Monday, December 22, 2014

Adventures in Bus Stationing

"Get out of my house!"
"You just moved!"

Early this morning, in the pre-dawn Chicago darkness, I drove for the first time to the Greyhound bus station in the Loop. The reason was to drop off Brian, who gets to go to Michigan a couple of days ahead of me. Naturally, as any good young Gen-Xer would be, I was reminded of Adventures in Babysitting. Brenda, who did not spike her stepmother's Tab with Draino but instead ran away from home only to find herself unable to get any farther than the downtown bus terminal, was my first and thus far only introduction in life to the Chicago bus station. I have driven, flown, and taken both Amtrak and commuter rail in and out of this city, but I have not ridden the bus. And while Brian has now added this form of transit to his list, I didn't even get to see inside the terminal. I'm left wondering: do they still have seats with armrest TVs? And phone booths? And a man who, if you do not have the cash, most certainly does not have a wiener? Or does he now accept debit cards and smartphone payments?

Unable to linger to find out the answer to these burning questions, I instead was tasked with driving back home. This is never a simple proposition. One way streets preclude going back the way you came; road construction street and lane closures prevented retracing the same route just shifted a block over. Instead, I just basically drove north and occasionally west until I found my way to diagonal Milwaukee, but not before encountering "No Outlet" decoy intersections and even one four-way stop with semi-trailer trucks parked on both sides facing multiple directions and blocking at least two of the possible ways out at what seemed to be some kind of market getting its day started. It's not about being lost, of course; it's about being thwarted. I knew where I wanted to go, and roughly how, but the streets didn't always cooperate. In the movie, driving was never really the issue. The kids' problems all came because they didn't  have their car: once they got it back, it was denouement time. Chris' directions were never in doubt, but for me driving around the Loop in the dark I was more along the lines of "Nobody gets out of this place without singing the blues."

There is only one Adventures in Babysitting. Thank goodness, really, because that movie is maybe the most racist thing I've ever liked...or does it just reflect the problematic but very real divide of Chicago neighborhoods and economic prospects ("A mall? Shoot, where do you all think you are, Boise, Idaho?") etc.? Yeah, sure, Adventures in Babysitting as social commentary, the frat party, Lords of Hell, and "Thor's a homo" comment notwithstanding.

By the way, if you ever thought the ending where Chris asks "How fast do your parents drive?" and Brad replies "About 45?" was unrealistic, I would like to inform you that there is actually a stretch of the freeways, through and coming out of downtown, where the speed limit is in fact 45 mph. Yes, on a multi-lane divided highway interstate. Because Illinois, I guess.

I was wondering, though. Why is it that downtowns have to be difficult to navigate by car in the first place? We all accept it as a matter of course, in every U.S. city that I can think of, that the downtown driving experience is going to be different than driving in the regular parts of the city or the outskirts. But why? Is there any reason that a city that prides itself (and I mean, really, really, really prides itself) on being on a grid system of streets can't also have a seamless grid downtown? Why hand the real estate over to pricey buildings that cut off access and lead to tunnels and dead ends and the like? No, I don't advocate downtown driving. I was a proponent of congestion pricing before it was cool (er,'s still not cool, is it? because people suck!)  But I just wonder why every city I've driven in, with the possible exception of Boston which has no rhyme or reason (or street signs) anywhere in its roads, has a marked difference between downtown and the rest of the place. Phoenix. Salt Lake. L.A. Grand Rapids. Downtown is always bizarro-land.

And how much simpler things would have been if Chris had just been able to call Triple-A when they had that blowout on the freeway, no?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

This violence has been brought to you by the letters C, I, and A,
and by the number 1492

So, the Senate has released a "bombshell" report on the terror of torture, and what I have learned from it is that officials, talking heads, members of the voting public, and other assorted Earth citizens need to go back to preschool. My three-year-old niece is better at connecting dots than most people seem to be today. Kids, let's take a look at some dots that we can connect!

  • Dot 1: The CIA routinely tortured(s?) multiple suspects around the world with brutal tactics of systematic, and systemic, violence in a massive post-9/11 problem-solving effort. 
  • Dot 2: Police officers in the U.S. are found to be routinely shooting to kill unarmed black men in an effort to solve "problems" (such as fear of black men?), revealing more systemic violence. 
  • Dot 3: Young men and women are shipped off to wars/military operations/police actions around the world, many of them dying "for" their country, because -- you guessed it! War, also known as age-old systemic violence, solves problems! Right? 
  • Dot 4: Other young men and women die on the streets right at home, because why go abroad for gang warfare and gunfire when you can get some of the made-in-America kind? 
  • Dot 5: And why stick to gangs, when you can just be a lone shooter who takes out some teenage students in a cafeteria, or moviegoers in a theater, or shoppers in a mall, or kindergarteners in a classroom, who are progressing from connecting the dots and coloring into learning some problem-solving skills? 
  • Dot 6: You put birds and rabbits and ferrets and other animals in cages, because you have declared that they are "yours." You lock them up for life. They are alone and trapped. You call this "having a pet." 
  • Dot 7: You own all the land. You're entitled to it, and all the oil beneath it, because you earned it fair and square, by slaughtering all the Native American peoples who lived on it and anyone else who was in your way. 
  • Dot 8: Slavery.
  • Dot 9: Rape.
  • Dot 10: You think Homeland is a good show. 
  • Dot 11: Oh, that last was too much for you, huh? Real systemic violence is one thing, but don't mess with your shoddily written fantasies about global domination? To a guy with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To an enhanced interrogator, perhaps every problem looks like a will to be broken. To a violent system, every problem is something to "solve" violently, and the best the system can hope for is that every industry falls in line to feed the beast, from manufacturing to entertainment, from lobbying to factory farming. God bless that! Homeland might not be actually hurting anyone (unless you count the strain from all the eye-rolling at its scripts, plot lines, and characters), but will it make you feel good about yourself and beef up your arguments the next time you and a friend debate torture over a couple of beers? Wait, you say you don't question the CIA's systemic violence when talking with your friends over a couple of beers? Because that would be too "political"?  I see. 
Really, my niece might be persuaded to lend you one of her coloring books, if you ask her nicely.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The race that can only ever be against yourself

It was called "perfect," but I think it was more of a potpourri of good, bad, and ugly...and more. Here's how it went down.

Today was my fourth 10K. Careful readers will recall that this is my Year of Ten 10Ks, and the "year" of course runs from mid-May to mid-May, being inspired as it is by my sub-par performance in the annual 25K held in Grand Rapids each May at which I annually suck, as well as my birthday that same week in May, which makes it fun to have a goal year go from May 13 to May 12 instead of January to December. So this past May, I declared that I would run ten 10Ks in the intervening time between my terrible 25Ks. Today was 10K number four.

Chicago's Perfect 10 is a little different from other races. Usually there's a 5K and a 10K and sometimes a half-marathon or maybe some other distances thrown in there. This race is all about the 10--the two race choices are a 10K or 10 miles. Fun, no? Both races started and ended at the east end of Navy Pier, so basically in Lake Michigan (hello, wind!), and the course gives you some pretty spectacular views of the city, lake shore, Loop buildings, lake, and so forth. Ten miles is a fun distance to consider for next year, but this year it's all about the 10Ks for me.

So, how'd I do? Did I improve on my time from 10K #3? Indeed I did! 1:47 faster, to be precise. You may also recall that my three other (or possibly more important?) goals for each 10K are:
1. Finish the race with no walking - check
2. Not last - check
3. Iced coffee after the race - check

In fact, the whole "not last" thing worked out a little better for me, and I have a theory as to why. Now, I am not a fast runner. So, usually within the first mile or two of my races I definitely see the crowds around me thin out as the people who run fast go on ahead and I just go steadily along with the peeps near the back (not last!) Today, I noticed that I still had lots of folks around me, a couple miles in. Was I running faster? Not by enough to make this much of a difference--I was still surrounded, and even passing a person here and there. The way I figured it, there were two possibilities. One, that usually the people who don't run a 10K very fast* opt for the 5K, leaving fewer people of my pace in the 10K to begin with, and leaving me with something like an 85-95 percentile finish in my gender and my age/gender division. (But not last!) But today, there being no 5K, the 10K was the slower race so I had way more of my peeps jamming out with me or even behind me, and my finish was more like in the 51-52 percentile.

*(and by "fast" I mean, of course, fast enough to please the Judgy McJudgersons who are all like, 'Oh, that's so sad to run a race and not be the best! How sad that you ran those miles soooo sloooowly while I sat over here on the couch thinking about how I don't do things unless I can be the best!' which is just an awful way to look at life, in my humble opinion)

Or, the other possibility, I thought, since my last three 10Ks were in Michigan, could be that Michiganders are just more badass than Chicagoans... hahahaha. I'm not dumb enough to make a public declaration about that when I still have to show my face in this town, and that state. We'll just stick with discussing theory number one for now.

Actually, I will tell another story from the race, but I am going to write something kind of gross so SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH if you don't want to read it. I witnessed something kind of freaky. I generally have a no-bodily-functions policy on the blog and I would never ever ever write something bodily function-like without warning you, so you've been warned, but this is your last chance to skip this paragraph. Somewhere toward the end of the second mile-ish, along the ol' Lake Shore Drive there, I suddenly realize that just ahead a bunch of people are gathered around a man on the ground, a runner lying on his side, kind of being held up on his side by some of those gathered. One gal, another runner standing, was shouting to all of us approaching, "Doctor? Nurse? Is there a doctor? A nurse?" And the man, who looks like he's maybe fortysomething, and just a normal looking runner-type man, with a moustache, wearing running shorts and a knit-type hat, is lying there being held up on his side and the look on his face -- I have never seen a look like that in real life, The closest thing would be something I've seen in a horror movie. His eyes were wide, and his whole face looked ghastly and stiff, and here's the gross part, he was vomiting, and it was gray. I mean, I'm seeing this as I run past and just thinking, I have never seen anything like that. And this is all happening quickly, of course, and so by now I'm passing the guy and trying to think fast: what should I do? Can I do anything? So many thoughts go through your mind in  a second. Well, the lake shore path is not that wide, and there were already, as I said, ten or so runners stopped helping him, holding him up, shouting for a doctor, etc., and if everybody stopped, it would make things worse because then everyone else still coming would just run into a big pile of people and clearly the rest of us should just keep going, and enough people run with their iPhones in their little armband things (for music) (and hey, the occasional mid-race phone call) that I was sure someone had already called 9-1-1, let alone all the people who had also already passed who could shout at the next race official they saw, and so I kept going although I did say and motion to the next bystander I saw that someone was injured and call for help, even though I'm sure it wasn't necessary on my part at that point. Within a couple minutes, I heard many sirens. What I am less sure about is whether this guy was OK. What does it mean, medical people, when someone is vomiting and it's gray? And you have to think, he had obviously collapsed long enough before I saw his face that ten people had time to stop, organize themselves around him, shout for help, etc., and there he is still throwing up -- and those eyes -- I can still picture them. It was a ghastly look; there's no other way to describe it. With so many thoughts going through my head, I also felt bad (if you know what I mean) for the runners who had got there before the rest of us and who had stopped and were now obviously sacrificing their race time and stuff...but meanwhile, this guy might have been dying. Was he dying? I really don't know. I have zero medical knowledge. I hope he wasn't dying. It was messed up.

All right, we are safely out of that paragraph now.

All in all, this was a nice race, with such great views along the race course of the city, the city from another angle, the lake, the lake shore, the pier, etc. And there is a whole expo with booths and vendors and Peet's coffee and a complimentary beer for finishers at the end. Good times.

In my previous 10K, which was 10K #3 in my Year of Ten 10Ks, I disappointed myself a bit with my finish time, and really, in my awareness of just how I need to be a more disciplined person. You may recall that at that time I quoted professional distance runner Paul Tergat: "Ask yourself, 'Can I give more?' The answer is usually 'Yes.'" I thought about that a lot today. I still need to dig even deeper, but I did manage to make myself give more at my traditional five to five-and-a-half-miles spot that is generally where I tell myself, "OMG I really can't go any faster" but where I today reminded myself, "Yes, you totally can" and stuff. I'm digging deeper, digging deeper, Ani, I promise. I was happy that I improved my time today in 10K #4, but I can recognize the improvement I still need to make.

I would also like to mention something else. I have been blogging in a lighthearted tone, and I do believe, in a "the show must go on" and "life goes on" way that it is OK to do so. But it wasn't just a stranger whose fate remains unknown to me that gave me pause today. I also received a message overnight about the death in a car accident yesterday of somebody that I knew in Arizona. He was a major figure in the lives of people close to me and people who are part of the basic framework of my Arizona/out West life, and he died in a horrific collision. It was a shocking piece of news to receive, and since I woke up at 5 a.m. to head out to the early start at Navy Pier, I was basically getting ready and then riding the brown line 'L' train in the dark, with few people around, and everyone alone with their thoughts, and I could only think about him, and the many aspects of life and people and connections and what it all means. In my own personal way, inside my head, I "dedicated" my run to these people, thinking of this loss -- one mile "for" each of these people, the deceased himself and those whom I know so well that are affected by this death, a mile for each person during which I thought about them, wishing the best for them. My thoughts seemed so small. We're all so small in this world, but we're such a big part of the worlds of the people around us. And people are struggling all around us, too. Some lives end in tragedy, and some encounter tragedy along the way, and it's enough to make a person realize she should be digging deeper in oh so many ways. Rest in peace, and for those of us still here, let's not take a single breath for granted today.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How None of Us Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebola

I cannot believe -- and yet, I can -- how Ebola in the USA has been twisted into a political issue.

Leave it to the U.S.of.A., where all-or-nothing is the name of the game. Last week, if you're one of my "smart" and "rational" friends, you were supposed to post to Facebook at least once a day that the "panic" about Ebola was unwarranted and that you were far more concerned about (take your pick:) measles/flu/guns/unvaccinated children/marrying a Kardashian. If you were one of my wary-of-Obama friends, you were supposed to unleash a screed about federal/CDC incompetence and insecure borders.  If you were in New York, you were encouraged to be nervous and show your support for the mayor's swift action in response to the guy who rode the subway and bowled, because apparently liking the mayor is politically acceptable. But whoa, once the governor of New Jersey got involved with a detained nurse, it was time to start ranting about human rights, because Christie is apparently scandalous and likes to play with the forces of disorder, and traffic, for reasons best known to himself, or maybe he's just a Republican and therefore is surely denying someone of some civil liberty or other at all times.

If you were, say, me, and you had been following the Ebola-in-West-Africa story since the middle of the summer, fascinated by the facts (note: facts) since well before last month when apparently the "American people" "began" "following" it, and you had spent three of the formative Ebola-in-North-America weeks getting your news in the E.U., you might just feel a little bewildered, as you so often do, by your countrypeople.

I don't actually know a single person who is panicked about catching Ebola, but I do know a whole lot of people responding to "all" the "panic." For one thing, every journalist who writes a line like "folks are in a panic about Ebola" should be required to cite three examples of the alleged "panic" before continuing with the story. On the other hand, delightful stories about the good-humored cruise ship passengers, grateful for their vouchers and compensation from the "SS Ebola" that was not allowed to dock in Mexico, are much appreciated.

Now, regarding quarantines: you're supposed to pick a side here, too, of course, but all of the To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine talk obscures the actual issue, which is a lack of globally organized official universally enforced protocol.

As for Kaci Hickox, my goodness. Regarding how she comes across in the media, is this really the best she can do? My understanding is that she is trying to be some kind of light on a hill, speaking up and speaking out on behalf of all those (all? who?) who will come after and be subject to the terrible deprivations of human rights she experienced and blah, blah, blah. Well, I find her a bit annoying, to be honest. Why? Because I read her editorial. Her actual words (or, if ghostwritten, which I suppose is likely, the actual words she is claiming for her own). They were pretty terrible, those words. Lots of emotional manipulation (but, the C-minus kind, that actually fails to manipulate, thus not even rising to the level of a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book) and a whole lot of intellectual disconnect, which is never exactly reassuring in a nurse. I mean, come on, lady. "What had I done wrong?" She said that a lot. "Wondering why this was happening to me." Are you actually serious? I mean, do you actually have any access to any media whatsoever? Yeah, uh, that's why this is "happening" to you, fresh off the plane from Sierra Leone. And just kind of by the way, leave your exhausting-layover-poor-pitiful-me -two-days-of-international-travel out of it. Because get over it. You're not the only person who has crossed an ocean and been tired upon arriving in your homeland. Enough. Whoever wanted a poster child for the Don't-Overreact-to-Ebola cause picked the wrong one. (Although, I am painfully aware that in a world where The Hunger Games and Gone Girl are considered to be well written, she might actually, tragically be the right one.)

I suppose there's nothing to be done if Amber Vinson and Craig Spencer and Kaci Hickox (oh, Andy, if you only knew how very many ways there are to get your fifteen!) want to be all defiantly cavalier about being out and about in the world, what with their professional know-how and their it's-so-hard-to-catch, and they want to go gallivanting off to bowling night and wedding planning weekend and other essential life events in the hours before they become symptomatic, but the disingenuous cries of what's-everybody-in-a-fuss-about have just got to stop. People are concerned (note: not in a fuss, actually, turns out) because they do not want a hemorrhagic fever that causes them to bleed and spew from multiple openings. They would like to just learn about interesting developing new stories in the world without having everyone falling all over themselves to prove that they are not hysterical by inventing more hysteria about the alleged hysteria. Being interested in Ebola does not mean "I am terrified I'm going to catch it," Wondering just what the hell a 21-day monitoring period consists of when it doesn't consist of, you know, monitoring is actually a fairly rational question.

And don't even get me started about the heroes. Actually, I'm a little shocked and awed (see what I did there?) by how quickly people have taken to this whole healthcare-volunteers-in-Africa-are-heroes storyline, particularly because of the word choice. "These heroes should be respected upon their return," intone the talking heads (and writing hands). "Heroes," says Obama. "Heroes," says Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois. Heroes, heroes, heroes. What must our military heroes be thinking in response to this outright theft of their moniker?? All those thousands and thousands of soldiers out there around the world "defending" "our" "way of life" from the people who "hate freedom" must be good and pissed that a bunch of life savers are taking their label away.

But are the healthcare workers really heroes? Really?  Well, maybe. Doctors Without Borders is one of the greatest organizations known to humankind. Important parts of my life have been inspired by it, clearly (I'll give the slow among you a chance to get your heads around that one). (Hint: scroll up.) But the barrage of heroes-heroes-heroes in the media is gross and unnecessary for the usual reasons: 1. It's being carefully applied, have you noticed?, to United Statesians who trot off from the United States to West Africa to help fight disease before returning to the United States where they should be welcomed by their fellow United Statesians. My goodness, why don't any other nationalities send doctors and nurses to West Africa...oh wait. Right. 2. Like so very, very many things that are uttered, it says more about the speaker than the person being described. Just like the patriotic hearts-a-flutter folks who dutifully thank the military heroes every other month when a national holiday rolls around (they're allowed to take Columbus Day off), these "health care workers are heroes" people say it and then feel satisfied, as if their work here is done, now that they've busted out the h-word. No need for actual thoughtful discourse or critical thought. "I like heroes! See! I'm a good person! Now, get me back to my high-def LCD air-conditioned gas-guzzling meat-eating gluten-free vacuous oblivious life."

By the way, have you heard? If we quarantine these heroes-- or even sometimes if we monitor them, depending on whom you ask -- when they return from West Africa, then this will deter other heroes from going to help. Because, you know. The people who volunteer internationally, the ones who have medical expertise and know-how and are willing and able to travel to the location of a disease outbreak and who spend time on the ground in West Africa..? Yeah, they're going to be okay signing on for all that, but shit, throw in three weeks of monitoring when they get back, in the comfort of their home, while they decompress from the trip? That's it, people! The deal's off!  What the hell? It's almost as if the people talking about what international volunteers think don't have any actual international volunteer experience or something...

I'll just be over here in the corner with people who won't call someone a "hero" if s/he loses his/her shit when faced with the prospect of a 21-day monitoring period and would actually let that alter his/her plans to travel to West Africa to help with this crisis.

But that's just this week's narrative. The previous two weeks it was all about travel bans. Travel bans bad, chanted the forces of smart/rational people (who know all about this because...well, anyway, they're bad). Deny the visas, chanted the forces of psychosis who don't seem to understand how life works, for example, that the consular process of getting a visa doesn't happen overnight, or even overweek or often overmonth, so the people arriving from Liberia today on a visa didn't apply for it this past Monday, okay?

I heard that British Airways suspended its commercial flights in and out of Liberia weeks before the Dallas saga began. Frankly, I found this the tiniest bit reassuring when I boarded a British Airways flight out of Poland a few weeks ago, in the midst of the EU diagnoses, unlike the Dallas-Cleveland Frontier Airlines passengers felt shortly thereafter. But the larger point is about this whole travel-bans-don't-help-they-actually-make-it-worse narrative that you are required to adopt if you want to be one of the cool people. Sure, piecemeal, unenforced, uncoordinated travel bans don't work. But truly enforced ones might, because a disease cannot spread if it isn't spread. Should we all be worried about Ebola spreading uncontrollably? No, in fact, we should not. Because contact tracing and proper protective gear and other accepted Ebola processes will work, if allowed to do their thing. But that's not a reason to pretend you know all about travel bans when you've never in your life considered them before this month.

I assure you, nay, I guarantee you that I am at least as passionately in favor of international travel and freedom of movement as you are. Let me tell you a little story. When I was in Cuba (behold! exhibit A in my see-I-really-mean-it-that-people-should-be-able-to-travel-wherever-they-want case), I was based in Havana but also traveled to other areas during my time there: Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Vales, the Isla de la Juventud, Varadero, etc. One place my travel companion and I wanted to visit was Santiago de Cuba, way at the other end of the island (near Guantanamo, for anyone keeping political score at home). Unfortunately, we couldn't travel to Santiago because there was an official quarantine due to an outbreak of I think dengue fever. (Forgive me, as I was still very much sinking-or-swimming in my Spanish and some of the talk about it involving the eye symptoms confused me, but I think it was dengue.) No going in or out. But we really wanted to go to Santiago...and how long does this quarantine last...and as a 22-year-old from the spoiled USA no one tells me what to do...sure, maybe those thoughts passed through my ingenue head, and guess what? Too bad. No Santiago travel. And guess what else? The disease didn't spread across the island. The outbreak was contained. And the sassy muchachitas had to live without Santiago on their itinerary. I'm just saying, maybe what we need here is the heavy hand of communism!

I'll let you all decide for yourselves how serious I am about that last part. I lived in China during a bird flu season, and hey, I appreciated the posters that appeared in my apartment building lobby illustrating hand-washing and how to properly deal with a chicken. Good lookin' out, man. I also had forehead-sensing thermometers pointed at me every time I crossed between the mainland and Hong Kong. I did not react by writing pitiful editorials demanding to know what I had done to deserve this fate. A few years ago, when I traveled to Tajikistan, it just so happened that there had been some cases of polio there. Polio? Who had ever thought about polio in the past decade? Turns out, Afghanistan (which helpfully borders Tajikistan), Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and a handful of other countries, that's who. Also WHO: a World Health Organization worker was deployed at the gate of our flight and we had to either take her offered up polio booster droplets (who knew?!) or waive the vaccine, attesting that we'd been vaccinated. You know what? That was awesome! I like when there are people in charge, and the people in charge are in charge, and not a bunch of jabbering minions who want to make sure they're on all the right sides politically but just end up saying a lot of stupid crap.

No one (that I know) is picking on anyone. No one is disrespecting health care workers. But frankly, all my United Statesian peeps who are so eager to talk about how "We don't have to worry" are just revealing that, as usual, their self-centered worldviews don't include empathy for thousands of people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea who would possibly like to "worry" and make sure precautions are taken, and who may well be in favor of following protocols that might inconvenience someone just a teensy bit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reflections on the Poland Habitat experience

What better way to take a final look back at my Habitat for Humanity experience in Poland than to interview myself? Let's see what I have to say...
(questions stolen from a totally different interview with a different person about a different trip) 

Why did you decide to travel to Poland with Habitat for Humanity? 
This was my fourth Global Village trip with Habitat. It's funny--I was initially looking at going to Poland when I first ever applied for a Habitat trip back in 2005, but a variety of things led to me not doing that trip and moving to Korea at that time instead. Then and now, I was into the idea of traveling to Poland, the land of one-fourth of my heritage and, specifically, my last name's origin, as it's a heritage my sister, dad, aunts, et. al. and I have always been aware and yet not aware enough of. My Polish great-grandparents came to the U.S. a little before World War I. Of course, since 2005 I have now traveled to Honduras, Tajikistan, and Cambodia for Habitat builds, and I have set a goal for myself to do more Habitat projects and to do them in different regions of the world. So, I've now done Central America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. My next volunteer trip will be in a new (to me) region.

What things did you like? 
Practically everything! Poland was such a pleasant place to be. Cool people, intense history, beautiful sights, EU progress, sooooo  much delicious food, stuff to see and do, cheap beer, I could go on... but I adored Warsaw, and I liked Krakow and Poznan, too, in their own ways, and the experience of visiting Auschwitz was mind-altering. And those were just my side travels; the actual build experience and the time spent with fellow volunteers and the Barka community were inspirational. I also liked the Palac Wasowo manor estate/hotel where we stayed and the wonderful Polish cats. 

What didn't you like? 
Thinking about where the outdoor cats spend the cold Poland winters. I suppose the hardy ones I saw are the ones who have survived thus's such a tough world we live in, not that some of us humans would know. 

What was your favorite experience? 
Of the Habitat build, probably the opening night barbecue at which the Barka community hosted us and we shared life stories and grilled kielbasa over the fire and learned about this inspiring organization's work (previously discussed here). Of Poland, it's hard to say, partly because it's weird to call Auschwitz my "favorite," but that was definitely a hugely meaningful life experience, visiting there.

Did you have any problems traveling in Poland? 
Hmmm... I'd say no. There were a few OK-let's-figure-this-out moments when initially using Warsaw's train transport, or buying bus tickets in broken-Polish-broken-English conversations, that kind of thing, but I found traveling in Poland to be really smooth and great.

What other countries did you visit and how does Poland compare?
On this trip, I just did a day in Berlin on the way and then a layover at Heathrow on the way out. I suppose we could discuss the needless complexities of Heathrow here, but let's leave that for another day! Comparing Poland to the other three countries where I've done Habitat builds, let's see... Poland is obviously less hot-and-steamy than Honduras and Cambodia, and less remote than Tajikistan. Unlike Honduras (and, to some extent, Cambodia), you aren't bombarded with what seems like wall-to-wall poverty and devastation at every turn. Poland and Cambodia have both been the site of recent genocides, and it is sobering to visit the sites and grapple with that history. Poland and Tajikistan are both relatively recently de-occupied by Russia/Soviets, and it's interesting to discuss that, although we were much more able to discuss that in Poland, for language reasons.

What image did you have of Poland before traveling there, and how did your image change? 
Gosh, it's hard to remember and conjure up my pre-trip visuals, now. I mean, the old notion of the Warsaw/Eastern Europe/gray-urban-landscape image isn't exactly what I would have predicted, but there was definitely something a little bit more sleek and gritty to urban Warsaw as opposed to arty/touristy areas of Krakow or the brightly colored almost sing-songy feel to the old market square in Poznan. I think I pictured some open spaces of farmland, and the reality of the countryside matched my image of that. Next time I go to a new country, I suppose I should write down in advance what I envision/predict and then compare it upon my return.

Would you like to come back? 
And how!!  I totally considered my trip reconnaissance and spent a bunch of the time plotting return trips with Brian and with my sister/Napikoski family. 

What would you recommend to someone considering traveling to Poland or doing a Habitat for Humanity build?
First of all, I totally recommend doing a Habitat build in Poland, as the organization there is totally helpful and great. Secondly, I do recommend doing a Habitat build, and my recommendation for those in general is that you have an open mind, get lots of sleep, work slowly and steadily, and talk to people, even with only a word or two of a foreign language. And I absolutely recommend Poland as a travel destination. It's affordable and easy, and there's so  much interesting history. Definitely do Warsaw and Krakow, but don't just do Warsaw and Krakow. Include other cities on your itinerary, like Poznan, Wroclaw, Bialystok, etc. See the countryside and national parks. And don't rush in and out of Auschwitz--stay the night in Oświęcem, so you can take all the hours you want visiting, and you don't have to do the end-of-afternoon bus scramble. The Hotel Olecki, which is right across the parking lot, is great and it was a good place to be able to sit and reflect on all you've just learned and experienced. 

Any final thoughts? 
Regarding World War II and the devastation Poland and Poles endured, just the usual: "When will we ever learn?"  At any rate, let's try to keep traveling and learning.
Also! I loved that everywhere I went in Poland, people love Chicago and basically consider it a Polish city (ha ha, but kind of true) and they also all said the same thing when I mentioned the city where my great-grandparents were born: "Ahh, Lomza? There's a famous beer made there..."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Transport Tales : Hazards of Leaving Poland

I wrapped up my stay in Lomza, city of my great-grandmother's birth, and headed to the dworzec to catch my bus back to Warszawa. I amused myself when I went to wait on the outdoor platform. I had my choice of benches and opted to sit next to the two men smoking instead of next to the one woman eating. I thought that not many people I know would make the same choice.

There's nothing quite like waking up to a 5am text that your noon flight is cancelled. There's also nothing like getting a voucher for a tasty airport lunch and beer to enjoy while waiting for your new evening flight. There's probably something like watching hours of continuous "Are we, the EU, prepared for Ebola?" coverage, but I'm not sure what that something is. A post-apocalypse mini-series script read through, perhaps?

By the way, the answer changes. It's alternately cautious optimism and steadily increasing doom saying. As I mentioned on Facebook, there's more than my survival-level Polish leading to a lack of clarity when a government minister says Poland is prepared for an outbreak and then an academic expert says Polish hospitals aren't prepared for Ebola patients.

What exactly is the proper response to seeing two security guards running through the airport? I mean,  at a full-out run/chase speed? Followed by more security guards, walking briskly? Followed by more uniformed people? Followed by every single passenger looking and neck-craning in that direction but unable to see what happened? Are we supposed to keep calm and go back to the ebola coverage? Or just go find some secondhand smoke to inhale?

Monday, October 06, 2014

When a Habitat build ends...what else begins?

Time passes interestingly when you're on a volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity. In my experience, the first two days of the build always seem longer, as you sloooowly learn how to do what you're doing, work with new materials, work with new people, get accustomed to the work site, settle in to your accommodations and routine, practice the language, etc.

Our work, in progress
Then, the third day, often a Wednesday, all of a sudden the week seems to accelerate and the next few days go by in a blur. Regardless of the length of the build (mine have ranged, but usually the trip is between one to two weeks), the second-to-last day seems to go a bit more quickly in the afternoon, like all of a sudden it's almost time to be over. The last day often has a last-day-of-school feeling, although there's no pithy "See you next year!" tossed off in the yearbook signing, because there's a good chance you might not ever again see these people with whom you have worked, sweated, and broken bread.

I loved pretty much everything about Poland and traveling there, and turns out the Habitat project itself was also great. As I've previously blog-mentioned, we were building a house for a man who was part of the Barka community of Marszewo, near Nowy Tomysl, west of Poznan, Poland. We, the baker's dozen volunteers, worked with him, our Habitat Poland coordinator, our local construction supervisor, and several other locals. Besides our coordinators, only one of the local guys spoke English, so there was definitely some opportunity to practice my Polish here and there. To be honest, when I'm with twelve people who can't speak a word and only one other North American with any grasp of bits of the language (beyond those who had early in the week mastered "piwo" for "beer"), even my minimal skills could come off as impressive once in a while, simply for being able to ask where something is or tell someone I understand. "Ahhh, you speak Polish very well!" they would respond in Polish. Ha! Don't worry, they'd quickly realize the truth. But it's fun to have even basic conversations, like, "I like the cat." "Me too." 

There's Donna, up to her elbows in the mud tub
The whole mud-straw-clay mixture process was one of the dirtier jobs I've done in this world, and I think it will be forever embedded in my Habitat Poland t-shirt and the shoes I wore on the work site, so those might never again be fit for normal daily wear. Our site was really well organized, and I got to try a few different jobs during the course of the build. I enjoyed the inside wall sanding/smoothing work the most. But the whole week was great, and I enjoyed the tunes and language acquisition I got by listening to the Polish radio station, too! Once in a while, the guys had to unplug the radio from the extension cord in order to plug in a drill temporarily and I would be eager for it to come back on. 

And, I've already mentioned that the animals on this site were great: the three wonderful cats, the frolicking puppies (really, dogs, but I basically call any dog that I like a "puppy"), the goats who would come say hi when I walked toward their fence and said, "Hey, goats!", the poor pigs who live inside a pen their whole lives, the chickens with their daily greetings...

As I've told a few folks, I think it's really important to go work on a Habitat volunteer project, and not just because I believe in the cause of eradicating poverty housing. I spend a lot of time inside my head and/or staring at a computer screen, and I need to make myself go do real work in the world. Sure, for the physical exercise of it, but also for the mental. Get out of that inner space and out into the world. 

As the wise Girls sing, which I've surely quoted here before, "Now I know a refuge never grows/from a chin in a hand and a thoughtful pose/gotta tend the Earth if you want a rose." (that would be Indigo Girls from "Hammer and a Nail"--feel free to play it while you read this blog entry!) I've been listening to that song for more than 20 years now (um--gulp!), and I understand what Emily Saliers means when she looks back on her early lyrics and cringes and sees them as pedantic or wishes she could change them...but really, once you actually do "go out and get a hammer and a nail," you do totally get it, in a way that's even deeper than when you sat in your bedroom playing that song (on cassette) over and over as a teenager. I don't really think she needs to worry too much. I mean, lines like "even my sweat smells clean..." are still, well, true!

"Loft"-y concepts, indeed
And sure, maybe she would tinker with the words and the poetry, I get that, but to actually try to make your life more than a vision, to "get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail" on so many levels, is really a decent goal. Don't worry, Emily! Your youthful expression of this lofty concept still resonates. 

One thing we talked about in multiple discussions while in Poland, including one great dinner conversation with the national director of Habitat Poland, was the immense challenge of solving the housing problem. But another thing we talked about was how many of us on this trip have worked with Habitat for a while and we observe it changing and growing, something that is crucial to any organization's success and effectiveness. It's not all about getting out there (with a hammer and a nail) building a new house, but Habitat also does advocacy work, building with eco-friendly materials, renovations, and so on. I personally love that Habitat works to restore and renovate urban housing (including in U.S. cities) because I think that is what we all should be doing (hello, developers, are you listening?)  As someone who grew up in Phoenix, I have certainly observed the endless suburban sprawl, encroaching every month further upon the beautiful Arizona desert, while people demand more and more space (and then wonder why there are scorpions in their bathroom...)  I may hate millennials (that's a long-running inside joke; don't try to understand it if you don't understand it) , but if they as a generation (if) are more interested in neighborhoods in urban centers than driving to a subdivision every day, they've got one thing right, anyway. I would love to see a moratorium on new home construction (oh my god, you can just hear the heart attacks that economists and politicians would have upon reading that line) and a major societal push (with financial incentives) to build, restore, renovate, and live in already-existing neighborhoods, in cities that have deteriorated AND in cities that have grown by flying ever outward and eating up the land. 

(I might add that any of you who freak out about house cats killing birds and therefore advocate keeping cats imprisoned inside for their whole lives? might want to consider your !@#&%* subdivision's part in clear cutting and destroying birds' habitats, not to mention your endless malls and parking lots, and you might want to stop blaming the cats, who would much rather control the mouse population in the city for you anyway, and then everybody wins.)

Well, back to the U.S.A. I come with all my Poland and Habitat thoughts, and all my cares in the world. Gifts to bring, as Emily and Amy sing. Gifts to bring...

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Poznan, or
Go west, young/old Poland traveler

It seems that most travelers to Poland start with Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk. That's fine, of course, but they also tend to end there.
I hereby urge you, in the paraphrased words of my least favorite White House occupier of all time, "Don't forget Poznan!"

Poland has a really interesting history. Of course, I've been aggressively reading stuff from and about Poland in preparation for this Habitat trip, but I've found it worthwhile to explore, whether you think you have a reason to be interested in Poland or not. Interestingly, as the trip approached, I happened to be on FDR in my read-a-bio-of-every-president-in-order project, so I had tons of context for all the WWII  and pre-war history, and I also happened to have Holocaust- themed novels on tap by Styron and Amis in my A-to-Z project further reading, so I've been drowning in Auschwitz, which, frankly, I recommend. I mean, I recommend visiting there, and doing a ton of reading to attempt to grapple with it, because grappling with it is tough. But also, the preceding centuries of Poland history are equally fascinating and relevant to world history.

Poznan old market square, which around here we call a Stary Rynek
In some ways, Poland is like good ol' Korea, sandwiched between powerful and/or power- hungry empires that have invaded/occupied/partitioned/oppressed it over the years, but both Korea and Poland have managed to maintain their identity, culture, and language. Good job, guys.

Poznan is a very interesting prism through which to view all this. It has more of a German influence than Warsaw and eastern Poland, and it has a certain proudly-of-German-heritage-but-totally-Polish population and more people with German last names, but also it was the site of an insistent uprising in 1918, when independent Poland was being reestablished after many years, when the Treaty of Versailles hadn't done enough, and Wielkopolska was like,  Dude, we are Poland! Don't go putting us in Germany!

And for good reason, because this is basically where Poland started back in the day, by which I mean 1,000 years ago.
Where the goats do their thing
 Krakow is an old, pre-Warsaw capital, but if you want the site of the first stuff, the first cathedrals, the first dukes' and kings' hangouts, you need to check out Poznan (and nearby Gniezno).

And check out Poznan we did. Our guide, Simon, led us on a seven-hour walking tour. Highlights include:
*The old market square, bombed in the war of course, but restored and super cute
*The goats in the clock tower who fight when the clock strikes noon-- no, they're not real. They're a fun mechanical recreation of the two legendary goats who escaped being the meal at a royal feast
*A big ol' church built by the Jesuits in mega baroque gold and fake gold splendour
*Cathedral island, where even now, centuries-old secrets continue to be revealed
*St. Martin croissants, totally a thing in Poznan, which we learned to make in a very funny interactive show/demonstration that happened to end with me winning an extra croissant for coming closest to guessing the weight in grams of the croissant that we as a group made. Actually, the weight was between what I said and what another audience member said, but by The Price Is Right rules I win because the other person overbid.
I won!

*An imaginative and high tech experience at a museum that uses audio, visual, films, holograms, models, and more to explore Poznan history

And later, our new friend Piotr, the young Polish construction supervisor
A noble Poznan cat
on our work site who has lived in Poznan for seven years, showed us a night out on the town. Have I mentioned that there is a lot of beer in Poland?

Here's to another great millennium, Poznan!

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Working on a Building

On each of my four Habitat for Humanity volunteer projects, I have encountered a different style of house and different building materials.
Dennis surveys our work
Here in Marszewo, Beyond Poznan, Poland, we're working with clay "bricks" of clay/mud/straw that are big and heavy -- kind of the size of a breadbox, actually-- and that I probably should have taken a picture of rather than trying to describe. You can kind of see them in this picture to the right, there below the wood.

This is basically what I spent the first two days of the build doing, usually with Dennis as my partner, although on Tuesday afternoon I switched to working with Rick, and I noticed that I got a lot dirtier working with him. Rick apparently just likes to splash plaster and muddy water all over (me) without a second thought.

The upstairs scene
Of course, this upstairs work was nothing compared to Wednesday, when I moved outside to mixing. That involves pouring the clay mud liquid into a bathtub, adding straw, and mixing it together using our hands and arms, until it solidifies into the plaster we use inside for sticking the giant bricks together. It is impossible not to get very muddy during this task, despite the use of rubber gloves, and the cool, damp, gray weather kept the ground nice and muddy, too. This mixing is also a very muscle intensive job. Yea, workout!

This whole clay house thing, by the way, is very environmentally friendly, although some people in the area are confused as to why our homeowner wants to build using natural materials like they did 100 years ago or longer. Some other Barka people who have received land and will be building houses decided to wait and check out how this eco-house project went before committing themselves to the same kind of house. They remain a bit skeptical. We remain more than a bit muddy.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How to make life better

On our first evening in Nowy Tomysl (aka "Beyond Poznan"),  we learned about Habitat Poland's partnership with an incredible non-profit organization called Barka (there's a bit of English info for you at Barka is a non profit community in which people who are rebuilding their lives help themselves and one another rebuild their lives. Basically, it involves my favorite things on Earth, like rehabilitation, problem-solving, communal efforts, and the like. The people we meet have in the past had problems with drinking/alcoholism, homelessness, criminal activity, etc. Barka helps people get off the streets and change their lives for the better; they are taken into the community but also have a responsibility to the community. The key is leadership from within, so the leader of each little Barka community (you might say: commune) is someone who has himself struggled with these things, so he can relate and lead by example. Also, Barka sends people to the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, etc. to help Polish and other Eastern European immigrants who are struggling there but might be afraid to come back home, or unable because they've lost their job and are now homeless in a foreign country, and so forth.

So, Habitat Poland has a partnership with Barka. The house we are building is for a man who has successfully passed Barka's "Jacob's Ladder" program, and so he has been rewarded with a piece of land, on which he is (and we are) now Building a house where he and his wife and two children will live. As of now, they are living in the communal Barka house, so that was our staging area for the build, meaning that unlike many other Habitat projects I've worked on, we had actual house facilities around while building the new house, so that's a fun perk. And while Mr.Homeowner worked construction with us, Ms. Homeowner made lunch for everyone (us, the other Barka commune residents who work around the farm, etc. ) and we are talking delicious, here, folks! On the first day there were these potatoes with dill that I basically wanted to face plant into. And one day there was gnocchi... two kinds... oh my heavens. ..

Anyway, the point is that Barka is awesome and on Sunday night when we arrived in Nowy Tomysl, a different Barka community in the area hosted us for a barbecue to introduce the organization and themselves. They all told us their stories and we told them our stories and why we came to Poland and we cooked kielbasa over the fire and it was beautiful.

My old boss in my public radio days, JJ Yore, once explained his theory of life thus: Life is a series of magic moments, and we can look back and see the journey from moment to moment, kind of skipping the insignificant things in between,  almost like a physical path, and we must also be careful about trying to recreate the magic moments that are over, rather than just treasuring them in memory.
This "series of magic moments" theory has always stuck with me (even though I didn't actually follow the advice he was giving me on that specific occasion), and I'd like to couple that here with what Toni Morrison wrote in the dedication of her novel, Sula, that it is sheer good fortune to miss someone before they leave you. I have thought about that sentiment over the years, and Sunday as we ate and talked bilingually and broke bread with the inspiring founder of Barka and this little community, I was filled with joy because I was there, and because I was so happy that I was able to recognize the magic moment as it was happening.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Warsaw to Nowy Tomysl

What's more fun than a four-hour road trip with a bunch of people you have known less than 24 hours? Precious little, I'd say.

Don't you like our cute little bus?
After breakfast Sunday morning it was time to hit the road, leaving behind the buzzing capital (Warsaw) and heading west to Wielkopolska, or as I liked to think of it, to Beyond Poznan. Our Habitat build had been described as taking place in the Poznan area, but really we were driving almost an hour west of Poznan, what with having to take some back country roads once we got off the highway. Our true destination was Nowy Tomysl, and specifically our accommodations were at the Palac Wasowo, which is a really interesting place to stay (more on that later). The house we were building was in the tiny community of Marszewo, Nowy Tomysl, and more on that later, too. First of all, let's hit the road!

As I was riding across the middle of Poland, gazing out the bus window at farms and the occasional cow or church steeple in the distance, it struck me how much everything in Poland felt so normal to me. After doing my time in Asia, I guess I'm just used to world travels tending to involve a little
A little Poland countryside. Nice, eh?
weirdness thrown at you; when you go from the U.S. to live in China you get used to wondering what's going on around you half the time. And even in Mexico, where you're super aware you're in North America and things aren't particularly bizarre, there's still randomness strewn throughout daily life, like pedestrians running across the highway, or the impatient-to-pass headlight flashers, or the
persistent use of flashers (hazards) themselves, or the city buses that will stop for you, sort of, if you flag them down, sometimes. Stuff like that. Poland, on the other hand, does not seem to offer a lot of wackiness. Way to be normal, Polska!

It was pretty, and there was the requisite chatter and group bonding that happens, but also some reading and just relaxing as we settled in to our trip, and before long we had arrived at Palac Wasowo. You'll see (if you click the link) that it kind of is a palace, a full-on country manor, built by rich folks a few hundred years ago and now a hotel. Don't be too jealous, as we weren't in the most plush digs; the twelve of us stayed in the Gardener's House, so I joked that we were the hired help. Which, in a way...  No, seriously, though. If you are ever in Poland, take a little trip to stay at the Palac Wasowo. They have great meals, beautiful dining rooms, fun features like mini-golf and a horse-and-buggy ride on the grounds, plus recreation in the main "palace" building: sauna, a little pool, a billiards room. It was kind of like the Clue mansion.

All in all, Poland continued to welcome and delight us and feed us great quantities of quality food, and we were ready to plunge into our project. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Habitat team convenes

Well, after a few days of solo travel in Warsaw,  Krakow, and Oswiecem (where Auschwitz is), I met up with my Habitat build team of volunteers on Saturday, September 27th. My fourth Habitat build, my first time in Poland.  We gathered in Warsaw, meeting at the Hotel MDM, which by the way turns out to be a really cute place on the Plac Konstitucji (I always think a I'm spelling that wrong) whence a lovely view is enjoyed while one is eating one's breakfast and/or drinking one's beer in the restaurant/bar/breakfast buffet room. And what a breakfast spread, I might add. Yum! But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Saturday night was about gathering for the first time as a team, and so our Habitat local affiliate coordinator met us and led us around the corner to a fabulous little restaurant where we feasted family style, sharing platters of food with meats and pierogis and salad and all manner of things. We introduced ourselves and initiated our two team members who are doing their first Habitat Global Village projects. This group is twelve people plus team leader. There are three married couples, so that's half the group. A couple from Alberta (way north,  I pretend they live at the North Pole), a couple from Nanaimo, BC, and a couple from Idaho. Then there are the the men, from Florida, Colorado,  and Washington/Arizona (a snowbird!), and the women, from Chicago, from Michigan, and me. In addition to the variety of places we come from, several  of which you may have noticed are places I'M from, we are an interestingly traveled group, and we among  us have done dozens of Habitat projects.

Further details to come about our adventure...

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I arrived in Krakow at night, after a fun train journey on which they gave us free coffee, a free apple, and a free bottle of water. I've been told that we should buy/eat a lot of apples because normally apparently Poland sells a lot of apples to Russia and they can't right now because of EU  sanctions. Well, I am always happy to eat a lot of apples, but does that include a random free train apple?
The main train/bus station, Krakow Glowny, dumps you into a mall, Galeria Krakowska, which normally would give me heart palpitations (a mall?!!) but somehow didn't bother me in Krakow at all.

I stayed at a cheap place, the Goodbye Lenin hostel, which I give 100% for location as it was easy to walk from there to both the main  old square and the Kazimierz area. Everything is really walkable in Krakow, actually, but GBL gets extra bonus points for having a hostel cat. ISN'T THAT AWESOME?!

So, Krakow. My time more or less consisted of walking, walking, walking. There is tons of old, charming, interesting, and pretty stuff to do and see, from Wawel Castle to the Collegium where Copernicus studied.
I ate lunch at a Ukrainian restaurant, took a zillion pictures, toured churches that have been around for hundreds of years, and attended a "Macabre Krakow" walking tour at night that taught me history through ghost, vampire, and serial killer stories.

Come to Krakow! Walk around! Have a pretzel. Stay awhile.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Day in Warsaw

I have had my first taste of Warsaw, capital of the land of one- fourth of my heritage, and I think this particular world capital is doing a lot right.

Most of my time was spent in the area near Warszawa Centralna, the city center train station and hub. I also did a long walk through the UNESCO World Heritage old town and saw Plac Zamkovy, or Castle Square, before heading to Krakow. (But don't worry, Warsaw, I'll be back!)

One of my favorite things to do in Warsaw was to play a game I call Are You My Fifth Cousin? It's easy to play. You just look at the face of every person you pass and wonder if that person is related to you, or rather, how distantly.  I never actually win this game, nor do I ever lose.

I rode the subway in Warsaw! That makes... Oh dear, let me count... my 25th city train system? Maybe? I'm probably forgetting one/some.

Basically, Warsaw makes me feel welcome, happy, and productive. Everyone is buzzing about dressed for fall in lots of black,  doing their things, and it's big, and there was lots of sunshine. So I feel happy about Warsaw and can't wait to explore it more.

Meanwhile, fun fact: Chopin went off to live his composer life in Austria  or whatever and although he was buried there, his heart was returned, per his wishes, to be buried at a church in Warsaw. Really,  Fryderyk? I mean, I get the symbolism and stuff, but like, ewww. And this was well before medical flights express transporting organs for donation on planes in dry ice and stuff like that.

I'll be back in a couple days, Warsaw.

UPDATE: Further along in my trip,  I've been informed that it wasn't just Chopin's heart that was brought back, but that the lower half of his body was buried wherever and the upper half of his body was brought back to be buried here. I'm not sure if that makes it more or less grisly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Eastern Europe, or
Everyone knows I am not a doughnut

I started studying German my freshman year of high school, and that was when I discovered my immense love for learning foreign languages.  Frau Glazner...wo ist sie jetzt?!  And now, finally, after all these years, I actually found myself in Germany.

OK, so it was a brief trip, but it was a whetting of the appetite for all things Deutschland. On my way to Poland for my Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip in Poland, I had a ten-hour layover in Berlin. Even allowing for airport time, that is still a full day to see a new city! By new, I of course mean, new-to-me, a city I haven't seen before. And what a city Berlin is.

And let me just say that if you ever have a ten-hour layover, or an eight-hour layover, or maybe even a four-hour layover, at Berlin Tegel Airport, I recommend that you, too, hop into the city, because that is one small airport with very little to do. I was like -- are we really in a world capital here? It was more like a Bali or Manila kind of airport, with fewer palm trees. There was a Starbucks, and cafes and stuff, but it was weird -- it was, you know, small and not carpeted and outside-y. AND, the best part is, it is super-duper easy to hop on the TXL express bus, which runs between Tegel Airport and Alexanderplatz. I hopped off at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, which you absolutely cannot miss, and which is a big train station close to the Reichstag, Brandenburg Tor, etc. and consequently a perfect place to hop off the bus. Did I mention the bus costs only 2 euros 60 euro cents each way? Basically, you have no excuse for not checking out Berlin on your layover.

The Reichstag building, where the Bundestag meets, has a famous and symbolic dome on top that you can visit, provided you register ahead of time (which I did do, online from the U.S., but more on that in a sec). It is symbolic because it is transparent, and the people can walk around it and look out at Berlin and also look down on the Bundestag, the government, representing the people, and the legislators can look up, and see the people watching them, and be accountable...isn't that nice? Anyway, I gazed upon it and saw the people walking up in the dome, but I ended up not going inside as instead I did a free two-hour walking tour of Berlin that turned into a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour, thus causing me to miss my Reichstag appointment. So, this whole Free Tour thing is now totally a thing, I have learned today. What will those millennials think of next? A young man (from the U.S., who lives in Berlin) led me and about 20 other people from a slew of nations on a tour (in English) from the Brandenburg Tor all around the area and he talked about the history of Berlin and it was, I must say, quite enjoyable. At the end, you donate whatever you feel like, and that's how the tour guides get paid. Lo and behold, upon my arrival in Warsaw, I find out they have Warsaw Free Tours as well--this company is totally doing its thing, and I daresay I approve.

Anyway, among the things I saw on my tour were the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, sometimes shorthand called Berlin's "Holocaust Memorial" although technically that's not correct because there are separate memorials to the murdered gays, the murdered Roma, the murdered disabled/handicapped, etc. The memorial is very interesting, and controversial. The architect did not want something that told people what to think so he created this space that is very interesting and moving, and you really are forced to kind of grapple with it. I am not sure I really want to explain it, because the artist apparently took that into account, that once someone reads a description or sees a picture, they feel less like they need to go experience a place, and I get what he's saying. Let's just say it's not really sculpture, more just like walking through stone slabs, and it is not a traditional display at all. I loved it.

We also saw "Checkpoint Charlie," which my tour guide called the "Disneyland of Berlin" although I find that insulting to Disneyland as it is actually the Times Square of Berlin, i.e., concocted for tourists and not real. Like, there's a sign there saying "You are entering the American sector" but it's not the original sign, and there are random people dressed up as U.S. soldiers (is that even legal? some people I know on Facebook would probably have a coronary at the sacrilege) so tourists can take pictures with the "American soldiers" at the checkpoint ... um, no. Just no. There were some interesting informative displays there, though, with pictures of all the dudes at the Potsdam Conference and stuff.

After my tour, when I was left to my own Berlin devices, I walked some more, strolled the Unter den Linden, had a currywurst for lunch, checked out a gallery with a nice display about Willy Brandt (former West Berlin mayor, activist leader, and Nobel laureate), walked around the Tiergarten, and basically enjoyed more gazing upon Berlin.

And then my whole flying-to-Europe-one-or-two-hours-of-sleep-it's-the-next-day-what-time-is-it? hit me and I was suddenly SO tired that I headed back to the airport at 2 p.m. instead of pushing it 'til the last minute for my 5pm flight. Flight to Poland! I am in Poland now!

And so far Warsaw is lovely, but I will tell you more about that in future days; for now just note that you should totally check out Berlin for a day because it's pretty and fantastic. And Germany is totally grappling with its history in a way that some other entities don't seem willing/able to do.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I remember when, I remember, I remember... when in the course of human events

Today, the 13th anniversary of the tragic September 11th/nine-eleven/World Trade Center however-you-personally-like-to-say-it terrorist attacks on multiple U.S. cities that caused the deaths of thousands, has turned into a veritable "Where I was when" fest on the ol' Facebook. Rather than add to that with a mere status update, I thought I'd give a quiz about where I was during some of the big news events of the Generation X Lifetime. I'll tell you my vivid memory of where I was when... and you see if you can determine what newsworthy event happened when I remember Where I Was When it happened.  (Small prize to the winner!)
note: events are in chronological order, which might help you figure them out...

1. Phoenix. Home sick from elementary school that day. Watching an Indiana Jones flick, I think on, like, The Movie Channel, in our Villa Rita house living room when Grandma called to see if we were watching the news. Since we weren't, she informed my mother what had happened, and needless to say Mom hurried in, shut off the movie, and turned to some broadcast network or other. How will I ever know what happened to Indy, mom?!?! Does he vanquish the enemy and get the girl and save the treasure or what? Before Setpember 11th, this event was often described as "my generation's" Kennedy-assassination-like moment, but I am going to demonstrate here that I remember where I was when I heard other news, too. This was the first biggie for people of a certain age (mine), though.

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

2. Phoenix. Chez Marcia, one of my high-school best friends. Watching a little after-school Jeopardy (nerds then, nerds now, nerds forever!) on the small TV set her family had on the kitchen/breakfast nook counter. A breaking news alert meant we never did get that final jeopardy answer, but instead watched several hours of harrowing reporting from people who were indeed in real jeopardy.  (Now both Harrison Ford AND Alex Trebek have been interrupted. Is nothing sacred?)

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

3. Provo, Utah. Walked into my friend Ranj's apartment and I distinctly remember being on the stairs next to her kitchen and she poked her head into the stairway to announce the news. She was either on the phone with her younger sister or had just got off the phone; said little sister had been plunged deep into mourning, for she had apparently just recently been to a concert where he waved at her... (She was probably already wearing black, though, to the best of my recollection of her wardrobe.)

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

4. Back in Phoenix. Working at Best Western's reservations call center one seemingly normal evening, and suddenly the call volume just plummets. Nothing. The phone lines aren't dead, but nothing's coming in. Finally a guy calls, and as we're checking out his double room and continental breakfast options, he asks, "Are you watching this?"  I warily reply, "Watching...what?" Ahhhh. That explains it. I had a 15-minute break coming up; naturally, everyone in the break room downstairs was glued to the TV. Not that there was really anything happening, but that was kind of the point of this one. What was going to happen? Anything? Just keep moving, as they say.

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

5. Phoenix. Listening to the radio this time, at home in the apartment I lived in with my mom on Thunderbird, getting ready to leave for class. I was an avid listener of the 106.3 The Edge morning show with Jayn Sayd and Dead Air Dave (Willobee having left for greener L.A. pastures). They read the news and I altered my morning radio routine just a little by turning on the living room TV to get some visuals and more details, though I kept the radio playing in the bedroom. And I totally remember lots of "Who's the Muslim?" speculation. (Not necessarily on the part of Jayn and Dave, just people in general.)

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

6. Phoenix, but just in town visiting, staying with Mom at her 19th Avenue apartment. Very recently returned from Cuba (by like a week), I was trying to practice my Spanish one night. We were watching this already-starting-to-develop story on TV, and I had insisted on keeping it on the Spanish news channel for a bit, so I could impress myself with my new language listening skills, as opposed to my previous growing-up-in-Phoenix life in which I had always cruised right by the noticias en español. Well, I was letting the details wash over me aurally when suddenly the newscaster upped the ante and I sat bolt upright. "Mom!" I said, then repeated (in English) the devastating new detail in all its finality, adding, "I think that's what he said?!"  She quickly flipped to an English news station, which confirmed the sad news.

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

7. Los Angeles. I had bizarrely fallen asleep with the TV on the night before, which was weird because at that time of my life I rarely if ever watched TV, let alone fell asleep with it on overnight. I had been drowsily continuing to sleep and drift with no real awareness of what the morning newscasts were saying until a sudden noise and clamor on the television was enough to jar me awake, around 7 a.m.. Took one look at the screen and then jumped out of bed and ran to look out the window, sure I was going to see bombs raining down from the sky over L.A., or some such thing.

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

8. Boston. It was a Sunday morning and I was on my way to work at Borders, which entailed me taking a quick bus ride from my house to Harvard station, stopping by the in-subway little Dunkin' Donuts for my coffee, then proceeding through the station to catch the red line of the T. The station had that sleepy Sunday morning feel, with only alternative-shift kind of commuters like myself passing through. I'm not sure I'd ever noticed that there even were little TV sets anywhere in that station, but that day I realized the Dunkin' Donuts workers were watching this oh-so-satisfactory-to-many announcement.

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

9. Andong, Korea. Way ahead of many of you time-of-day-wise, it was Monday morning for us. Brian and I were at home in our apartment, working on our various things. We often had CNN International on in the background, while also both being online; I was likely writing up and researching stuff for, with multiple tabs open, and one of them was probably Facebook. In other words, the news suddenly came at us from several sources at once, but I definitely stepped out of our "study"/spare room into the living room where the TV was (and where Brian was) and we watched some footage of, as Brian called it (referencing his girl Miley), the "party in the U.S.A."

News Event? ______________  Year?  __________

10. Honorable mention: These two bits of breaking news weren't quite as major, no offense intended, but are memorable and particularly so for me because I was basically in the same place and circumstances, two years apart, for these eerily similar announcements. Both times, Brian and I were staying in our same beloved apartment-hotel in Phuket, Thailand. Both times, it just so happened that the TV was on with news in the background, I was focused on doing other stuff on my laptop, and Brian was lying  on the bed. Both times, the news appeared (thank goodness in English) on the screen and I said to Brian, "Hey, ________ Ho----n died!"  Both times, a similar tragic cause of death of not-that-far-apart-in-age people. 

News Events? _______________   Years? ___________

Well, ladies and gents, how did you do on the quiz?  And do you remember where you were when these things happened? 

Isn't it interesting to consider that in the course of all these newsworthy events, and despite my other ways of getting the news on multiple occasions, my reaction was always to get more details from television news? Talkin' bout my generation...I guess that's just how we do. (Some other generations do that, too.) Although I have logged fewer television-watching hours than many of my Gen-X cohorts, I recognize its place as a sort of "gathering" place for us all to watch, hear, learn, and experience when earth-shattering news happens. I used to think of breaking news on television as a kind of proxy for a town square, or suburban street, or dorm hallway, where instead of rushing out to say, "Oh my gosh, neighbors! This news!" we all watch from our own homes/workplaces and collectively experience it that way, and later talk face-to-face and remember together what we watched separately and yet kind of together. I suppose Facebook is kind of sort of where we do that now, although Facebook itself is still not really breaking news to us, just alerting us to "trending" things that we are all putting up there, news that we got from somewhere else first. Would I prefer to experience these things on my smartphone, tablet, or other handheld device? Abso-!@#$^&-lutely not. The time element is key: whatever was being broadcast over the airwaves, it was being broadcast at that time, and though some might have tuned in earlier than others, we then watched our many minutes or hours or days of coverage as they unfolded. Watching uploaded videos individually on our phones at our leisure removes that transmission (I'm sorry, millennials, should I say that "streaming"?) element from the collective experience. And although I have never really had to get earth-shattering news from the morning newspaper headlines, I definitely of an age where I liked to look to the morning paper for the details, the full story, the yellow ribbon on top of the front page of The Arizona Republic when the hostages in Iran were released (I was a tiny tyke -- that and John Lennon's death are basically the first news events that I remember, ever), or the Christmas Day end of the Soviet Union (who wants to blare TV news on Christmas? but reading the paper surrounded by a tree and opened presents seemed all right...)   I'm pretty sure I saved a few major The-Next-Day newspapers over the years, although I might have eventually recycled them, as I didn't find them while we were unpacking here in our new apartment in Chicago. We do have a television, though, and we watched Obama last night, talking to the nation about air strikes and ISIL...and so it goes, and so it goes.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Touchdown: Hail to the Walmart Shopper

Let's all look up the definition of "too little, too late" in the dictionary and find a picture of Walmart.

I'm just sitting here with some Kopinskis and some cats, doing my thing, you know, as you do, with the ol' television on in the background showing a little Detroit Lions game and whatnot (yes, yes, we moved to Chicago; we're back up in Michigan for a few days to attend a wedding and retrieve the cats) and along comes a Walmart commercial in which a parental figure can get all the things needed for life or whatever at !@#$&* Walmart (I'm a little sketchy on the initial details since I wasn't paying close attention, because a. background television b. Walmart) and here's his ten- or twelve- or whatever-year-old daughter and Dad can get the soccer uniform supplies and then cut to the cheerleading squad and Dad can get the pom-poms  at Walmart and so on, and then -- then! -- THEN!! How dare you, Walmart??!?! I shake my fist at you, you mighty behemoth of evil! You swine! YOU DUMB HORRIBLE... -- then, it's a football game. You know, good ol' MURR-ican football, and Dad can get the pigskin at Walmart, there it is in the top of his shopping bag, for his daughter to toss around. Get it? His daughter! Wants to play American football! And there's ol' Dad with his befuddled face, like "Whaaa-huh? My daughter? Oh gosh gee willickers, there she is on the field tossing the football, aren't I the swell dad." Girls can play football, too. (And get concussions). End scene.

Really, Walmart? NOW you've decided to be all cutesy-wutesy about the 'tween girls being able to hold their own with the boys? NOW? It only took you twenty years, right, no big deal! I HATE WALMART (everyone knows this) but the first reason I hated Walmart (anyone who has been paying attention knows this) stems from the 1990s when some jackwads protested a t-shirt (it's a t-shirt, OK, jackwads? gtf over yourselves) that Walmart (or was it Wal Mart then?) had for sale with Margaret from Dennis the Menace -- you remember Margaret? you remember Dennis the Menace, whom she forever tormented, and he bugged her right back? you remember how they were, what? FIVE? six? OK, so here's Margaret from Dennis the Menace on this t-shirt, arms widespread, proclaiming "Someday a woman will be PRESIDENT!" and much to Dennis' (and what's-his-name, the other boy, the friend's) chagrin, you know, Margaret thinks maybe it will be her, eh? And some total effing JACKWADS who are loser jerky dumb fat idiota stupid Walmart swine protested that this t-shirt (just so we're totally clear here, folks: it's a t-shirt) (with a comic strip character on it) went against family values (that phrase doesn't mean ANYthing!!!!!!!! at all!) and what did Walmart do? Why, pulled the t-shirt of course. Because when it comes to reactionary jackwad politics, Walmart is all like, sign me right up! Let's have some family values up in here! Let's not let a five-year-old fictional character fling her arms at the sky and say "Someday a woman will be president!" Because FAMILY VALUES!  I hate everyone in the world. But mostly I hate Walmart.

So, just no, Walmart. No. You suck, and you made a totally conscious decision to suck, and you cannot unsuck by making a commercial twenty years later now that everyone from Beyonce to Taylor Swift is a feminist. You missed the boat -- on purpose -- because you suck. You chose to be the suckiest suckers ever, and all you ever do nowadays is try to unsuck: "Oh, we sell organic meat now, blah blah blah. Oh, we help our employees with assistance programs now, blah blah blah. Oh we're so sustainable in the great environmental pit of doom that is China (where shopping Walmart is buying local, eh). Once the trendy yuppie gluten-shunning crowd makes enough noise we recalculate our figures and make a policy and for some reason everyone falls for it and goes Ahhhh, look at Walmart, they're on their best behavior... they're not so bad..." YES THEY ARE, PEOPLE. They are so bad. So. Bad. They are the ultimate example of not doing f*ck all to be awesome until everyone else has jumped off the awesome bridge and they are left with no choice. And now, they have apparently decided that little ol' Margaret can be president after all. Or at least maybe play in the NFL. Which is probably a more envied position in the U.S. of A. anyway, right?

 Hate. I hate. I have all the hatred. Walmart. !@#^$&*(#

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cryptic Critters

Have you seen Bigfoot?
Do you know someone who has?
Do you wonder if he really exists?
Do you wonder how it is possible that the legend of Bigfoot persists year after year after year...DINGDINGDINGDINGDING!  We have a winner!

For today's blog subject, I salute Christi Coker, who controls (the topic of) my blog today, thanks to her generous donation to my Habitat for Humanity build in Poland. Christi wants to delve into the fascinating world of cryptids.

Cryptids. I just don't get it. The first two I learned about were undoubtedly Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. As a child, I would often read books my sister had read, sometimes at her prodding, and then follow up with her, seeking answers that she, in her wisdom and experience (a whole two-and-a-half years ahead of me) could surely provide. I remember doing this with Bigfoot. I think we wanted to believe. We dutifully read whatever children's paperback we had come across, with its "photos" (mostly of the Pacific Northwest forest, with a blur superimposed) and breathless anecdotes, and then we probably set about making some plan in which we, the intrepid Napikoski sisters, would travel to the wilderness and discover Bigfoot for ourselves.  Then I read about the Loch Ness monster. This was fun, because I had a pen-pal in Scotland, so I felt connected to the mystery, and I was eager to accept the pictures that showed, well, nothing much as so much evidence.

But even then, it occurred to me: if people have been reporting Bigfoot and Loch Ness sightings for years, and years, and years....even if they were real...wouldn't they have just died by now? Discrediting the later versions of the stories as impossible, temporally, made it that much easier to reject all the stories. Ahhh, I know, this is where the sightings of baby Nessies come in. They reproduce! They're real and they perpetuate themselves! Uh-huh. Sure, there's a whole family of these monsters living in Loch Ness, and yet they just never seem to reproduce to any sizable numbers, now do they? Why is all the talk about the Loch Ness monster, until somebody remembers that it needs to reproduce in order for them to keep making money off of selling t-shirts or tours or whatever?

Now, I enjoy a Jersey Devil The X-Files episode as much as the next gal, but come on, folks. Why are you so eager to perpetuate these myths? I think some people think, well, why would someone make it up? Beyond the incredibly obvious answers of attention and money-making potential, not to mention being delusional, I don't think that question is really a dealbreaker. First of all, well, why do humans make up stories about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Or Dracula and Frankenstein's monster? Or about Zeus and Poseidon?  Or about mankind being created from a spider's web/bear/sun/heavenly personage? Because we tell ourselves stories! And they often involve mythical beings! Secondly, why do humans do any of the weird crap that they do? They routinely shoot each other, or watch hours and hours of reality television, or eat larvae, or go to tanning salons, or any number of totally bizarre actions. It's just kind of how our species is. We fill our days with really weird moments. That doesn't make a random made-up story true.

Despite our childhood fascination with The Wizard of Oz, we don't really expect to fly to Munchkinland when the next tornado hits. We don't really think a poor, overworked girl named Cinderella watched a pumpkin turn into a carriage. We don't really believe that a leprechaun is going to lead us to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (I wish!) So why do so many adults persist in their beliefs in Bigfoot, Nessie, the Mothman, the Abominable Snowman, the Chupacabra?

Maybe humans have a hard time with the concept of mystery. In comparison, it's kind of like when atheists take a lot of flak for not believing in a so-called higher power. To be clear, atheists don't believe in God, but sometimes people criticize them with the line of thinking that "atheists think they're so important they don't need a God because they believe they're the most important thing in the universe" or some such thinking. (I'm not saying everyone says that, just some.) Because the atheist rejects the higher personage power and/or the beliefs of world religions, s/he is accused of not marveling at the Earth. This line of thought leads to pithy questions like, "How can you look at a beautiful sunset and think there is no god?" Well, it's easy. You look at the sunset and marvel at its beauty, and you feel inspired, and you feel like you have a lot to learn, and you feel happy, and so on. It doesn't necessarily translate into "And so someone must have designed this on the second day" or whatever. Many an atheist can sit there and just be impressed that the sunset exists without needing there to be an explanation in the form of a divine man-like-but-better being who created it.

Now I've heard Oprah and some others say that a sense of reverence or awe in the face of nature's amazing spectacles is spirituality, and that to her and others is the opposite of atheism, because feeling richly "blessed" in the lucky sense to just be alive is seen by them as spiritually felt. That obviously gets into how everyone defines their feelings (and perhaps the word "spirit") differently, but that's not really relevant here. My point is just that people seem uncomfortable with mystery. They have a hard time beholding the mind-boggling universe and accepting that they might never, ever understand it all unless there's a God and a heaven and an afterlife. They have to invent reasons and creation myths and legends and gods. Others, well, they are totally cool with realizing that there might never be an answer as to "why" they are here, but they can easily live an awesome life without this "why." And maybe the cryptid-believers are those people who need there to really be something out there. They can't grapple with the fact that a bunch of people say they saw some blurry creature in the woods. They can't just say, "Oh, something ran by, and you have no idea what it was--that's nice" and leave it at that. They have to build a legend and backstory.

It might seem like those who say "Dude, there's never been any proof of Bigfoot; it's all made up" are uncomfortable with mystery, because they request proof--proof ends the mystery. But really, they're obviously comfortable just letting randomness be the "explanation" for life. And they maybe can't be bothered to delve into all the Abominable Snowman lore because the random crap that humans dream up every day is often useless and certainly not all of it needs to be pursued. Maybe one day a new species will be discovered in the Himalaya and it will look like a family of abominable snowmen/snowwomen, but I doubt it, because we have ravaged so much of the Earth that I can't imagine many undiscovered but really big species being undocumented.

The fact that you think you saw something -- Bigfoot, a ghost, the murdered children who used to live in this house fifty years ago, whatever -- does little to impress many of us. But boy, do the anecdotes gain power, like The Blob, when they join together, getting bigger and bigger and drawing more people in to their self-perpetuation.

For clarification purposes, this topic was Christi's, but the thoughts spewed above happen to be mine. I don't normally give much more thought to cryptozoology than I do to fairies or werewolves or zombies. (So, basically, none.)  Cryptids. What a silly world we live in!