Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can You Spare A Little Change?

In my former life (no, not one that involves being an Indian rice farmer in the 1800’s….I’m referring to my pre-Nica life), I lived in a large suburban area on the outskirts of Denver.  The official name was Highlands Ranch, a title that no doubt arose from a combination of its altitude relative to the surrounding area and its primary usage prior to catching the eye of a successful land developer in the early 1980’s.  It was the typical western suburb, one characterized by its endless rows of cookie cutter houses (yes, on at least one occasion, I do admit to pulling into the wrong driveway thinking I had arrived home), cute little shopping centers with the uniform big box stores, fast food chains, and roofs covered with faux “Spanish tile”, and lines of enormously large vehicles carrying loads of mid to upper class white Americans watching movies on their built-in DVD players while running behind schedule and telephonically connecting with similar vehicles through their increasingly sophisticated cellular devices. 

Most of those who lived in the area found the experience to be quite positive overall.  In fact I think that the majority of the residents considered their community to be near utopian, as they adorned their vehicles (large SUV’s of course….it WAS Colorado) with license plate covers carrying such slogans as “Highlands Ranch, The PRIDE of Colorado”.  After all, who really cared if you couldn’t park an RV in the driveway, select the paint color of your house, or hang wind chimes on the back porch?  The school system was excellent, there was a relatively high level of safety, and although labels consisting of such words as DIVERSITY may not have been particularly appropriate, all apparent negatives were more than made up for by the overlying blanket of CONVENIENCE. 

Those who found themselves living outside its borders, however, tended to hold a slightly different view of this self proclaimed western version of Mecca, and for that reason there were a number of derogatory nicknames attached to this community as well.  Some may not have been particularly fair or accurate, but as is usually the case in such matters, others were certainly based on an element of truth.  I remember one common reference that hinted at the apparent perfection of the community (emphasis given to “apparent”).  It was “THE BUBBLE”, a name pointing to the fact that in Highlands Ranch, all aspects of life were predictable, defined, controlled, and absolutely perfect.  Of course this was nowhere near the real truth of the matter.  In fact, as a result of my daily brushes with the area’s “less than positive” side through my job in emergency services, I used to say that “behind the well manicured lawns and white picket fences of Highlands Ranch, there lies a whole lot of good old fashioned darkness”.  But whether or not the actual level of perfection was, in the end, achieved, I do believe that there was a consistent effort on behalf of the community to create the appearance of just such a world.

We’ve all experienced it.  The light turns red.  We look to the left.  We see the homeless person with the sign.  “Oh, terrific.”  We fiddle with the radio.  We talk with other individuals in the car with a new found sense of eye contact.  We look for that perfect temperature through precise adjustment of the vehicle’s “climate control center”.  We stare at the color red while praying for it to change as rapidly as possible.  “Whatever you do, do NOT look to the left”, we utter to ourselves, under our breath, as we wait out this seemingly eternal moment.  We do ANYTHING to avoid having to look at the guy with the sign!  Or perhaps we do anything to avoid having that person look at us.  Either way, in the spirit of withholding judgment or examination of the complexities of the situation, I think we’d all agree that such a situation has at least the potential for being quite uncomfortable. 

So what do upstanding, law-abiding citizens do when something is making them uncomfortable?  That’s simple….change the law!  So in Highlands Ranch, as local members of the homeless community began making their way to the southern suburbs in 2004 with the intention of staking a claim on one of its well traveled intersections, that’s exactly what the voters did.  Within no time, the police were given authority to remove any such individual standing on any street corner and asking for any form of personal contribution.  It was a close call, but the perfection was, in the end, retained. 

I think of that sometimes as I make my way around Managua.  I suppose there are technically areas, areas behind walls, gates and private security forces, where one can avoid this type of solicitation for a short time.  But on the whole, it’s simply an inherent part of life.  As far as intersections go, each supports its own little micro labor force.  There are the people selling anything from newspapers to food and beverages to car accessories to dust cloths to small animals.  There are others, I suppose we could call them performance artists, running around dressed as clowns or simply juggling some random object (these days, the object is often on fire) in their everyday wear.  And let’s not forget the classic window washers that tend to wash all windshields without any type of discrimination based upon such factors as the windshield’s level of cleanliness or the driver’s desire to accept or decline such service.  Everyone has their angle.  If you are a small child, you knock on the window and look sad.  If you have been burned, you exhibit your burned face for the drivers to see.  If you have lost a limb, you wave your stump in front of the windshield.  If you’re fortunate, the driver will think something along the lines of “well, I suppose a missing extremity is worth a few cents” and make a small contribution (by the way, I always wonder what the “ranchonians” would think of that one).  Regardless of your respective angle, though, such intersection labor in this area is much more of a contact sport with little room for subtlety. 

But such a culture doesn’t necessarily end with the simple change of red to green.  If you walk down the street, you will be asked for money.  If you eat in a restaurant with an outdoor patio (or often times without) you will be asked for money.  If I leave my door open or read a book in front of where I live, I will be asked for money.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Due to an enormous amount of need, there is no shortage of solicitation. 

Hey, these people have no other options.  They are living in extreme poverty and need our help.

Don’t give that guy money.  He’ll just buy drugs or alcohol with it.

That poor kid looks pathetic, and it breaks my heart.  Of course I can spare a little change. 

Nope.  If you give them money, their parents will keep sending them out in the street to beg.

Well if you DON’T give them money, they won’t eat today.

It’s not our problem.

It IS our problem.  It’s a problem of all of us.  If we fail to care, we fail to recognize the humanity that we all share.

Hey, how about doing something productive like work or go to school instead of just sitting around begging your life away.

There’s 70% unemployment.  Where are they going to work? 

That’s where a little initiative comes into play.  They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, have a little pride, and make something of themselves.

But given such factors as culture, family, community, etc., that’s not always so easy…..or even an option.

Nobody said it would be easy.  You don’t see ME out there in the street, do you?

But you were given an enormous amount of opportunity.  You can’t even compare your background or experience with theirs.

That’s no excuse.

Maybe it is an excuse, or at least should be.

The opportunity is ALWAYS there.  Sometimes it’s just a little harder to find.  In the end, there’s never a complete lack of opportunity.

But in the end, it’s not even really about THEM, but US.  Are we not to focus on such things as generosity, compassion, and love for our neighbor?  Isn’t that the real point at the end of the day?

At the end of the day, you are actually HURTING them by giving them a handout.  You are creating a sense of dependency that will never be broken.  The best thing you can do is to simply turn away.

And so goes the argument, on and on and on.  One side gets labeled as compassionate and ignorant, while the other is viewed as heartless yet wise.  In the end, I think most of us find ourselves vacillating somewhere between the two extremes, eternally questioning the location of that proper line of balance.  As for me, although I did call Highlands Ranch my home for ten years, I was also one of its most vocal critics.  In reference to the aforementioned roadside justice involving the homeless neighbors at the intersections, the idea of ridding the community of such a minute reminder of what life could look like outside the borders of this tiny utopia, seemed absurd.  I used to roll down my window, chat with my less fortunate neighbors for the duration of the red light, and happily give them a small contribution.  I appreciated the short brush with an alternate reality, as I had grown so tired of the homogenous, controlled, monotonous life inside the bubble.
It’s funny how our perspectives can change.  Last year while visiting my old suburban stomping ground, I experienced the strange sensation of being ironically drawn to it, really for the first time.  And after thinking about this for a bit, I realized that it wasn’t the endless rows of beige colored houses that were calling my name.  Rather, it was the overall comfort, predictability, and external sense of ease.  It reminded me of my first visit to the upscale mall here in Managua.  I had spent the previous year immersed primarily in the local “garbage dump community” and found myself outraged by what I found on the other side of the proverbial tracks.  “How can these people walk around like this, casually spending $100 on a new shirt, while there are others, directly across the street, living in plastic “houses” and surviving on one dollar per day?!”  Needless to say, I didn’t stay very long.  Yet strangely enough, I found myself returning to the same location the following week.  What was that about?  I generally detest the malls, or at least the high levels of commercialization and consumerism that they represent.  I certainly had no interest in making a purchase.  What was drawing me back?  And then as I sat there on the large, gently sloping staircase, surfing the web with the free WiFi connection, I realized that, to my knowledge, not a single person had shown any interest in stealing my laptop.  In fact, no one had asked me for money. I saw people walking around casually……with smiles on their faces!  What were they thinking?  I saw entire families…..TOGETHER!  I saw NO acts of violence or abuse, and I had been sitting there for at least an hour!  “Money may not be able to buy happiness”, I thought, “but I sure like what they’re selling here”!

I suppose that upon reaching the point of disillusion with any one extreme, albeit political, religious, socioeconomic, etc., there lies the tendency of heading directly to the side of the other.  But maybe such things would be better viewed through a slightly more balanced lens.  Maybe, as our 1.3 billion friends from the emerging superpower to the East like to say, seemingly contrary forces are generally quite interconnected and interdependent.  Maybe it’s really more about locating that proper equilibrium.  As author Demetria Martinez says, as she warns against seeking refuge in a place located too far toward a particular extreme:

“It’s not enough: to receive the ashes, to ponder our own inevitable deaths, to remember those who died at the hands of death squads or SS guards or those incinerated by bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasake.  We ponder, remember, and repent, but we don’t stop there.  We taste the honey, celebrating the sweetness of life witnessed in a kind act, a work of art, the sky on a beautiful day, an unexpected victory in the struggle for justice.  We honor the dead by celebrating life, loving it so deeply that we find it within ourselves to create a world without holocausts.”

And so I, like most, continue in my search for that often elusive border.   I have to say that although I do visit the local mall on a regular basis, I have no real desire to return to the utopian life of the suburbs.  As for my response to the external needs of my current neighbors, I’ll just say this:  Last week, while coming out of a restaurant with my girlfriend Marcela, I gave a little money to a lady in a wheelchair.  I chatted with her for a moment or two and then honored her second request by pushing her chair up the curb for better positioning (i.e. closer to the doors of the restaurant…i.e. closer to the exiting customers).  She seemed appreciative.  Earlier in the day, a small child had approached the car I was driving at a local intersection.  He was wearing no shirt or shoes and had the typical amount of dirt covering him from head to toe.  He asked for a little money and told me that his feet were burning due to the hot asphalt.  I told him to go stand in the shade.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Enjoyment Of Unemployment....Part II

If I’m remembering correctly, the idea first began making its way around my head at some point in 2006.  I think it was that year that the concept of living abroad and filling some sort of position in the overall category of “development” began to take hold and occupy an increasingly hospitable place in my thoughts.  There were plenty of things that I found to be appealing in it all.  I was interested in gaining a deeper insight with respect to the world of poverty, immersing myself in a new and foreign culture, and trying my hand at proficiency with a foreign language.  Most of all, though, I was interested in dedicating one year of my life to living in an altruistic manner, to set aside a period of twelve months to focus solely on the act of directing all of the resources I had been given over the years in an outward direction.  

From there, I began researching organizations that do this type of work in the developing world.  I spent months online, looking at various NGOs and the specific work they were carrying out at the time.  I wrote emails.  I made phone calls.  I filled out a few applications.  At one point, I even headed to Arizona to spend a week of “pre-employment training” with one group.  I went on to speak with everyone from the United Nations, to Peace Corps, to your friendly neighborhood missionaries, and in conjunction researched the large, the small, and all organizations in between.  For nearly two years, I looked around without finding that perfect fit, which really, due to the fact that I had a great job and situation back in Colorado, posed no real problem whatsoever.  After all, there was no real hurry.  Eventually, though, in late 2007 I stumbled across an opportunity that sounded and felt right, and within a short time all lights turned to green and all compasses pointed in the southern direction, to Nicaragua. 

One of the challenges I came across in those two years of searching was found in my unique “background”, or “skill set” (skill set is one of those cool terms I picked up in Arizona).  I had a formal education in biological science (with no real experience) and had spent the previous ten years working in the area of emergency services.  What I found was that in looking toward potential projects in this new area (new to me, that is), the general consensus was relatively positive.  The classification, on the other hand, proved a bit more difficult. 

So why do I mention all of this background material?  I mention all of this to make the point that, as it was in pre-2008, I’m once again LOOKING FOR A JOB!!!  I realize that it’s an obvious statement in a Blog entry surrounding unemployment, but I figured I’d go ahead and clear up any confusion that might be present.  I also mention those things above to say that, as was the case before, such an undertaking is not coming without its challenges.  For one, although I’ve been fortunate enough to add a few items to the skill set over the last several years, I’m still a difficult animal to classify in the world of development, especially when the animal is requesting a modest paycheck.  Also, in an attempt to carry out such initial objectives as cultural immersion and poverty education over the last few years, I’ve typically avoided those communities characterized by their lighter skin color and/or economic advantage.  And although I do think there can be something of value to be found there, I have to say that when in search of employment, those living on a dollar per day are NOT going to be one’s most profitable resource. 

Regardless of one’s language, however, the word “challenge” isn’t necessarily classified as a negative, and “difficult” never automatically implies impossible. On a positive note, I think I’m learning a few things these days and hopefully picking up a bit of personal growth along the way.  I’m learning (and re-learning) such practical skills as the compilation and presentation of the resume, the do’s and don’ts of the interview process, and perhaps most notably, the value of networking.  I’ve been gaining perspective and insight with respect to the overall concept of work (more specifically, work that carries with it a monthly paycheck) and the value and role it occupies in one’s life.  And recently I’ve found myself exploring that fine line dividing such traits as persistence and diligence from the simple allowance of letting events and opportunities unfold and present themselves as they are meant to, in their own way and in their own time.  Perhaps more than anything I’m just learning to find a place of peace in a moment often characterized by such less than attractive words as restlessness, frustration, worry, or doubt.

On the lighter side, I’ve been reading some great books, getting more than enough rest, and catching up on the Oscar nominated films of 2010 (a personal recommendation…127 hours).  As for the matter of finding a job, something will eventually turn up, of that I’m confident.  And when it does, I’ll have additional topics about which to Blog.  In the meantime, though, I think I’ll just focus on the enjoyment of unemployment

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Enjoyment Of Unemployment....Part 1

I suppose it all started back in mid November, IT being this current status that I am attempting to enjoy, or at least view in a positive light on a daily basis.  OK, at VERY least, I’m working on being at peace with it all.  There were the initial differences of opinion, which lead to a bit of occupational conflict, which in turn lead to some very positive changes, which then took a sudden and unexpected turn to this place of looking for a new job.  Unemployed.  There, I said it.  It’s out there.  Unemployment.   Unemployment.  Unemployment.  Hey, it kind of has a nice ring to it.   

The good news is that unemployment is something relatively new for me, as my unofficial work history began at what most would consider to be a young age.  I mean I was mowing lawns and babysitting younger kids in the neighborhood when I had not yet entered the teenage years.  Prior to that, there were a number of sporadic employment experiences ranging from office clerk to school maintenance man, uh, boy.  At 14, I started my first “official” job, and ended up working as many hours AFTER school as I spent IN school.  And although I did choose to spend the majority of my college years hidden in the bowels of the university’s library rather than immersed in the local work force, this was a choice (i.e. luxury) that I was allowed.  Following graduation, I was back in the workplace.  OK, so maybe I eeeeassssed in to the work force a bit, but I was back out there, contributing to the overall economic production and benefit of society.  And it is THERE, in THAT place, that I had comfortably resided until......mid November.

From this junction, I think that this entry could take a number of different paths.  I could talk about how unfair and wrong the whole situation was, how disrespectful and damaging it was on a very personal level.  I could talk about how cruel and horrible the people are that contributed to my new found status.  But in the end, there wouldn’t be anything especially productive to be found there.  I could also talk about my own range emotions, the range that closely parallels that whole “stages of grief” cycle and ends with a great sense of freedom and optimism upon looking toward the future OR a desire to punch someone in the face, depending on which day of the week you happen to catch me.  But again, I’ll save that for another day. 

Instead, I’m going to focus on those things that I find to pass the time, to fill the hours from one day to the next.  Because if there's one thing that I have at the moment, it is a LOT….and I mean a LOOOOOOOT….of free time.  And with that, here are a few of the list toppers.

I’m a Sudoku Guy in a Sudoku World

In early 2007, I took a trip to Panama.  The idea was to take one of those immersion type Spanish courses and expand my bilingual tongue beyond such words as taco and bano.  When I arrived, I found that I was essentially the ONLY student in the school at that moment, and therefore had no shortage of available hours in the day….solo hours (wait a minute, this is starting to sound a little redundant).  Fortunately, someone had given me one of those little books of Sudoku, and I quickly found myself engrossed in the Japanese pastime of filling numbers into tiny square boxes. 

I hadn’t done much with respect to the Sodoku world over the past several years.  In fact, upon starting anew, I had to reread the directions to remember how to begin.  But before long, I was back at it, immersed in a world of one through nine, and within very little time, finding myself progressing beyond the “EASY” puzzles and into the world known as “Intermediate”. “WOW, I thought, I remember the intermediates being SOOOOO hard when I was in Panama”.  “Is it possible that I have somehow increased my intellectual capacity over the last few years”?  When I progressed to the “DIFFICULT” level, I began to think I was encroaching upon genius territory.  “Maybe THIS can be my new job”, I thought.  “I’ll be a professional SUDOKU player!”  Of course that bubble was quickly burst when I showed the kid in the neighborhood the ancient art from the east, and watched him rapidly progress through the designated levels.  These days, it’s all I can do to stay one step ahead of him, and he’s all of 11 years old. 

Regardless, I’m enjoying the puzzles, and a good one can easily take between thirty minutes to an hour.  Besides, I figure it’s like exercise for the brain.  It’s all about problem solving, and if handled correctly, does lead to a great sense of personal satisfaction.  I avoid TV as much as possible.  Sudoku, on the other hand, is just good, healthy, brain-building fun.

Back In The Saddle Again

Speaking of exercise, let me just sum it all up here in three short words….I’M BACK, BABY!!!!!.  I’ll explain.  To truly understand the significance of this statement, you have to understand a little something about my prior, prior meaning “pre-Nicaraguan”, life.  I was living in Colorado for the eleven years leading up to 2008, and I was fortunate enough to take advantage of the lifestyle offered by its geographic location.
Depending on the season, I was generally found to be on some road, trail, slope, cliff, or mountain, participating in some type of sport or activity falling under the genre of “outdoor adventure”.  On the days that I was working, I was utilizing the provided workout facilities and/or running in circles around the fire stations.  The point is that prior to coming south, I was one active muchacho.

When I arrived in Nicaragua, I did make an attempt to maintain some basic level of activity.  I was living just outside of the city at the time and had at my disposal both a small swimming pool in the yard and miles of dirt roads immediately outside the front gate.  But I quickly grew tired of running in the intense heat and humidity, and the combination of being heckled by the locals and chased by numerous angry dogs on a daily basis proved to be somewhat of a detractor from the overall relaxation and enjoyment of it all.  As for the pool, its minimal size (thing large in-ground baby pool) made me feel as though I were the proverbial hamster (with fins and snorkel, of course) running on the wheel.  Besides, I’ve always claimed to be a land mammal.  The water has never been my forte. 

The point is that for the last three years, I’ve found myself to be on the other extreme of the spectrum.  I went from literally hours of physical activity on a daily basis to, well, zero; zero, that is, until recently.  These days, such activities as jogging and homegrown strength training (that refers to push-ups and sit-ups in my room or pull-ups on the local playground… one of those guys on the monkey bars in those inspirational Al Queda training videos) are a regular part of my routine.  I've also been sprinkling in a bit of yoga and hope to be standing atop a local volcano by the end of next week.  AND, last but not least, as an added bonus to my current lack of transportation (yet another story for another day), I’m spending literally HOURS each day in a more subtle and often overlooked form of exercise, namely walking.

As enjoyable as it is, I do have to say that there ARE a few downsides to the walking.  In a city where the overall crime rate is somewhere along the lines of, oh I don’t know, 100%, it can take on an element of danger.  But I figure that in the case of an attempted robbery, I can simply use it as an opportunity to participate in additional track and field events, such as sprinting or the shot-put (i.e. running away furiously while screaming and throwing chunks of broken concrete).  The other downside is that although I really DO want to be in shape again (and feeling really good at the moment), I really DON’T want to lose any weight.  Despite my lack of physical activity over the last few years, I’ve struggled to maintain a healthy weight.  The good news was that I was finally starting to put on a few pounds.  The bad news is that with my new found level of fitness, I think I’m going in the wrong direction.  Well, in the words of my niece and nephew, I’ll just say this:

“More fried cheese please!”  

Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness

Despite a strangely large number of biblical references to standards of personal and communal hygiene, I seriously doubt that the act of tidying up oneself or immediate surroundings has much to do with one’s level of spirituality.  But to be fair, I should mention that I’ve always been a bit of a “neat freak”.  I figure that cleanliness is one of those things, in addition to the opposable thumbs of course, that sets us apart in the animal kingdom.  And besides, is there any real reason to live in an environment defined primarily by one’s own filth?  I say NO!  But even the cleanest of the group can get a little behind the 8 ball every once and a while.  And for me, I watched the 8 ball roll by at some point near the end of the rainy season in October of last year. 

I think there were three primary factors that contributed to what I now refer to as “The Perfect Bacterial Storm” that took place in the room where I currently live.  First there was an especially RAINY (i.e. SUPER WET) rainy season.  This, combined with the fact that the room, despite its lack of windows, does have a concrete wall that opens to the great outdoors on the other side, created a moldy predisposition.  When I closed the place up for several weeks and headed north for a bit of time with the family, things got a little out of hand.  What I returned to was what I would describe as wall to wall carpeting.  The walls.  The floor.  The mattress.  The clothes. The shoes. The paper and books.  The sheets and pillows.  EVERYTHING had seemingly bathed in a furry fungal substance. 

For the next several weeks, I armed myself with bleach and various scrubbing agents and went to work.  Fortunately, this event coincided with the END of the rainy season, so I was able to take advantage of the intense tropical sun to reach a level of dryness unseen in the previous six months.  I discovered that the roof was an excellent place to dry out one’s freshly scrubbed possessions, and at the end of a 20 to 30 day period, I joyfully declared an end to all major combat operations in Altagracia.  There were, of course, a few casualties, but what can you do? 

What I noticed, though, was that after spending the previous three years working in the area of “international development”, it was strangely rewarding to see a “finished product”.  In other words, after participating in a line of work that is characterized by INCREDIBLY slow and subtle results (if ANY), cleaning brought about a welcomed sense of instant gratification.  Before long, in addition to volunteering for dish duty after most meals, I was washing and waxing vehicles, cleaning closets in preparation for garage sales, and hand washing socks and underwear at a pace equal to that of my personal utilization.  Along similar lines, I also began repairing every damaged item I could get my hands on. Doors. Toilets. Motorcycles (remember that part about walking from above?).  Anything that was nonfunctional or could use a little improvement….I was on it.  The point wasn’t so much about the activity itself as it was about the end result.  Again, it felt especially rewarding to, after any number of minutes, hours, or days, take a step back and admire the beauty of a finished product. I am certainly one to appreciate the patience required by a long and arduous road, but I’m learning that a tangible representation of the fruits of one’s labor can be something particularly valuable.  I suppose that if I am particularly astute here, I should take note of some valuable insight in all of that.  Insight, that is, that could come in handy for the next chapter of my occupational life.

….to be continued