, where I can create my own new individual look, which should center on floral cocktail dresses, which will make me more confident. My car should be bigger and a stick shift and I should drive it too fast, which will constitute an appreciation of fine motor craftsmanship and a fulfillment of satisfying living. I should redecorate my home in shades of green, and cook meals inspired by Nuevo-British cuisine, plus cupcakes.

In all seriousness, it’s left an absolute pit in my stomach to re-enter this world of criticism and disparagement. I know there are nice people in this country, and people who are confident and who love themselves and others just the way they are and/or for more meaningful reasons than the above. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are constantly, constantly, being told we’re not good enough. It’s only having been away from it that allows me to see the pressure and realize how it makes me feel.

Some smaller things that are taking some getting used to: warm showers. The horrifying first thing that came to mind when the warm water poured over me was that I was showering in a stream of pee (urine being the only warm liquid I had encountered in months). Even that aside, it was a rather disgusting feeling. Also: artificial sweeteners and corn syrup. They taste horrible. I had become so entirely spoiled by everything being sweetened by sugar, usually raw. Food options: all I can see is processed, sugary, fattening, and/or artificial. I long for the whole, fresh, local foods that are typical in Costa Rica, and fear I will not be able to maintain the level of fitness and digestive happiness I have effortlessly attained over the summer. Noise pollution: there are sounds of engines and machinery everywhere! And I’ve commented on this previously on this blog, but I am struck once again: American public bathrooms smell horrible, and there is the reek of man-pee throughout nearly all public spaces (like sidewalks). This is not acceptable or normal! It doesn’t have to be this way!

Now, if I were being a good make-everyone-else-happy-and-comfortable American woman, I would try to balance this blog post out with a nice palatable conclusion featuring some of the things I have enjoyed about being back home.* But I don’t want to make these truly unacceptable things above softened in any way. It’s not ok. I don’t like this culture and how it makes me feel. I’m not glad to be in this country. It leaves me with the feeling of wanting to go home. But this is supposed to be my home. And that makes me very, very sad.

*Family, potable water from the taps, air conditioning, dryers, wifi, wine.

Friday, July 22, 2011

San Jose the city

I had visited San Jose, the capital and principal city of Costa Rica, once before, on the occasion of a Tica college friend’s wedding. Memories of grime, mistrust, and exhaust gave me no reason to ever think I’d return. But though I’d assiduously avoided it during my journey towards the peninsula, I found myself this time wanting to give The City a chance to redeem itself, and so stayed there for two days on my way back home.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed San Jose this time around. Located in the bowl-like Central Valley, ringed steeply by volcanoes, the city is steeped in the stew of its own smog and effluvia. Narrow, unmarked, paved streets divide rows of 1-3 story buildings. Architectural styles range from the basic universal shack to modern 1960s hilarities to imitations of Spanish colonial forms almost cartoonized in their simplification. Construction materials are dominated by corrugated tin and cement blocks, with colors of rust and bold solid paints dulling the eye. Steep hills and deeply-cut drainage ditches make traversing the narrow sidewalks somewhat treacherous. Crime is high, necessitating not only constant vigilance on the part of pedestrians, but also prompting window bars and fences and barbed wire everywhere, making street scenes look like long narrow prison yards.

The city is much cooler than the coasts, which is pleasant, but its urban density and modern economy strip away almost everything I enjoyed about the culture elsewhere in the country. A third of the country’s population lives in this dense metropolitan area. Shopping malls, chain stores, business suits, fast cars, and general bustle have taken over. I am somewhat resigned to this as a necessity, though, along the lines of the cultural scapegoat: San Jose’s commerce, industry, universities, transporation hubs, etc., allow the placidity of the rest of the country to remain unaltered while providing the influx of resources that permit the country to thrive above the poverty level. It’s as if they have condensed and quarantined all of the less pleasant aspects of modernity to this valley.

The city sadly lacks the cultural institutions and opportunities that usually balance out urban frustrations. There are museums, but they are very small and sad (with the exception of the gorgeous underground Museum of Gold). There are very few music or performance venues. The visual arts are largely unrepresented. The food is repetitive and stale. There are stores, but they are uninteresting and usually are chains. And the people are similarly dull.

Overall, San Jose manages to be simultaneously boring and stressful. I think next time, I’ll return to avoiding the city again.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Santa Teresa, the closest town

Driving away from the ranch on the road to the south, one drives on the dirt roads (1.5 cars wide) for 20+ minutes, crossing through three streams and an often-dicey river, before coming to the tiny town of Manzanillo, population maybe 150 (a total guess), which features a partial bridge that may or may not ever be completed, a colorful and very simple public school and playing field, a small empty chapel, a poorly-supplied and overpriced small one-room grocery store, two small restaurants that are always (permanently?) closed, and a popular outdoor family bar/convenience store/restaurant where the road turns at the beach. While we drive through the village often, and occasionally resupply there, and have friends there, the town is really too small to be of any further note.

However, there is another town, a wonderful town, a town I visited at all available opportunities: after another 15+ minutes driving up and down some really pitted, washed-out, nerve-wracking, bone-rattling hills, the dirt road turns to again parallel the beach (but set in about 150 m) and you begin to see signs for hotels alongside the road. You are entering Santa Teresa, a chill tourist town of about 3000 residents.

Physically, Santa Teresa is one dusty dirt road, bordered by a turn on one end and a crossroad on the other, with a few dozen very small businesses, hotels, and homes scattered along its 3.5 mile length. The perfect beach stretches its length to the west, while a steep jungley hill ridge bounds the east about 1/10 mile inland.
The residents are largely dedicated to surfing and yoga. The beach along this small stretch of coast is rated by most of those in the know as the best surfing anywhere in Central and South America, and warm (water temps in the 90s!) azure steady curling 10’ waves do their best to live up to this claim. The yoga instructors and gorgeous open dojos are everywhere and are about 20 times better than any I’ve ever seen.

As you can imagine, with these lifestyles, all the long-term residents are distractingly beautiful: not an ounce of fat on their fit athletic bodies, very tan, casual long hair, tattooed, with minimal clothing (shirtless men in board shorts, women in bathing suits/yoga clothes). The demographics are generally young, ‘white’ to medium-brown skin, with varied national origins ranging from Ticas/Ticos relocating from San Jose to Argentines, Israelis, Americans, and the occasional European. I have not yet seen any people evidently of Asian or African descent.

These lovely people become no less lovely upon acquaintance. Everyone is surprisingly friendly, kind, and welcoming. It is the custom for even complete strangers to give a friendly smile, wave, and “buenas” upon passing. Friends are greeted with a kiss on the right cheek (unless between men, in which case a handshake/hug usually does the trick). Everyone checks in on one another and, if someone needs a hand, any passing stranger will do their best to help, be it giving a lift down the road, offering advice, giving your car a push or tow, you name it, because (as they will point out) you never know when you will be the one who needs the help, so offer it when you can.

Topics of conversation and general interest, as well as the morals and politics and priorities of most residents, align blissfully well with my own: wildlife and local plant identification and uses, local small-scale agriculture, sustainable infrastructure, experiential education, family, fitness, delicious healthy foods, life stories, ghost stories, myths. Most people work short, early days so they have half the afternoon and all evening to spend time with their loved ones and on their favorite activities: family and time is indisputably more important than money. And, unsurprisingly, people in this tiny region live longer than almost anywhere else, officially having more centenarians than all but 4 equivalent communities in the world.

Speaking of food: I already previously talked about the typical Costa Rican foods, but thanks to the international and health-conscious residents, Santa Teresa has a distinctly different cuisine culture than its surrounds. Smoothies are de rigueur. Salads and veggie sandwiches proliferate. Fresh pastas are made by Italians, pastries and expresso beverages made by Belgians, falafel made by Israelis, Thai fusion and sushi by ex-Asian-expats. Raw is very popular, organic is valued, local is the standard, homemade is assumed. The quality of ingredients and preparation is extremely high, even by NYC dining standards. Prices vary, and while less than American, prices aren’t cheap, but are well worth it.

But sadly, the town isn’t paradise, despite REALLY seeming that way at first. The main problem that Santa Teresa and its neighboring towns face is access to fresh water. The tiny town to the south, Mal Pais, gets some of its municipal water from a pipe that draws from the clear streams of the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, but though a similar plan is in the works for Santa Teresa to draw via an aqueduct from the Ario river (on the CIRENAS/Grew family property), there is not yet any municipal fresh water. A very few properties have wells, but these struggle to keep up with demand even during the rainy season, and go dry during half the year. Almost all residences and businesses, including the many hotels, buy their water and have it delivered by trucks. This water is transferred to private plastic cisterns, usually elevated for gravity-fed plumbing. The water is expensive, the transportation of it is energy-wasteful, and trucking in water for a fast-growing population is inherently unsustainable. It made me very grateful for the reliable (though non-potable) wells on the CIRENAS property, and for growing up with such proliferate fresh water all around all the time. Naturally reliable potable water is one of the biggest deal-breakers for any place I would want to live long-term.

Especially when you add the fact that the water trucks sometimes can’t make it to town because the roads are so bad. The municipalities do attempt road repairs and maintenance, but they struggle against massive erosion. The roads in the region are soft dirt, and it rains a LOT. They tried paving sections, but the pavement undercut and broke and eroded just as quickly as dirt, but with the added problems of having deeper cuts from faster-moving water and left-behind messy heavy sharp rubble. (I secretly love that the best engineering for the area is the most ancient: banked dirt roads with interlocked stone embankments, just like 6000 years ago.) Resultantly, the roads are narrow, deeply pitted, with proliferate and devastating potholes, deep standing puddles and washouts, and multiple river crossings unassisted by bridges. The average driving speed, even with a swanky 4WD truck with good suspension, is about 25kph/15mph. All driving times given at the beginning of this post are what it would take to drive given the optimal conditions available at this time of year. As the streams and rivers are often hugely swollen, the roads slippery or washed out or covered by landslides, the tides high, etc., the time to drive to town can regularly be stretched to 4 times as long, or often (weekly or so) become entirely impossible.

As you can imagine, this has other negative repercussions for the town and region, notable among them difficult access to emergency medical care. Though there is a competent tiny first-aid clinic in town, anyone needing anticipated medical care, such as childbirth, makes sure to stay near the larger clinic in Cobano or, much preferably, visit relatives in San Jose: Anyone needing emergency medical care, such as from a car accident, is airlifted to San Jose, only a 20 min flight away, but very expensive to access by air.

And that’s not all. There is also a very limited selection of groceries and other staple goods available for purchase in town. The quality of public education is poor: most students only receive 2.5 hours of instruction a day in highly under-resourced, understaffed rooms, and most only stay through the 6th grade. Private school options in the area are expensive, limited, and far too laissez faire even for my Montessori-loving tastes. Out of respect for the squeamishness of my American audience I won’t discuss the problems of sewage. And there is a fast and dangerous drug scene evident throughout the town, with the expected accompanying petty theft and personal safety concerns.

And yet… I love it here. Partially because of the simplicity of life. Partially because of the friends I have made who live in town, notably my co-worker Annette and her boyfriend Adam. Partially because of the food, and of course the gorgeous tropical-beach scenery. But more than anything, because of that ineffable sense of rightness, comfort, unthinking soul-relaxation, fluidity, and peace that accompany a feeling of being in a place in which one feels at home.

(Some of these pictures aren't mine: I didn't take many pictures of town, so I "borrowed" some from elsewhere on the web.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tico Fare

As it is almost dinner time, let me tell you of the local Costa Rican food. It is delicious, simple, bland, fresh, nutritious, and healthy.

The mainstays of Tico diet are the Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans) plus rice, and the occasional chicken, fish, or pork. The corn is most often served in the form of tortillas made by hand with masa (finely ground white corn flour) and water, dry pan-fried on very high heat: my skills at this are improving but not yet great. The local common squash, chayote, is green, the size of two fists, looks like it has puckered lips, and can be eaten raw or, more frequently, diced into tiny cubes and sautéed with oil, salt, and pepper. The beans are red or black, black being favored. As they come dried in large quantities, the beans take hours to slowly cook: to conserve gas in the cylinders that fuel the stoves, they are often cooked on a grill over a fire of scrap driftwood.

These common items are often combined for lunch or dinner in a plato tipico (typical plate) or casado. On such a plate, you would be served, in separate piles, a pile of white rice, a pile of sautéed squash, possibly a few strips of your choice of meat, a few slices of creamy fresh avocados, a plain salad of chopped white cabbage and tomato with lime juice, and a few pieces of super-sweet cooked plantanos (like bananas). For breakfast, one might enjoy the simpler blander gallo pinto, which is rice and black beans mixed together with a small amount of onions, garlic, cilantro, and possible tomatoes and lime juice and cilantro: an egg on top is optional.

Local dairy products are centrally processed (i.e. all go to one big processing/packaging facility before redistribution) but remain fresh and flavorful: fresh milk and butter are available in most stores where refrigeration is available. Here we are lucky to have a local friend, Zu, who makes a variety of delicious plain and fruit yoghurts of which we order massive amounts of each week. The local cheese is a very tasty firm fresh white cheese somewhat similar to mozzarella or Greek farmer’s cheese, but with a slightly stronger musk/whey flavor, and saltier: I wish I could eat it endlessly, but one slice usually fills me up.

A very local specialty is cerviche, which has the consistency of salsa but is made mostly of fish. The fresh local fish is usually red snapper, caught right off the beaches here by local fishermen in small motorized wooden boats. To make cerviche, the raw flesh of the fish is diced and put into a large dish (usually a bucket). The meat is smothered in the highly acidic, highly flavorful juice of the local small limes (confusingly called limons), and left to sit for about 10 minutes. Even in this short time, the acid actually cooks the meat, so it is palatable and chewy. To the stew of fish and lime juice is then added a little bit of finely diced onion, garlic, cilantro, and a healthy slug of ginger ale or 7-Up. This whole mess is served in a shallow glass dish like a gravy boat, surrounded by salty deep-fried plantanos chips and/or saltine-like crackers. Optional small side dishes are guacamole and refried black beans. I could eat this meal every day and die happy: it feels great in the belly, is very nutritious, and is super local, and the main dish is raw!

Let me not neglect the beverages. As is appropriate in a tropical, equatorial place, people value their liquid refreshments. We were lucky enough to have one of the ranch’s cowboys, Rodolfo, bring us sacks full of wild fresh limes every week, and granulated sticky raw brown sugar was de rigeur, so we practically bathed in some of the most flavorful fresh limeaid imaginable. Anyone with a blender (or sieve and a lot of patience and strength) could enjoy the juices of the many fresh fruits of the area, especially papaya, pineapple, mango, and guava and cas in season. Even more patience and strength could yield you the Costa Rican answer to horchata, a creamy, cinnamon rice-milk liquid treat that actually made me moan with greedy deliciousness. And hailing from the Caribbean coast, agua dulce requires the most effort of all, starting with the tar-like scrapings of the molds used in sugar processing, boiling in water for hours or days, adding copious amounts of pulverized fresh ginger root and limes, and guzzled in belly-aching paroxysm of its sweet spicy intensity.

Costa Rica’s most famous beverage is of course its coffee, and deservedly so. As you food history buffs of course know, coffee is not native to Central America, but damn does it grow well there: it’s as if the plants were just waiting for transportation to the high fertile misty volcanic slopes of the continental ridge to fulfill their potential. This is abetted by the simple chorreador, the Costa Rican coffee maker which is essentially a flannel sock that you hang above your mug or carafe, fill with grounds, and pour hot water through. The resulting brew is dark, rich, feels creamy on the tongue, has absolutely no bitterness, and truly needs no milk or sugar. Even in world-class award-winning cafes in the major cities of the world, I have never had a cup that even comes close to the coffee we could make on a camp stove here.

And of course, cervesa. Costa Rica’s beer is better known for its graphic design than flavor, with Imperial’s yellow and black phoenix blazoning the kitsch of many a tourist. Its flavor can more than hold its own to the claims of its packaging, though. There are really only two beers available in the country, both locally made by the same company: the aforementioned Imperial, and the simpler Pilsen. Both are light and lemony, with Pilsen being ever-so-slightly hoppier and Imperial a little smoother. While they are refreshing on their own at any time, they are often served as a michelada in a glass with a full lime’s juice squeezed in and copious salt on the edge. At the end of a hot sweaty day, this influx of cool acidy salt is like a blessing to the system, like alcoholic Gatorade. Other alchoholic options include guaro (sugarcane moonshine liquor) and the remarkably good Flor de Caña rums made in Nicaragua, but I rarely partook of these potencies.

Now I have made myself thoroughly hungry and thirsty.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I am ten degrees above the equator, in a jungle, with salt spray from the surf waves mingling with the vapor rising from rotting and prolific enormous plants. It is now well into the rainy season. Clockwork downpours greet us at 11 am, sunset (6 pm), and 2 am, with occasional additional rain at mid-afternoon. This rain is the rain of the tropics, of myth, not the mere sprinkles we get in New England. Picture the hardest cats-and-dogs downpour you have ever seen. You cannot imagine it raining harder than that memory. Now imagine the entire sky as God’s showerhead, and She turns up the water: the entire sky is now the end of an effusive garden hose: you grin for a few minutes at the exuberance of the water’s profusion: She turns it up (just like with a handle, one second on one rain setting, then a surge and three seconds later a whole new type of rain): the entire expanse of the sky is now a firehose, a continually upended bucket: exhileration turns to worry: Will the tin roof withstand the beating, the weight of the water? Will the hillside on which this building sits wash away? The waves’ volume increases with the storm. Conversation becomes difficult. Roads do wash away, prehistoric trees become undermined and fall, solid columns of water establish themselves from the gutters. When the sun reappears, the world is revealed to be Wet, and there is only a brief window of pleasant rain-cooled air before the mist-making heating begins, and the world is humid.

I mean Humid. Try putting a blanket over yourself like a little tent, and breathe out, and breathe out again, until it is suffocating and sweat beads your lip and your temples and the air seems to slide liquid down your throat. Then make that air an almost physical presence over all your skin, even under your clothes. Make your clothes, all of them, bra and underwear and shirt and pants, warm and fully wet with sweat. Make that sweat slowly trickle down your spine, pool in your bellybutton, dribble into your eyes. Stand in a steamy room after a shower, and dry off with a damp towel, and before you’ve finished drying feel the sweat pinprickle emerging on your skin again, so you are never dry. Make the steamy air tactile so you feel covered in lotion, breathed on by a close animal, covered in a film of plastic or wet hot felt. The air smells of plant, of mud, of sweet flowers (frangipani/ plumeria/ something akin to Japanese witchhazel), cut papaya, mown lawn, mulch and rot, of candle wax and varnish and compost, of salt and green and sap. Now actually cover your skin with greasy suntan lotion and oily bug spray, so the sweat struggles to ooze out, and when it does it tickles in its slide down your greasy skin.

To sleep, you lie as naked as possible on sheets that are damper than your skin and cooler, wet from the air of the day. The coolness of the wet sheets is soothing but cloying, and soon turns to mildew and must. The air around your bed feels like a blanket, like a soft silk blanket laying perfectly draped on every part of your exposed skin. The feeling of slight weight on every pore induces the slightest amount of vertigo, not just with up and down but with inside and outside of your body; all of you feels like a mucus membrane, your skin feels like your mouth, the air in your lungs moist from your mouth feels like the air on your hand, the air on your thighs feels like it may be exhaling from between your legs, all over as if there is a bed partner hovering attentively inches above your body.

I enjoyed this description in the book I’m currently reading (Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, pg 4) of the heat of another tropical monsoon place: “The next thing I noticed was the heat. I stood in airport queues, not five minutes from the conditioned air of the plane, and my clothes clung to sudden sweat. My heart thumped under the command of the new climate. Each breath was an angry little victory. I came to know that it never stops, the jungle sweat, because the heat that makes it, night and day, is a wet heat. The choking humidity makes amphibians of us all, breathing water in air; you learn to live with it, and you learn to like it, or you leave.”

The humidity of the hot tropics is unsettling, intimate, tactile, and to me, familiar.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why I like being not-in-the-city

I consciously choose to entitle this post “Why I like being not-in-the-city” rather than “Why I like not being in the city”, because the later, while more grammatically typical, is indicative of precisely of what I despair: not-being, in the city: a state of nonexistence (in a deadening nullifying way rather than a bodhi way) coming from being surrounded by so much frission, so many stresses, so much unhealthiness, so many forces negating all that is me, that the self retreats, retreats, retreats until it is hardly recognizably there: not-being, in the city. And, rather, when I am not-in-the-city, I swiftly emerge into myself: being.

I have lived in big cities (Boston, Melbourne, Bangkok, New York) since graduating college. I have never wanted to live in any city, but the job/transportation/social opportunities they present have lured me in during each move, and my wife is both charismatically convincing and a city girl, so I haven’t stood a chance. I also do truly enjoy the short commutes, the ability to walk or bike everywhere, the lack of gas money and car maintenance, the compact and efficient living, the diversity of people and food, the access to and profusion of cultural and musical events, and the vantage point on the grit of the human experiment. But it is like poking something dead with a stick, or watching a film, or acting in a play, or picking a scab: while interesting and satisfying for a short time, at some point shortly you have to stop and walk away and resume more meaningfully and completely living.

Then I return home. I feel a homecoming when I step into a green place, when I breathe deep not only to fill my lungs but to taste the sweet liquid pungency of the air, even if the greens are from plants unknown to me and the smells are new and mysterious. My chest expands, my shoulders press back, I stand taller and more firmly, more loose in my knees and more agile. My eyes open wider, my jaw unclenches, and my neck becomes exercised and stretched as I gaze around at many angles, down to my feet and around to my surroundings and up at the lofty heights and above to the skies. I become less hungry, need less sleep, sleep more deeply. My body/mind has more positive challenges expected of it (scaling steep little hills, not-slipping on slick mud, gazing into sun-glinting water, being aware of the wind and clouds, remembering the earlier rain, being aware of the critters and our appropriate relations to them, from awe to run-away) rather than being rattled with repeated identical steps on concrete, gazing always at eye level. Instead of shutting everything out, I become open, soaking it all in, feeling immersed and imbued and saturated, filled up, satiated.

The cabinets of my interests open their doors when I am not-in-the-city (and I say not-in-the-city rather than “in the country” or “in nature” because the city is the aberration, the object, while that which is not-city is to vast and pervasive, the context in which all things exist, that we cannot responsibly designate it as a place). My experiences burnish their accolades, my skills tools sharpen their edges, my memories dust themselves off for contemplation. I become relevant. I become respected, respectable, rather than out of place and an oddity misunderstood. When not in the city, I feel complete and proud, smiling, relaxed. (I dread my departure.)

"Where I live as myself is to others a wilderness. But to me it is home." -Ursula Le Guinn

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

safe and sound in the jungle in Costa Rica

A week ago (time flies!) I arrived safely at the ranch lodge of CIRENAS, the organization with which I am interning this summer. I’m nearish to Santa Teresa on the southwest coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The property, located right on the beach and surrounded by vast jungle conservation and farm lands, is absolutely stunning. From the front porch of the building in which I am staying, as well as from the window above my bed, you can see the surfers’-dream waves roar onto the smooth dark-sand beach, framed by coconut and banana palms. Plumeria and mango trees and many others I don’t know, tall and dense and green, crowd the edges of the lawn. Howler monkeys do their howling thing from the trees all around us and provide inspiring models of napping laziness. Harlequin crabs, hilarious in their pink garb and dancer’s stance, scuttle everywhere (including in the shower, trash cans, and other places they’re not supposed to be).

The weather is very hot and humid. I wilted and sweated buckets the first few days, but am beginning to adjust. Fairly regular thunderstorms and breezes clear out the air at least once a day, and I am well-provisioned with a wardrobe of appropriately thin, wicking, non-molding clothes (thanks, Ma!), so it is bearable. Worst is sweating right after showering, so you can’t ever quite feel clean. I do find myself dreaming of cool misty winds.

The property is very remote. And by very remote I mean miles from the nearest “town” (i.e. dusty road with electricity and a few small shops), down endless dirt “roads” (and by roads I mean pitted dirt tracks like fire roads or trails) that don’t bother with bridges, so almost every stream and river must be forded (i.e. driven through to get across). The rainy season started a few weeks ago, and already the roads are eroding and undercutting at an alarming rate and the rivers are swelling past what is fordable, limiting our inland access. Luckily the organization’s truck can drive along the beach at low tide, so even when the roads and rivers become impassable, we won’t be cut off. I’m hoping to get a cell phone this weekend, which will make me slightly more communicative, but we only have internet access when we go to town, so don’t expect to hear from me often.

Naturally for such a remote property, the CIRENAS buildings are entirely off the grid, producing their own electricity by solar panels, pumping their own water from their own wells, treating their own sewage, growing a fair bit of their own food, composting the majority of their food trash, etc. This makes the lodgings themselves a model for environmental education, the main mission of the organization. Though they are quite lovely as is, one of the projects I will help with is to make the lodgings a little more comfortable for the average American guest by doing such things as adding screens to the windows, getting soap dishes (i.e. finding soap-dish-shaped shells), making lanterns to use instead of open candles, and the like, all in keeping with their self-sustaining model.

Despite the stunning setting, the people here are the real highlight so far. Caroline, my main contact here and supervisor, runs the place with her husband Tucker: Caroline is of English and American descent, though she was born and raised in Costa Rica, while Tucker is a New Hampshire man through and though. Their assistant, Annette, comes by almost every day to help lead the workshops: she is 100% Costa Rican, and highly educated in environmental sciences. They are all absolutely lovely, kind and calm and competent and hard-working. As Tucker has been traveling the last few days, I’ve been especially getting to know Caroline, in that condensed way that living and working with someone 24/7 in a remote area can do: shopping together and cooking for one another and coming up with meal plans, sharing a bedroom (temporarily), staying up late talking, working quietly side by side on our computers, stress from bugs (which are eating us alive) and corresponding lack of sleep, trying to manage 14 college students together, breaking into their truck together when the keys got locked in, tensely judging whether the swollen river was indeed fordable, determining if their sweet dog Kia injured herself when she fell from the truck (she’s fine), enjoying a quiet hour away and splitting our meals at a surprisingly nice air-conditioned café in the nearest town, and a million other things that I’ve never done with friends I’ve known for ten times as long. It is a strange intimacy, and one that would fail either in its professional or personal dimensions with 98% of the people in the world who are less lovely than these kind folks. I hope the amiable easy relationships between us continues to function throughout the summer.

A group was visiting this past week from the University of Georgia, biology students, and I joined them on a number of their activities to better learn about the CIRENAS programs. Highlights included a very long nature walk led by Annette through the beach and jungle parts of the property, kayaking in the mangrove swamp, surfing (this area is a surfer’s paradise), clearing the beach of trash, meeting with an elder of the community to learn about the area’s history, and attending a cooking class featuring two local dishes (a raw fish salsa and plantain chips). I didn’t join them on the horseback riding this time around, but look forward to riding the property with Caroline at some point (as she knows it best and has the best horsemanship).

After having observed the program and helped out with bits and pieces throughout the week, I’m now just starting to contribute to the managerial/administrative functions that I came down here to do. I created a course evaluation form and compiled the results from this first group. I created a database of alumni of the programs. I also created and began to fill out a biodiversity catalogue of all of the plants and animals spotted on the property: this will hopefully have educational, environmental, and managerial uses.

I am thoroughly enjoying being in a developing country again. I love the slower pace of life, the time people take to talk with one another, the simplicity of the services. I love how closely people live to nature. I love the green or beachy smells unmitigated by asphault or exhaust. I love how quiet it is, or rather that the racket is one of cicadas and toads and monkeys and waves and rain rather than engines and electronics and voices and radios and hammers. I love smelling brush and trash piles smouldering (which I know is weird, but it’s become a comforting smell). I love that the concerns here center on weather and other important things, rather than fashion or other human judgements. And speaking of, I will now sign off of the computer and get back to appreciating my surroundings.

(If you want captions for these photos, see the Facebook version of the album.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

summers abroad: Zambia and Costa Rica

Petra and I are going abroad this summer for internships. We've worked for months to arrange these opportunities, but they've only become solidified very recently. I'm leaving on Wednesday, and Petra's leaving in a week. Many of you are asking: Where the heck are you going, and what they heck is it you'll be doing? Good questions!

Where Erika is going: Costa Rica. More specifically, the very rural ranch lodge at the Caletas-Ario Nature Reserve near Playa Ario on the Nicoya Peninsula on the western coast of the Central American peninsula. The property ranges from the dry plains to jungley forests to mangrove swamps to the beach, has myriad wildlife like monkeys and parrots and sloths and bats, and has very limited electricity and other modern amenities. Photo of the property above.

With whom: CIRENAS, Centro de Investigacion de Recursos Naturales y Sociales. The organization is a few years old, and is focused on making the best use of the plot of land which they donated to begin the large wildlife refuge. They have hosted a number of groups of academic researchers as well as American high school students who want to learn more about Costa Rica. CIRENAS is dedicated to protecting the land and using it as an environmental teaching tool. The Grew family, the driving force behind the preserve, seem utterly delightful and deeply in love with the land, and I truly look forward to working with them.

What Erika will be doing: Environmental Education NGO management consulting. More specifically, helping organize and make more efficient the administrative and managerial functions of a thriving new NGO, hoping to achieve things like an organizational chart, codified job descriptions, improved organizational communications logistics and website, a fundraising plan, etc.

Where Petra is going: Zambia, in the center of Africa. More specifically, she will be based in the modern fairly-developed capital city Lusaka (depicted above), and will travel to other districts where her host organization is currently running programs. She’ll be surrounded by quintessentially-African contemporary urban and traditional rural scenery, gorgeous fabrics, safari-worthy wildlife and the incomparable Victoria Falls.

With whom: FINCA. Founded in 1984, FINCA International is a recognized leader in microfinance and the pioneer of the village banking methodology. Microfinance is a sector within international development that provides financial services to disempowered people, usually women, who don’t have access to traditional financial tools and institutions. FINCA currently operates a network of 20 country programs in Latin America, Eurasia, the Greater Middle East and Africa, serving hundreds of thousands of clients.

What Petra will be doing: Microfinance program monitoring and evaluation. Prior to her work in the field, Petra will attend one week of training in Washington, D.C. Together with two local staff, she will spend 10 weeks conducting research and client interviews in Zambia. She will analyze the response data to determine poverty levels, program impact, and why clients join, remain with or exit the program. She will then present her findings to local management and produce a written report.


Yes, we're going to different places, and yes we'll miss each other terribly and will eagerly count down the minutes til we can be together again, but we wanted to be able to do what was best for each of us professionally, and it's only two months, so we can deal.

We'll do our best to post stories and pictures here, but no promises on frequency, since we'll both be somewhat disconnected from communications infrastructure. So don't worry if you don't hear from us. We promise full updates upon our return. Hope you all enjoy your summers!

sublet our NYC apartment!

Sublet our spacious furnished $1550/month 2-bedroom NYC apartment for the summer!

My wife and I will be abroad for June and July, and are looking for a responsible, tidy person/people to stay in our apartment for those two months, from June 1 to July 31. If you need, we might be amenable to starting as early as May 29th and/or extending through the first week of August.

Our apartment is at West 107th and Central Park West, just seconds to Central Park. It is a three minute walk to the 110th St B/C subway stop, a seven minute walk to the 110th St 1-line subway stop, a ten minute walk to the Columbia campus, and just minutes to groceries, gyms, laundromats, and other necessary amenities, as well as just minutes to perks like the famous Hungarian Pastry Shop and other cafes, bars, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s a quiet, safe residential block in a homey, active neighborhood.

The apartment has windows in each room, a fire escape we use as a tiny balcony, and a lot of light, fresh breezes, and quietness. It has two bedrooms, one of which is set up fully as a bedroom with a double-sized bed, the other of which is set up mostly as a study but which does have a very comfortable twin-sized futon bed. There is also a living/dining room with a twin-sized couch and dining table that can comfortably sit six. There is a small kitchen with big sink, 4-burner stove and oven, microwave, toaster oven, full-sized fridge, and a full complement of nice dishes and cutlery, pots, pans, and anything else a good cook might want to use. The bathroom is small, in NYC fashion, but quite useable: shower, tub, toilet, sink, etc all in good working order, with lovely hot water pressure. There’s a friendly live-in superintendent in the building who is very responsive to any maintenance needs. We also have our own reliable high-speed wireless internet. Children are welcome. GLBTQ folks and people of all races, ethnicities, religions, etc. are welcomed. Sadly, no pets allowed. We currently have no pets so folks with allergies would be comfortable here, and we also don’t have any bedbugs, roaches, or any other nasties. A maximum of two people can live here.

So what’s the catch, you might ask, since this price is a steal for this size and location? Nothing much, and nothing bad. The place was unlovely when we moved in, but we’ve put in a lot of work making it quite pretty now. The linoleum tiles on the floors have a few cracked places, but is just an aesthetic concern you’ll hardly notice. When you bake something in the oven, you have to use the exhaust fan or else the smoke detector beeps. There’s not a lot of counter space. We have two bikes hung on the wall in the big bedroom (and you’re welcome to keep yours there too). The tub needs to be re-grouted, but works fine. There is not laundry in the building, nor a doorman or elevator, though it’s quite safe and secure. It’s a fourth floor walk-up. Other than that, it’s perfect by anyone’s standards.

The apartment would be best for a couple, and could also work for two separate tenants. Our neighbors include lots of families with small children, so we’re looking for people who aren’t loud night-owls or big partiers. We’re also obviously looking for people who are responsible, won’t trash our stuff, and will keep the place clean. We will need to interview any potential subletters, and have you sign an official subletting agreement. We will need the entire summer’s rent and utilities up front: the cost for the two months will be 3290: (1550 for rent, times two) plus (55 for electricity, times two) plus (40 for internet, times two). Any additional weeks at the beginning or end would be the same rate, pro-rated per day. Photos of the apartment are available at

If you would like to view the apartment, please call Petra at 781-472-9293 or email her at We are available most days at most times from early morning through early evening. We will need to have a 100% commitment by May 29th at the absolute latest.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Living in the present

It seems that 93% of what Petra and I spend our time doing these days is planning for the future: Petra, through her studies and networking that are preparing her for her future career; myself, with my job search and recent grad school applications and soon with my own studies as well; and together continuing to try to prepare for our most treasured but hard-to-attain long-term hopes like starting a family and making a home somewhere. It's often hard to give ourselves permission to live in the moment we're in.

This past Saturday (thanks to some hard work planning ahead of time) I took some time off from my own life and helped lead a cleanup of a community garden in Brooklyn. The effort was part of Hands On New York Day, run by New York Cares (an excellent organization with whom I regularly volunteer, the NYC branch of the same org we went to New Orleans with). There were about 85 of us at the garden raking, painting picnic tables, fixing the greenhouse, and the like. As a leader there I didn't spend much time on any one task, but cruised around making sure everyone knew what they were doing, had what they needed, and that the work went smoothly and as intended.

This gave me the fun opportunity to meet just about everyone there: groups included a dozen sorority girls who were keen on tackling the dirtiest and heaviest jobs around while wildly gossiping, and a score of middle-management from an insurance actuarial firm who (reassuringly) worked methodically and with great care at all their tasks, from picking up sticks to weeding. Contrary to "community organizing" stereotypes, the vast majority of volunteers were black, not wealthy, and seemingly conservative: this has consistently been my experience at events like this. It was a delight to work with people who were such good workers and were so dedicated to helping others, and made me wish more white people, wealthy people, and liberals in this community were better at putting their whole selves where their mouths are (no offense to the exceptions to that statement).

I enjoyed a respite from responsibilities for a nice chunk of time when I decided (perhaps selfishly) that what most needed doing was keeping a lonely volunteer company: and so I found myself sitting on an upturned bucket with a truly delightful high-school freshman from New Jersey, sifting compost through some old window screens, commenting on everything from the squeamishness of men regarding worms and the glory of bowling and black and white photography to the degradation of Bella's character throughout the Twilight series. My hands smelled like life as I picked apart a soft dry twig, listening to the chickens warble and coo and the cool rain trickle from the leaves down onto the backs of my hands, the ground soft and rotting beneath my feet. My happiness in that moment, amidst the living fecundity and the bustle of selfless cooperative activity was like fertilizer to my heart, as well as a nourishing reminder of why I continue to commit myself to grassroots NGO work. And that, with herbs and chickens and the good kind of dirt, New York isn't always such a bad place to live.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Erika's future grad school: why and more specifically what

Part 3 of 3

(Recap: After being tempted by both NYU and The New School, I decided this weekend that The New School program was the one for me. My reasoning against NYU is in Part 1, below, and my reasoning for the New School is in Part 2, also below. Here I'll address the questions, why are you doing this? and what is this program you're signing up for anyways?)

So why am I going back to school again? Let me simplify things by quoting from the essay I submitted as part of my application to the school:

My work last year at the UNHCR Bangkok Refugee Center inspired me to apply to Milano. The effects of the refugee center’s poor management were immediately apparent. I observed that children defecated in alleys and peed against walls because of the lack of toilets, insect swarms in the classrooms were so pervasive that they crunched under our feet as we walked, and filthy water regularly flooded into the classrooms during the rainy season. I soon also learned that the Center’s staff vastly mismanaged the limited human and physical resources, some embezzled funds and resources, and a few even abused the children. Clearly, immediate changes were necessary, and as no one else was taking responsibility for fixing these problems, I stepped forward to lead what change I could.

With the help of great teams of volunteers that I recruited, the classroom buildings and common areas were almost entirely renovated by the time I left Thailand nine months later. However, I struggled with solving the larger problems of mismanaged resources, embezzlement, and abuse. My disempowered position at the Center (i.e. volunteer English teacher), combined with my lack of training, tools and resources limited my progress in addressing these serious issues.

Because of this experience, and because of witnessing less dramatic but pervasive experiences of management challenges in my prior non-profit work, I reached a threefold conclusion: 1) Good management of non-profit organizations serving vulnerable populations is critical to protecting the most basic needs and rights of their constituencies; 2) If I want to see good management in these organizations, I need to be able to lead as a manager myself; and 3) I need to acquire a specific set of skills and information beyond my current education and expertise in order to succeed in that management role.

The professional positions to which I aspire include management of international development and service projects like the refugee center. I want to be able to oversee many aspects of an organization: to efficiently direct the physical and human resources, to raise funds, and to increase public interest in the organization. I also see myself more broadly assessing their mission, goals, and leadership, and redirecting them as appropriate toward a more sustainable future.

I will build towards these upper-level management positions via more immediately accessible programmatic and departmental management posts. The organizations for which I will work could be small start-up NGOs (founded by myself or by another), organizations in distress (like the refugee center), or established organizations in need of a new vision. My preferred organizations will be those assisting underserved people in developing countries, as I consider it a moral imperative to serve those most in need.

I want to tackle some of the hardest management challenges in some of the most difficult areas of the Earth. To do so I need the excellent and diverse instruction, faculty, and experiential opportunities available at Milano. In addition to the delightfully warm community and shared social justice values I observed during the Dec. 9th open house, a number of practical factors draw me to your program. The multi-disciplinary nature of the available instruction is in line with what I seek: my future managerial positions will require me to be a generalist of sorts, handling finance and HR policy with equal aplomb. That Milano faculty are practitioners, and that many Milano student projects serve actual clients, will give me invaluable insight into and experience with different organizations. I also look forward to benefiting from the global coursework content, the insights gained through the international work of faculty and my fellow students, and gaining experience in a new geographic region through my capstone project.

And what is this program I’ve signed up for? First off, The New School isn't new at all, having been founded in 1919. They've kept their name to continue their commitment to innovative, cutting-edge intellectual thought, and to continue inspiring relevance in the current age. But what about my specific program? Let me quote directly from one of their handouts:

“Established in 1979, the Nonprofit Management Program at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy was among the first academic programs in the United States to focus on nonprofit organizations. [There are 800 grad students across all 3 of Milano’s programs (international, management, policy). Classes are kept purposefully small at 18-25 students, never larger.] The Master of Science in Nonprofit Management curriculum consists of …a 42-credit degree program, [including required courses and electives]. The course of study at Milano includes both foundational and specialized nonprofit management courses. …"

I think you’ll see how their program exactly fits the bill for me to learn the skills I seek. “The following two-year plan of study is typical for full-time students in the Nonprofit Management Program.…

Fall (First Year)
--Making a Difference: Global, Organizational, and Individual Perspectives on Social Change
--Quantitative Methods
--Theory and Practice of Nonprofit Management
--Specialization/Elective Course
Spring (First Year)
--Economics for Management & Public Policy
--Fundraising and Development
--Specialization/Elective Course
--Preparation for summer internship
Summer: Internship
Fall (Second Year)
--Financial Management in Nonprofit Organizations
--Management and Organizational Behavior
--2 Specialization/Elective Courses
Spring (Second Year)
--Advanced Seminar in Nonprofit Management
--2 Specialization/Elective Courses
--Work on final consulting project

Some examples of electives that catch my eye include: Community Development, Creating Effective Multicultural Organizations, Education and International Development, Foundations of Organizational Change, Human Resources for Managers, Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship, Leadership Perspectives and Practice, NGOs and International Development, Organizational Assessment & Diagnosis, Poverty and Social Policy, Strategic Management for a Changing World, Sustainability Perspectives and Practice.

Other classes I don’t think I’ll be taking but am glad to see offered include: Advocacy in Government Relations, Arts and Cultural Marketing, Black Social Movements, Climate Change, Corporate Social Responsibility, Racial Economic Disparities, etc.

And these are, of course, only the classes directly offered by Milano. I already have my eye on the free language courses (Spanish and Swahili, here I come!) as well as the entire Parsons curricula, especially Documentary Filmmaking! (And no, documentaries and Spanish/Swahili are not frivolous, call me if you can’t figure this out and want an explanation on how incredibly and vitally relevant they are to the work I hope to do.) I just wish that I had an extra two years into which I could fit all these wonderful classes…

I already look forward to stepping out as an alumn of this program, packed to the gills with practical knowledge and experience and contacts, ready to continue saving the world, but from a more educated and powerful vantage point, to be all the more effective in the work I do.

On being courted by schools: Considering The New School

Part 2 of 3

(To recap: I was admitted to both grad schools to which I’d applied, and attended both Admitted Students Days to decide between them. It was an enlightening comparison. NYU’s was the first day: see the preceding post for its review. I know this post is very long, but it's main audience is my family.)

Though my bias was initially for The New School, I showed up Saturday morning ready to be disappointed, keenly on the lookout for problems and concerns that would steer me away from their program.

I was humored to note that the building was on a corner some friends and I had recently visited as part of a lesbian history walking tour of Greenwich Village: on this block (separately) lived my heroes Willa Cather and Murray Hall. I tried not to read anything auspicious into this.

I stepped into a small, innovative building dominated by light natural wood and wall-to-wall windows showing the brick sidewalk and its very Village pedestrians on one side and whimsical tree-filled courtyard on the other. The space in which we initially gathered was a school-run café, with a small selection of fresh bagels, mango slices and fresh blueberries, granola, lime-aid, and organic fair trade coffee. I diligently tried to ignore the pangs of love my heart emitted because of this perfect spread.

My fellow accepted-student attendees were a small (50?) crowd of people of mixed ages, more on the young adult end but including visible representation of people through late middle age. The group was actually racially diverse, including lots of Latinos. I later learned that 22 countries were represented there: given the small total number of students, that’s a pretty high percentage! I immediately felt more relaxed here, if only because of the attire. At NYU, it was business suits and dressing to impress. At the New School most people wore jeans and t-shirts. The staff and faculty present (of which there were many) were casual, friendly, and happy looking, emitting kindness and enthusiasm. They had a hilarious logistical problem: that too many current students and alums had showed up to speak on the panel, because so many people wanted the opportunity to praise the New School and encourage us to attend.

As we introduced ourselves (which we actually had the opportunity to do here, unlike at NYU), the interests/professions of fellow students in Management program kept prodding me with glee: the first handful of people introduced themselves as engaged in women’s studies, feminist theory, gender, abortion access, education, ESL, mentorship, fine art, already running a nonprofit, film, media, prisoner services, food and nutrition i.e. feeding the poor, grassroots environmental organizing. (I stopped writing further interests down because I realized they would continue to each be exciting.) The goal of more than one other student is the same as my own: “I want to be in a high-level management position in a development organization.” After I introduced myself, the dean quipped, “Wow, you’re really in the right place.” Yes, yes, and yes! These are my people.

This was corroborated by a current student, a tiny Asian woman, who spoke late in the day: “Usually people are afraid of public speaking, but do you notice how relaxed we [current students] all are? How passionate? Even though I’m just a bitty woman and I’m holding this scary heavy phallic thing [i.e. microphone] in my hand up to my mouth, I’m not afraid to speak, not afraid at all!” And then following this delightful statement, a man sitting next to me rolled his eyes and put on a distasteful face protesting her ‘phallic’ comment and looked around for corroboration of his small-mindedness, and two other women sitting nearby gave him such immediate and strong stern looks of don’t-even-go-there feminist protectiveness, causing him to retract his expression before I could even compose my own protective face! :)

But I get ahead of myself: We started off the organized events of the day with a student-led tour of the facilities. Though the guides were just flying by the seat of their pants, leading to some humorous backtracking and a lack of necessary keys in a few instances, it was great to have unmediated time to grill current students about what life at the school was actually like, an opportunity which we all took full advantage of. The guides must have felt like they got the ninth degree, but their unflagging enthusiasm and honesty was very encouraging.

It was, of course, also great to have the opportunity to see the actual classrooms, computer labs, library, study spaces, etc. that we would be using. This tour was a nicety NYU had not bothered with, or which was perhaps not possible because the amenities there are so spread out. Most of my time at The New School will be spent in two adjoined buildings, a convenience I greatly appreciate.

As for the facilities themselves: they were small but great, actually fun. Thank you, Parsons students, for creating such innovative creative spaces. Throughout what would have otherwise been an unremarkable institutional building, there were unexpected open spaces, a plethora of light, whimsical interior design, bold colorful murals, many surprising and challenging sculptures, practical unique benches, random social/activist installations, and very efficient use of space. It felt like we’ll be studying in a modern art museum, but more relaxed. And speaking of, we apparently get free MOMA access for life. (Cue angelic choir, and slight concerns for my productivity: I know where I’ll be doing my reading!)

Throughout the building they have composting bins, actually diligent recycling bins, waterbottle refilling stations, and the like. The faculty offices are cluttered and seem well-used, giving me high hopes for being able to regularly find them there. The library is small but precise, and we will ironically have full use of all NYU facilities including their extensive libraries: NYU will even deliver requested books to The New School for us. “Their resources are our resources.” The computer labs are extensive and gorgeous, with monitors, scanners, and equipment suited to a fine arts program.

And speaking of equipment (this is the point at which my heart truly gave out any resistance and began to swoon), we get free priority use of professional-quality high-res still and video cameras, access to classes on documentary filmmaking, and all other Parsons resources. !!!! <3 <3

To top it off, we get free access to all New School language classes, no tuition needed. So the two things I was hoping to do outside of school over the next two years, namely learn how to do filmmaking and learn Spanish, are supported and encouraged in Milano’s program.

But I get ahead of myself again. (This is a good sign.) After the tour, we gathered in a space that reminded me quite a bit of the sanctuary of my childhood church (UUS:E) for the usual speechifying. The Dean won me over right off by apologizing that we’d left the breakfast spread behind in the previous room, saying: “Sorry we don’t have someone plying you with coffee and sweet rolls, but if you want that, it’s right downstairs, you can figure out how to get it yourself: now that’s empowered social change!” Especially on the heels of the NYU students of the day before, who had needed to be served, this struck quite a bell.

And then to the meat of the program: while I thought that NYU wasn’t asking the right questions in trying to make us “employable”, I think The New School responds perfectly to what has motivated me to pursue this degree, and what I hope to get out of it: “We want to honor that intrinsic value that you’ve placed on your development and what role you can place on society.” “We want to help you along on the road to make the change you want to see in the world.” “Personal development so you can better serve.” “Adding value to communities” “Implicitly social-justice values-centered work.” “What’s most important is that you are an engaged, informed, effective citizen, who knows how to effectively stand up and speak up, to actually enact change when it is needed.” “Making a difference in messy, difficult situations: in the real world.” “Setting a foundation for you to be able to learn further on your own in the unexpected and unprecedented situations in which you will find yourself.” Yes! I thought. By starting from this spot-on premise, I can build the education I seek! And, delightfully, unlike NYU starting with the expectation of selling out, “There is no reason you can’t seek personal satisfaction in all you do.”

One of the main programmatic features I was most interested in is relevant international and domestic work experience. While I knew this was part of the program, I hadn’t realized to what an extent it was available and in fact required. The students collectively do more than 200 client-based projects a year, with each student completing a consulting project for almost every class, and more over the summer. By the time I graduate, I’ll have a full resume of completed real-world consulting projects with NGOs and governmental agencies ranging from the UN and NYC councils to tiny startups in the jungles abroad.

While at NYU, independent international projects were tensely tolerated, such projects are encouraged at The New School. “A tremendous amount of students do their projects and work abroad.” And it’s not just ignorant poverty-tourist token projects. An example project cited by the Dean: “In the Amazon, managing a polluted river that stinks.” Another example project: “Organizing and building a floating barge swimming pool for Harlem.” Current student: “My pet project is slum rebuilding and mapping. I’ve helped rebuild slums on three continents already.” Another current student: “My current project is actualizing rural electrification in Brazil.”

Like NYU, the New School has an international summer program, which they call the International Field Program. It is much more rigorous than NYU’s program, lasting two months or more, and going to a much wider range of locations abroad. They require you to attend a course all semester before you go that teaches about the country and its language, as well as relevant skills you will need for succeeding in your work there such as data gathering, etc. When in the overseas locale, students participate in real projects with local partner organizations, and delve much further afield in their research and work. It sounds like a deeply rigorous and rewarding experience, and I can hardly wait.

Similarly, The New School fully supports students doing their final thesis-equivalent project on or in an international setting: “As long as there’s skype or a phone, we can make it work and support you in your work there.” This made me confident I could purse the kind of research and work that brings me to this field of study in the first place.

Of course, their curriculum reflects this support of international issues, with excellent classes across the spectrum of international NGO concerns. Milano also has excellent curricular resources on environmental issues (unlike NYU) thanks to having a parallel environmental studies and environmental management program. Throughout the New School they offer 40 courses per year on water alone. (Ma, I though you would like that.)

It turns out the folks at the New School really actually know what development work abroad is all about, in a way even most people working "in the field" don't understand: From an international student: “At the New School it doesn’t assume Western values, it doesn’t assume an outsider’s view, it focuses on community development and that you might be from that community, and engages that community. It’s not about foreigners coming in from outside and ‘developing’ someplace and then leaving. Though we teach how to do that well, too.” This kind of insight is so refreshing and exciting, and you have no idea how rare it is to have these dynamics acknowledged.

And her comment hints at the famed New School intellectual diversity in classroom discussions. Other current students commented on this: “I can push back in class, and people are open to hearing it.” And even, “I feel free even in an econ class to question the effects of capitalism… not to just accept the market system because it’s so pervasive.” You have no idea how glad I was to hear that I wouldn’t be the only one going against the grain, and that in fact I could learn from other students and faculty who share these same thoughts and values.

Students at the New School really actually seem to learn from one another. That comment in the paragraph above from the international student speaker, “Though we teach how to do that well, too” note how she says “we teach” though she is the student, not the teacher. Everyone listened to everyone else, and referred to one another’s expertises. At one point a professor directed a new student to the two students on the panel who could help her register her NGO in Canada, and twice I saw faculty turn to students for information to complete an answer to a question. Not that the faculty are passive participants in our education. They see themselves not only as teachers but “We’re your cheerleaders, your councilors, your guides.” At one point student quipped: “The faculty bedazzles me.” A member of the faculty responded, joking: “I don’t know about being bedazzling, but I know I am humbled by the students. I hope I can get recommendation letters from them in the future.” The personal respect and breadth of human resources evinced by the sum of the talented faculty and inspiring student body is very exciting.

Ok, I’m getting really tired, so I’m going to stop trying to make perfect paragraphs out of everything and just list off other key observations.

The New School teaches fundraising, philanthropy! NYU doesn’t. This is a very important thing to learn, so for this reason alone I should attend The New School.

“The freedom to chart my own course of study.” "Encouraging unorthodox courses of study. The school says “Yes”, “Why not”, “Let’s make this work,” rarely “impossible.”"

Almost everyone there works part-time while doing school. Working part-time and school full-time is best. Lots and lots of people work for the school, and everyone said the school makes it very easy to find part-time work you enjoy. Also, at NYU you can’t do a project at the place you work. At Milano you can: this just makes sense. They fully support and respect people having lives outside of school. And, every single other concern I mentioned in my write-up about NYU, like supporting female leadership and having a queer community and working with the kinds of organizations I one day hope to run? Not a concern here.

As for fun things outside of class, “There are lots of opportunities to go to events not related to poverty or genocide or other depressing things that we all get immersed in.” They offer free yoga, pilates, and zumba, plus frequent subsidized outings incl. hiking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, etc. The leaders of the recreation department were inspiring (I’m using that word a lot, aren’t I?) in their attitude of support and getting people to try new things, and finding recreations that are a good match for people’s skills and stretching their boundaries and learning new things.

And then came the hilarious part where it turns out I’m signing on to the arch-rival school to Petra’s school. There were two current students there who had transferred from Columbia University: One had been “missing that sense of community with students and connection with faculty, and my heart of social organizing ached, and I love that The New School is a bastion of liberalism.” From the other student: “There’s a certain school, I won’t name it, it’s above 96th St and below 125th St., and its students are all really, you know… smart… We’re better than them. They know the theory, we know the practice.”

And from another student: “I wanted to look around a class and say not that these students are really smart and not have anything else to say about them, but that these students are Cool with a capital C, I’d want to work with them, hire them, passion oozes from them. If I were in a back-alley brawl, I’d want New School students on my side.”

“That school up north on this island [i.e. Columbia], they’ll be in the offices. We’ll be doing good work in the slums. Where do you want to be? Comfy, or effective?”

Petra corroborated many of their frustrations, though of course she rightly wants me to point out that Columbia is an excellent school, which it is, with impassioned, talented, practically-minded students, some of whom are willing to get their hands dirty (and of course in my opinion, of this most excellent group she is the most awesome and most potentially-effective and certainly the prettiest).

So, by the end of the day (a very reasonable 2:15 pm), I was totally and completely sold. Not only did they have all the basics I’d require (academic excellence, good facilities, classes giving me the exact skills I’ll need, opportunities to apply these skills abroad, and a network of people in the fields in which I hope to work), they have everything I’d want in any community with whom I’d spend my time: They share my values, my interests, they inspire me, and I felt at home.

Oh, yeah, and by the way? They're offering me a s*@#-ton of money. It will be quite affordable to attend. I was holding off on even thinking about this factor, because I really wanted to choose the program that's right for me regardless of cost, but really? It's like icing on top of an already delicious cake.

(P.S. Now, I know I haven't talked at length about the curriculum or faculty of either program, but that's not because I'm not considering these essential factors in my decision: it's because they're largely comparable between the two schools: both equally excellent and high-caliber and experienced. I'll talk more about just what is contained in The New School's program that I'm signing up for in a following post.)

On being courted by schools: Considering NYU

Part 1 of 3

I spent the last two days being courted. As I mentioned earlier, the two schools I applied to, NYU and The New School, both admitted me, so I had to decide which program to attend. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and were pulling out all the stops to convince the pool of us admitted students that we should sign on the dotted line for them: this was done by hosting Admitted Students days, NYU on Friday and The New School on Saturday. By the end of the two days, because of the content of their presentations, I was absolutely sure which is the right school for me. I think you’ll see why…

In the interests of space I will upload my reflections on the second school as a separate post. I know this is more information that most of you will be interested in: the main audience for this and the following two posts is my family. Note, all quotes quoted henceforth are my best attempt at the actual words said, I was jotting things down all day.
Though my initial bias was against NYU, I showed up bright and early with a smile on my face, my sharpest clothes on, and an open mind and heart, willing to be convinced that this was the school for me.

That the day they chose to host their program was on a Friday, necessitating us all to take a day off work or miss a day of school, was a point against them right off the bat. The day’s programming also ran from 9 am to 9 pm, which is just ridiculous. This initial impression, that the program is not considerate of students’ lives outside of NYU, was corroborated throughout the day.

I entered the huge building through a marble lobby, spaceship security gates, and uniformed guard, up shining brassy elevators, was given my slick printed nametag, and entered a huge ballroom with gigantic windows offering an absolutely stunning and unprecedented view across Washington Park, through the Arch, up 5th Ave, and past the Empire State Building, made especially gorgeous and dramatic by the swirling low clouds that shrouded the tops of the buildings. Yup, I was impressed. Part of me likes sitting in the lap of luxury, and this was unequivocally that.

Sadly, no one in the room but me seemed to notice or appreciate the view. The room was populated by a subdued crowd of about 250 mostly-white young adults in business attire, suits and ties and pencil skirts and heels all on their normatively-gendered bodies. People were politely provisioning themselves from the extensive mundane spread of sticky carbs and caffeine and sitting down at their assigned, numbered tables. When I commented on the view to a few, they looked and said, “Yes, it’s raining, this weather sucks” or “Whatever, I’m from New York, this isn’t anything special.” Unpleasant and disappointing, but perhaps I’d just encountered some bad apples, or they needed their coffee. After all, it was early.

The nametags they had given us had strings that were much too long except for the largest of us, so the tags rested on our bellies or hips, below the edges of the tables at which we sat, largely negating their usefulness and leading to lots of inappropriate staring to decipher a name. So I immediately tied the string on mine shorter, making it rest much higher and be easily readable. Everyone was flummoxed by this, and no one followed suit. I began to have serious doubts about my potentially-fellow students.

My scattered notes for the next hour of presentations read: Big. Very New York. Leadership. A push towards leadership. Asking tough questions, being tough. Lots of economists, health care. Power: Power over… Power for… Power with…. Almost all students are younger than me, have less experience. Think tanks as internships. Amartya Sen is coming to speak next week. (Ok, so those last two were good. That’s the kind of thing that gives me pause to consider. But the preceding comments are rather souring.)

Student panel participants: NYU isn’t a good fit for people who lack ambition, who are timid, who can’t handle being competitive, who don’t like people, who aren’t good at listening, who don’t like working in teams, who are afraid of hard work, who are disorganized, who don’t like New York. “If you’re like that, don’t come here, please, you’ll make our team work unpleasant and frustrating.” (Rather harsh, unfriendly, and unnecessarily critical, despite the obvious virtues of listening and hard work and the like.)

A very informative and useful financial aid session yielded some interesting info in addition to the usual Stafford loans and work study: They offer $5000 funding for unpaid internships over the summer between years of study. The funding isn’t guaranteed, I’d have to apply for it, but 50 students get it every summer, and I think I’d be a strong candidate. And they have funding to help pay for international travel for school projects. And they negotiate to get our clients to help pay for our project expenses. (This is unusual compared to other programs, and a very tempting perk.)

I was offered a small merit-based scholarship, so asked about the likelihood of continued scholarships. I was told a GPA of 3.6 is necessary to maintain the grant semester by semester. This isn’t a problem for me, as 3.6 is well within my usual GPA range. However, I was saddened by their rationale behind the 3.6 cutoff: it’s the average GPA throughout the program, meaning that the faculty grades lightly. (I’d rather they have higher expectations, grade more harshly, challenge us to do better.)

Definitely my favorite temptation of the day rested in the international summer programs. The school offers 2-3 week programs at three different times during the summer in locations such as Cape Town, South Africa; Accra, Ghana; and Shanghai, China, combining intensive class study on a particular topic relevant to the location (i.e. environmental management, food security, and urban planning respectively) with organized housing, sight-seeing, and observation of a local organization’s work. I liked the particular locations (all of interest to me), I liked how well-structured the time is, and the topics were of great interest. I hesitated over the hint of poverty tourism, but understood their desire to keep us safe. But most of all, I love the intensive class format, it being my favorite way to learn: if I could do my whole degree through a series of intensive programs of a few weeks each, I’d do so. And then I learned the best thing about the international summer classes: they can be done by people attending other schools, though they’re a bit pricey. :)

Then the real turning-point in my decision-making process, during a panel with faculty from the program. One spoke on the financial challenges states face regarding pension plans. One spoke on the statistics of the racial divide in subsidized housing compared to their surrounding communities. And the last spoke with refreshing frankness on social entrepreneurship, articulating an attitude I had begun to glean held importance in the program: Their main interest is to make graduates well-prepared for the workplace. They’re most concerned with putting onto my resume what’s going to get me a job. But is “what’s going to get me a job” the right question to be asking? It was all very, very in-the-box thinking. They were very critical of the idea of social entrepreneurship, of people setting out on their own, of people working outside of traditional, pre-existing workplaces and organizational structures. They advocated for people working within well-designed organizations. “It’s not about the lone individual: it’s not about individuals at all. You have to be willing to give up control of your projects, of your dreams, to get them done.” Um, no thanks. I do not want to go to grad school to learn how to settle, how to plan from the get-go to compromise my control and my ideas. And, after talking at such length about the failures of existing structures and organizations and programs, why say I have to work within these broken systems? And who is to say that I have to come in at the bottom, give up my control and ideas? Who is to say I can’t run those organizations or start my own and maintain control? I fully understand the arguments for existing institutions and against common problems of startup social entrepreneurship, i.e. redundancies and incompetencies, but that’s just badly done/ignorant entrepreneurship, not all of it. And their whole attitude smacked hugely of anti-grassroots, anti-community organizing, and pro-institutionalism: that’s not how I want to learn or do my work. Probably not the place for me.

At this point, I started a list of questions I really wanted to get answered: Is there discussion of and support for female leadership, addressing and helping solve the challenges women working in this field encounter? Is there a queer community here, and does it include women? Do queer people, queer ideas, queer relationships get respect and support here? Do we have opportunities to work with small organizations, not just megaliths like the World Bank? (I was unable to get answers to these questions over the next 5 hours, in effect answering them for me.)

At the late-afternoon faculty mixer, the faculty all arrived quite late (30 min+) and wanted instead to meet with small groups of people in their offices instead of in the larger gathering rooms. None of the prospective students stepped forward to open the wine bottles or started eating the array food, though they were all talking of how good it looked. When I stepped forward and opened a red and white wine and started pouring for everyone, hamming up the hostess role, everyone relaxed a bit, but seriously? They needed someone to pour for them? It turned out to be very very hard to get to speak with faculty because there were so few of them and so many students, which proved the reputation of their inaccessibility. I did eventually get to speak with the delightful John Gershman, the advisor of a friend of mine who recently completed the program, with whom I definitely hope to speak again in the future, a nice end to a baffling day.

In conclusion, I came away thinking while I could do the NYU program, and could get a lot out of it, it wouldn’t be teaching the kind of business I want to do in the world, and I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it very much.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I got into both grad schools!

Hi y'all! Great news! I got into both grad schools I applied to: The New School's Milano School for Management, and NYU's Wagner School of Public Service. I have two weeks to decide between them, and it's going to be tough.

The New School's program would be a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management. The school and program have a lot going for them: I really clicked with the people there; it's a very social-justice-rooted program; it's specifically designed to help people do exactly what I want to do (run nonprofits); and perhaps most importantly, they're offering me quite a lot of money. However, no one's ever heard of them, and as a newer program they don't have the kind of institutional and alumni clout as other programs.

NYU's program would be a Master of Public Administration in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. They also have a lot going for them: They've got serious clout, funding, good repute, and mighty alumni. However, I didn't feel welcomed or inspired there, and they're offering me a smaller amount of money. I'm giving them another shot to convince me at the admitted students open house next week.

As you can see, I have a strong initial preference. But to go with my heart (I like them, they are nice!) or what seems to be a more responsible long-term institutional connection (they are powerful, they can help me be powerful too)?