Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Is there anything cuter than a one-year-old tiger?  That's Chase, at 15 months, the most adorable tiger ever, posed by his mom in a few different costumes!  He doesn't like it, but he's such a good sport! 

A village of extended family is raising Chase.  Some say a coven of witches.  It doesn't matter because we are all devoted! And he  knows it!  He is bringing joy to all of us. 

Below he's in halloween pjs, in one of his mom's favorite hats,  playing with a plastic pumpkin that Aunt Andy gifted  him (she's peeking over his shoulder in lower left photo).  

When I was in Ukraine, we had halloween fun with the English Club at the Starobelsk Public Library.  We made masks and I brought tricks and treats. Last year, living in Sylvania near both daughters, I went tricks or treating with all the kids.  This year I'm helping Michelle hand out candy. 

Philip is GI Joe, Josh another scary monster, not sure about Kyle.  They'll have fun wherever they go tricks or treating, and I'll get to play with my favorite tiger. Happy Halloween one and all, near and far!    

In Starobelsk, 2010

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sisters and family making Memories

The Curro-Cary Sylvania Family

It’s so nice to have a visit from my sister Andy.  She left Tallahassee, Florida, early morning October 25 and arrived in Detroit by 11:30 am.  She's an early bird.  Elissa and I picked her up at DTW and drove back to Toledo/Sylvania, talking all the way.  There's still some fall color on the trees and bushes, and also in the fields---grasses, corn stalks and reeds swaying in the breeze, golden and yellow, especially lovely.  

We weave them into our conversation and take up from where we left off the last time we saw each other.  That was on her birthday in June.  We pick up the threads of emails, skype calls, phone calls, facebook postings.  We get to my place, admire the beauty of  Main Street Sylvania, walk around my gardens--the flowers ultra bright and cheerful--enjoy the blue-sky, summer-like day, then loll around until dinner at Michelle’s.  A lazy afternoon with sis, adding to a quilt of memories.

Michelle was ready for us with a huge pot of chili and corn muffins. I added pork roast and salad. We are quite a crew.  We had a hearty meal spiced with hearty conversation. The family piano, the wedding gift my dad gave to my mom, graced our dinner, took it all in, absorbed the music of our joy and energy.  If only that piano could talk, what stories it could tell! 

The photo collage above shows the Curro-Cary Sylvania family gathered together. Besides my sister and me (in the corners, with the piano in the background), there's my daughter Elissa and her daughter Julia with son Philip (top center) and boyfriend JJ (red hair).  There's my daughter Michelle and her kids: Alli, Josh, Kyle and baby Chase, with Alli's boyfriend Kody in the upper right corner photo, and family friend Rory. The kids love getting together, and ran off lots of steam, inside and outdoors.  The boys played "catch me if you can!" Cousins having fun.   

The end of October is a bittersweet time for Andy and me, the time of year we think of our mom and our dad, who died on October 30 (35 years ago today but it seems like yesterday).  We remember our dear brother Loren, who died in May two years ago, and who would have been 65 on November 12, his birthday coming up.  We remember other family members  whose autumns came upon them. 

But the sweet time dominates.  Gathering the clan is always fun, and having Aunt Andy with us is always a pleasure.  She's funny, tells outrageous stories, and makes us laugh. We talk and walk, shop and cook, coordinate busy schedules, make visits to museums and parks if we can.  Andy and I rant and ruminate about politics, reminisce and philosophize as only sisters can do.

We share a past, Andy and I, and we keep it alive.  We bring it into the present. We weave stories and dreams into the memory quilt that we will bequeath to our children and their children, across the generations.  Sisters and family, making memories.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

From Ukraine and Liberia with Love

Janice meeting Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
first elected woman head of state in Africa, top center.
Top right, the bookshelf at her school, still there after 30 years!
Photos of Liberian woodcarvings and other artifacts
at our 3rd class on Peace Corps. 
Can you imagine meeting the pioneering president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state in Africa?  Janice Flahiff (RPCV, Liberia 1980-82) met her a few years ago on a return visit to her country of service.  What a thrill!

President Sirleaf was educated in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater, and at Harvard, where she got a Masters in Public Administration. She is an economist and political activist. Her roots go back to the founding of Liberia by former American slaves, and even before that. A fascinating story. Her family's been involved in politics for generations. Now, Janice indicated, she is bringing a fresh leadership style to the African continent, democratic, informed, compassionate, tolerant.

Janice was so impressed.  "President Sirleaf listened intently and thoughtfully to what we said," Janice remembered.  "She really listened!"  She is genuinely interested in the work of Peace Corps, and she is a great supporter.

It was a highlight of Janice's return to Liberia with other RPCVs for a service project.  She visited her village of Kpain, 130 miles upriver from the capital of Monrovia; met students and old friends; remembered market days at Ganta and the women dressed in lappa's, yards of colorful fabric used for many purposes.    She discovered, to her great surprise, that a bookshelf she had had built at her school 30 years ago is still there, through civil wars and other horrors, she noted.  What a testimony to her efforts!  A young girl, just out of college, a novice feeling her way in a strange land, serious and hard working, left a lasting legacy. I think we all felt closer to Africa with Janice's remembrances.

This was our third class on Peace Corps, and we continued sharing stories.  Janice added photos, more memories and artifacts to the discussion she began last week.  A great "Show and Tell" session.  I call it "From Liberia with love!"

I shared stories about my time in Ukraine, "From Ukraine with love."   It's pretty much how PCVs remember the countries in which they served, challenges and all. 

We met at my apartment rather than at Lourdes, and enjoyed apple cider, cheese and crackers, and other goodies. “Just like we would have done in Starobelsk,” I noted. All that was missing were the enthusiastic toasts made with great gusto!  Ukrainian hospitality is wonderful. And so I segued into my experiences of a lifetime in Starobelsk, Lugansk oblast, Ukraine, about the farthest east you can get without landing in Russia.

With embroiderer Marfa at her home, 
and a gift she gave me
We looked at maps and talked about the location, size, and landscape of Ukraine, and some history.  I talked about our training in Chernigov, the 22-hour overnight train ride to Starobelsk (and transportation in general), learning to work with my counterpart Vera at Victoria NGO, a human rights organization.  I  reminisced about working with the library where we began an English Club and the first English-language book collection (the latter started with books donated by Toledoans, I wanted them to know). I talked about challenges and opportunities, about how one thing led to another, sometimes blindly, with just good faith and hope, and many cups of tea.  

Janice had stressed the "mutual learning" involved in becoming part of the Kpain community, on her part and on the part of the Liberians. It was the same in my village of Starobelsk, Ukraine.  These exchanges and interactions, we agreed,  may be the most important aspect of Peace Corps service, a way of building friendships, step by step, and laying the foundations for peaceful relations.

At Camp Sosnovy, Lymon, Ukraine, with kids from all
over Lugansk oblast, and our trusty Russian-English dictionary!
The cutest, most wonderful kids, 9-16. They led the way.
While our Peace Corps adventures are behind us, they are still very much a part of who we are and how we look at the world. Our memories will last forever.  Peace Corps may be, as it's motto says, "the hardest job you'll ever love," but it's a transforming experience.
A lovely  lunch at friend Olga's after I broke my arm 
(I fell off my bike).
That's a story in itself.  


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The "horses and bayonets" debate

Basically, Romney’s only real foreign policy experience was running the Winter Olympics.  Other than that, all his talk is pure hypothesis and rhetoric.  Nor can our current president tell all.  There’s too much at stake in the areas of national security since 9/11, how foreign governments might interpret the debates, what the military is doing to keep America safe, especially in the Middle East and Northern Africa. 

Could the president, for example, have come out and told about the SEAL raid on bin Laden’s home before it happened?  Can he talk about covert operations?

It would be nice if he could, and the American people eventually learn these things, as they should, but I understand the nuances, especially since 9/11 and up to the recent tragic death of Chris Stevens.  Will a presiding president tell everything he knows during a debate, from his briefings and meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the Secretary of State, with commanders in the field, about what security measures he’ll approve in Benghazi or other foreign missions?

The current president and commander-in-chief, in other words, has to walk a fine line in discussing foreign policy in such a setting.      

And he did at the 3rd debate last night. He was presidential.  Romney was appropriately more subdued than in the first two debates.  He doesn’t know enough (how could he?), which showed in his rant about the size of the military, giving Obama the opportunity to tell how the military has changed over the years: we no longer have “horses and bayonets” either. 

I don’t always agree with US foreign policy, have often been a critic (from the Vietnam war on up to what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan), but I do believe we need steady, moderate, thoughtful leadership that takes into consideration all sides, all ideas, all options.  Seat-of-the-pants reactions, over-reacting, and rants about keeping America strong don’t constitute a foreign policy.  

In this area, experience and practice are more important than theory and rhetoric, as well as trust in a candidate’s temperament, style of leadership, and vision.  

Obama’s had four years of on-the-job experience, four difficult and very challenging years.  You can’t beat that.  Hopefully Obama will build on that experience to promote peace in the world.  He might start with rekindling the Israel and Palestine talks, where Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton left off.  I think the ripple effect would resonate throughout the Arab world.

I’m all for open dialogue, we don’t like secrets in a democracy, and they have gotten us in trouble, often into war and on the brink of war, as in Vietnam, as in Cuba, as in Iraq.  But is a presidential debate the place for the indepth exploration and dialogue required?

Maybe we don’t need a 3rd debate focused only on foreign policy. I’d like to see more debate between the White House and Congress on issues as they are happening, for example. More public discussion of the effects of foreign policy on domestic policy.     

In this regard, moderator Bob Schieffer asked one great question: What is the greatest threat to our national security? This would be a good question for debates 1 and 2.  In this 3rd debate, though, neither candidate hit the nail on the head.  

It’s a question that implies the relationship between foreign and domestic policy, each affecting the other. Perhaps this should be the topic of a third debate. 

One could say, for example, that the greatest future threat to our national security is not a foreign foe, but a domestic one:  Not strengthening the middle class in America, not turning the economy around, not keeping jobs at home, not closing the gap between the very rich and the 99%, not ensuring a level playing field for all Americans.  I think this is the greatest threat to our national security. And getting that balance right is the greatest task for the next president. 

The "horses and bayonets" debate raised more questions than it answered, which is not too surprsing under the circumstances, but I think in this case experience trumped rhetoric. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sylvania Historical Society Sponsors "Sylvania Pickers"!

Board members Mimi Malcolm & Bob Smith in historic dress.
Also pictured: Gaye Gindy, with her  new book,& Liz Stover,
Tedd Long, Sandy Gratop,  Sylvania "pickers,"  parade floats & cars. for more information.
The Sylvania Area Historical Society and Museum (SAHS) participated in the annual Sylvania Fall Festival on Sunday, 21 October 2012.  It was a perfectly beautiful day, blue sky, sunshine, and still lots of fall color.

I’m the newcomer and novice on the board, but I thought the entire day was fun.  The Historical Society held a “Sylvania Pickers” game (based on the History Channel’s  “American Pickers” show) for people to chose the top five historic items of most monetary value from the collections of the Museum and the Historical Village.  Board member Tedd Long got us started. He organized the event, got a donation from Sautter’s market to use as the top prize, designed a poster, and did a press release and PR. The dedicated president of the board, Bob Smith, looking dapper in his top hat, put together an impressive list of 30 historical items.  He and board member Mimi Malcolm, local historian and genealogical researcher, dressed up in historical dress to greet visitors on the lawn of the House museum. Sandy Gratop was tops in advertising the event, bringing participants to the game and encouraging new memberships.  The Sylvania Advantage newspaper included the poster in its current issue, thanks to Sandy.  Other board members (Polly, Pam, Liz) and friends greeted visitors inside the museum house.  Sylvania historian Gaye Gindy sat on the porch watching the crowds go by and selling her newest book, Sylvania, Lucas County, Ohio: From Footpaths to Expressways and Beyond, the first of a multi-volume series.   

We all got to watch the parade down Main Street as we reached out to people to let them know about the Historical Society and the Pickers game.  It was a way to increase awareness of what the SAHS does and to make new friends.  The crowd was one of the largest ever we were told, and there was lots to do along Main street, with a variety of vendors, sales items, art and food galore.  Good music, too. SAHS’s "Sylvania Pickers" game added to the festivities.

Sylvania is a great community.  It has what Floridians were always looking for when I lived there before joining the Peace Corps: "a sense of place."  There were so many newcomers in Florida who called OTHER places home.  Not so in Sylvania!  The Historical Society contributes to this "sense of place" by preserving its history and looking toward the future.   

That's why we think becoming a member of the Historical Society is such a good investment! For more information, see our website, designed by Tedd Long, at, and look for us on facebook.  Become a friend!


Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern, Man of Peace

George McGovern at Sargeant Shriver's
memorial service, 22 January2011.
Heroes. photo by Pool/Reuters.

George McGovern, former Senator from South Dakota, 1972 presidential candidate, political science professor, decorated WWII pilot, has died at 90 years old. 

The news saddens me, and takes me back many years to my introduction to politics.  It was the Vietnam War era.  I was a graduate student in American history in Madison, Wisconsin, exploring ideas and perspectives to which I had never been exposed.  I became swept up in the early “teach-ins” about the history of Vietnam and our intervention, the political activism of pioneering diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams and many of my fellow graduate students, and the general atmosphere of critical thinking and openness to new ideas.  The times “they were a’changing,” and so was I. They led me to a strong anti-war stance, and sometimes took me all over the ideological map.   

Now George McGovern is going to that place where my brother Loren may be. If they meet up, I can imagine the conversations, especially about the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns.  That’s when some of us were so opposed to the war that it moved us to extremes  It led to a kind of quiet desperation, and more and more overtime, not so quiet. Why are we in this strange land where we don't know friends from foes? why can’t we get out?  The death count is adding up.  We see the war on our TVs night after night. The horror. The use of something called "agent orange."   "Destroy a village in order to save it"? A massacre at My Lai?  It led some of us to support mavericks with strong anti-war positions, like poet Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota, and yes, professor George McGovern, articulate anti-war spokesperson.

The war, the activism, those elections, changed the course of American history.

Loren was fiercely opposed to the war, but he always maintained that from 1968 onward America lost the greatest opportunity it ever had to elect a truly compassionate statesman, a pioneer for civil rights, equal justice and international peace, another senator from Minnesota: Hubert Humphrey, then Lyndon Johnson's vice president.  We ranted and argued at the time.  Alas, Humphrey became a victim of the war, like Johnson himself, and like his domestic and civil rights policies.  We can’t have “guns and butter" many of us believed at the time, and still do.

But in hindsight, going back to George McGovern and 1972, I think Loren may have been on the right track. He saw ahead of us.  The war and that election changed the course of history. Richard Nixon became president and America suffered.  We went through Watergate, corruption, an ugly impeachment trial, and domestic turmoil.  Humphrey was cast off to the margins of political life.   

So was George McGovern. But I remember seeing him when I lived in Washington, going to the historic Foundry Methodist Church (where Abraham Lincoln attended) around the corner from where I lived in the Cairo Condo; walking along 16th Street and Dupont Circle enjoying the street life, and his freedom from politics it seemed.  He started Food for Peace and became involved in ending world hunger and poverty, sometimes speaking at Foundry about the issue.  He goaded us to give to the cause, and I was happy to. He didn’t remember my name, but he remembered me, always with a big smile, whenever our paths happened to cross. 

“Hi, Senator McGovern!”  
“Oh, hi, nice to see you!  Beautiful day!”

I remember the tragedy of his daughter’s cruel death in a snowstorm in Wisconsin, the result of an alcoholic stupor, so drunk she was unable to get herself out of the bitter cold and into safety.  She was found dead in a snowdrift.   I remember he and his wife praying at Foundry, and thinking about how tragic it would be to lose a child like this, in this way.  I think he walked with a slight stoop thereafter, his face down, his pain evident.

I once reminded him that besides Massachusetts and his home state of South Dakota, in that heated 1972 election, McGovern also won Lucas County in northwest Ohio. Just the county!  I know because I was part of that campaign; did lots of phone calling and door-to-door campaigning.   McGovern grasped my hand in gratitude. 

I still feel that firm grip, see that smile, hear his voice.  And I hear my brother’s voice, too. I wonder how different the world might be if we had not gone to war in Vietnam.  If peace reigned instead of war, if calmer voices prevailed over the cacophony of war drums.  George McGovern, one of the last members of that great generation that survived World War II, is taking another whole generation into the next life with him.   In that place, where Loren's soul resides, if there is such a place, there is no war and poets and philosophers, like McCarthy and McGovern, may hold court.     

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Inside The Actor's Studio: The Character of a President

This man knows "characters."
James Lipton, actor, teacher,
Inside Actor's Studio. Photo above:
Below cartoon: Al Hirschfeld at
Margo Feigen Galleries Ltd,
I watch TV with the “mute” button on most of the time, meaning I see the picture and some text maybe but don’t listen to the noise. At one point last night I looked up from my computer and saw someone who looked familiar talking with Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

Hmm, I recognize that man, leaning forward, wry smile on his face.  Isn’t he the guy who interviews actors, asks probing questions, and gets them talking about their craft? Yes, that’s it; that’s James Lipton, the brilliant, expert, funny director of Inside the Actor’s Studio, knowledgeable about all things media, theater and film.  Maybe he's now reincarnating as a political commentator, reading between the lines and studying character!   I turned up the sound and listened to an interesting exchange    

“What insights do you have about Mitt Romney?” Matthews asked Lipton. Good question--not about his political positions, but about his character, as in a character on a world stage.  

Lipton said he’s been thinking about Romney the character and that he found him hard to read, a hard character to interpret; he changes a lot, his persona, his speech pattern, his posturing, and also his positions and statements.  He looks one way in front of his big donors and another in front of a factory.  But, Lipton, said, after a tiny dramatic pause, “I think I have figured it out”:
He’s the boss.  He's the boss who tells jokes and expects everyone around him to laugh.  He’s the boss who demands total attention, but is focused not on people but on his own agenda, on creating profit.  He’s the boss who uses the power of his position to get what he wants and, as he himself has said, enjoys firing people.  He’s the boss we fear, whose arrogance can be insufferable, and whose concept of leadership is from the top down, more dictatorial than democratic.   

“The boss!”  "The boss we fear."  Quite a character.  Lipton pointed to Romney’s bossy in-your-face confrontations in Tuesday night’s debate; his insistence on being heard over the voice of the president; his inability to focus on the content of questions asked, but instead on his own rehearsed responses (the bottom line), to listen to his own voice to the exclusion of others coming from the floor; and finally to his lack of deference and civility toward the office of the president of the United States, not to the person, but to the office.

Lipton I think hit the nail on the head. It’s something I’ve sensed but couldn’t put into words, an uneasy feeling, at times jarring. But these are the key questions: Does Romney have the character and temperament, the right kind of experience, to be president of the USA, to be commander in chief and leader of all the people, in all our complexity and diversity?  That’s the issue James Lipton put out there. 

Does Romney’s experience in the private sector, with Bain and the world of big corporate finance and investments, the world of millionaires and billionaires, qualify him to lead the USA in domestic and foreign policy, where process, gaining information and listening to all points of view is critical?  

Does his choice of Ryan as vice-president indicate rigidity more than openness, intolerance rather than tolerance of different folkways, beliefs, and lifestyles?  

Does his jumping on issues, like the murders of Ambasssador Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, demostrate prudence, moderation, and an in-depth understanding of the nuances of international diplomacy and national security? 

Does Romney have the temperament to engage in the messy process of making policy and implementing change, dealing with an often ornery Congress, listening to fresh ideas from new people along the range of the political spectrum? 

Do we need a temperate and compromising leader, open to all points of view, a good listener with a tolerant mindset, or a boss to tell us what is right, what to do, how to do it?   

More than anything else, I think these are the kinds of questions that really matter.  I think this is probably the main reason many of us can't vote for Mitt Romney.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bringing the World Home

The most underrated, underestimated, least-tried (in terms of resources) path to world peace is what I call "the Peace Corps way":  learning about other countries and cultures in personal, on-the-ground, people-to-people exchanges, and their learning about America in turn. Enduring friendships are created, the heart of world peace.  It's hard for friends to be enemies.  

At our second class on the Peace Corps at Lourdes University we brought the world in.  I invited two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers  (RPCVs) to join us.  Janice recalled her Peace Corps experience in Liberia, 1980-82, during those early pioneering years, pre-digital communications revolution.  Cynthia talked about her time in the town of Zhangye in Gansu province, northern China, 2003/4.  Next week I'll talk about Ukraine.

We are three volunteers who served in three different countries with totally different cultures, at three different time periods in Peace Corps history, but we all shared the same Peace Corps goals: using our skills and experience to help out where needed, learning about new countries from the bottom up, and helping others learn about America.  These are the cultural exchanges that are the foundations of international understanding. 

Liberia has a fascinating history, as Janice reminded us, going back to the ante-bellum era, the pre-Civil War years in the US, and  the early efforts to end slavery by sending African-Americans back to Africa.  The history of Liberia is thus linked to the history of America.  It's colorful seal embodies this connection: "The love of liberty brought us here," it proclaims.

Ironically, in Liberia, former slaves seeking freedom became the colonizers and the indigenous African people who had lived on the land for millenia became the subjugated.  The freed slaves rebuilt southern plantations and replicated the culture and architecture of the American South in this new place, and they ruled the majority, the indigenous inhabitants, for years, bringing inevitable conflict and wars up to the present.   It's a story worthy of further examination, and I am fascinated by the implications.  

But politics and history were not foremost in Janice's mind when she served "about 120 miles upcountry" from Monrovia, the capital.  It might as well have been across the continent, given the bad roads and poor communications.  Her primary focus was teaching math and science, preparing classes (it was her first time teaching), and serving her students, average age teens to twenties.  It was the pre-cell and pre-computer era, so Janice adapted to the isolation and integrated into her village, where she was accepted as the American teacher. It took a while, for the villagers of course had to get to know her, too. The school principal remarked that he and others thought the new PCV from America strange at first, but after 6 months they got to know and accept her.  "That speaks volumes for their patience and what it means to live in a community," Janice noted.   

Janice said she called home maybe three times a year.  It helped that English was the official language, and it was "a very verbal culture."   She was a young girl, just out of college, studious and serious about her responsibilities in Liberia, learning as she went. Her students helped her with daily living, getting water, cooking, shopping.  "They made it all possible!"  She traveled a little, recalling especially a visit to Cote D'Ivoire, where the people spoke French and the culture differed greatly from neighboring Liberia. Africa we are reminded is such a huge continent with such diverse tribal and regional cultures and traditions that no generalizations are possible.  Colonization and independence complicate the picture even more.  

Janice made her home in a small part of a vast continent for two years.  "It changed my life," she said. It was a profound experience that affected her career and worldview to this day.  Friends of Liberia, a group of PCVs who served there, returned to Liberia a few years ago.  There were many changes, Janice said, which pleased them, and lots of things that were the same, including the bad roads and poorly developed infrastructure. "But everyone had cell phones," she said with a laugh, so the people were communicating more than ever.  Both Cynthia and I smiled at that, and understood, because nowadays it seems to be true everywhere!  The ubiquitous cell phone attached to the ears of the world.

Janice's return to Liberia is testimony to the ties of friendship that PCVs develop during their service.  They are the ties that bind.  They are the ties that in my opinion are underestimated in the long road to building peaceful relations in an ever-shrinking world still dominated by conflict, terrorism, and war.  

Cynthia taught also, but in China and at the college level, "teaching the teachers" at Hexi university in Zhangye, not far from part of "The Great Wall."  A statue of Marco Polo on the university campus intrigued her, until she found out that he actually went through her town all those centuries ago.  These are some of the amazing things PCVs discover as they make their way in a new country!

The first PCVs arrived in China in 1993 to teach English, Cynthia noted, and that has been the major focus ever since.  It's a major aspect of the Chinese government's policy to open up its country to the West.  The government realized that in order to globalize and become part of the worldwide economy its people had to learn English. "So in true Chinese fashion," as Cynthia put it, the government required that ALL citizens learn English from an early age.  In a country with so many people, this required  a lot more teachers than the country had, so the Peace Corps helps fill the gap.  Native speakers of English are prized.

In contrast to Liberia, China is a country where "people are everywhere," Cynthia said, still stunned by the fact.  "There is no are constantly surrounded by people and  noise, but you are always alone."  On the other hand, it's common for people to stop you on a busy street (because Americans always stand out even in the biggest crowd), and ask "would  you speak English with me?"  As with other government policies from the top down, this one has had repercussions, unintended consequences.  If you do not early pass a national proficiency test, which is very difficult, you are automatically bounced out of opportunities to go to universities, your future forever limited.  Thus awaiting the test and the test results, let alone failure to pass the test, not only raises profound anxiety, but also profound depression and sadness, both of which Cynthia encountered every day.  

China is a huge country undergoing tremendous changes. The well-known government policy of only one child per family, for example, has also resulted in an unintended consequence: an enormous gender imbalance.  There are too few women and far too many men, so millions of  bachelors are unable to find women to marry and  to start families.   Chinese policy is loosening in response, but it will take years to correct the imbalance. Peace Corps Volunteers like Cynthia witness these kinds of issues first hand, and see the impact of these changes on the people.  

Stereotypes about a glittery America, all MacDonalds, material things, TV soap operas and wealth, also abound, and of course the lingering images of Americans as evil, the enemy.  Afterall, it was government propaganda for generations, just as it was in America concerning the Chinese.  

"You get to see your own culture through other people's eyes," Cynthia noted.  And you also have an opportunity to change perceptions.  Peace Corps Volunteers bring a more realistic picture of America, showing the diversity, complexity and vastness of our country. The emergence of warm friendships are another sign of change, positive change.  

Peace Corps, from its very beginning, has created friendships around the world, and continues to do so.  It's the essence of  Peace Corps service, the Peace Corp way to peace, from the bottom up, personal, step by step.  It was a way that slain Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, fully  understood and embraced.  It makes his death all the more tragic, and peace seem all the more distant.  And yet, I still believe it's why Peace Corps matters, and matters deeply.  

Janice and Cynthia brought the world to our doorstep, and we're grateful. Next week our class journeys to Ukraine.  На следующей неделе наш путь ведет нас в Украине. Это опыт, который я буду помнить всегда. It may be a different place and time, but it is in the same Peace Corps tradition of making friends and fostering peaceful relations from the bottom up.   

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching about the Peace Corps

I had my first class on the U.S. Peace Corps at Lourdes University  last Friday. It's the first time I've done this and I was a little anxious. I arrived early and set up my displays of posters, photos, magazines and books.  I then walked down to the serenity garden, along a colorful path, to review in my head what I wanted to do.  I discovered the nun’s cemetery, a serene place to reflect, think, pray. I felt blessed to be on the lovely campus founded by the Franciscan Sisters.  I was ready for my class.

It’s a small class in the Continuing Education program so it was all discussion, learning about each other, and offering introductory thoughts on the history and purpose of Peace Corps.  We talked about Senator John F. Kennedy’s University of Michigan speech urging young Americans to go abroad, share their knowledge and learn about the world.  That was in 1960, when he was running for president.  We talked about the times. Hope filled the air. A year later president Kennedy created the Peace Corps and Congress approved it. JFK appointed Sargeant Shriver as its first director, a brilliant choice that got the program off the ground, beginning in Ghana, and developed its best advocate, which it needed.        

Did you know the Peace Corps idea had been floating around for at least 3 years before Kennedy made it a reality?   No, they didn’t.  I gave some hints: the idea began with a Senator, from Minnesota, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, a victim, you might say, of the Vietnam War and America’s growing opposition to it.  Hmm.  Okay, it’s Hubert Humphrey.  Ah yes, of course.  My brother Loren thought Humphrey was an unsung hero of American history, and he taught me all about this brilliant and compassionate man who gave so much to our country.   Humphrey was a pioneer in issues of justice, race, and peace, in introducing these ideas into the US Congress, and in putting them on the American agenda for change toward our ideals.  

And so we riffed on these notions for a while: how change takes place, how America has struggled overtime to live up to its ideals, how the pioneers often get lost after a charismatic leader takes the idea and makes it happen. 

We talked about the purpose of the Peace Corps, its three major goals, where volunteers serve, what they do.  About 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries since 1961, I said.  The Peace Corps turned 50 in 2011.  It has changed with the times.  

For instance, volunteers now have cell phones, computers, and communications technologies that did not exist in the early years.  Imagine being in a small African village in the 1960s or 1970s, miles away from a big city, with lousy roads, poor to no electricity and plumbing, uncertain mail delivery, unable to contact friends and loved ones.  It was a much more isolating experience than it is now.  

Those early volunteers were true pioneers.  Among them, I noted was recently slain Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who served in Morocco in the early 1980s.  His life and work embodied Peace Corps principles.  He would want us to remember all the early volunteers, and we did, some now elected representatives and officials, some well-known media anchors and reporters, most anonymous heroes and heroines for worldwide peace.  Today's volunteers keep the tradition alive. 

New fields of work have also emerged with the changing times, I continued.  What would these be?  Yes, the new work includes  HIV/AIDS prevention, environmental preservation, information technology, and small business entrepreneurship, building on and marketing the crafts of poor women and mothers especially.  Education and English as a foreign language remain major needs and about 36% of volunteers work in these program areas.   

“Only 200,000 volunteers in 50 years?” June asked with surprise.   That gave us pause for reflection. Really, that is NOT a big number.  We talked about the presidents and congresses who supported it, and those that did not. About the challenges of the early years.  The budget has always been small, and it's gone up and down.  It’s relatively low now, with 9,095 volunteers serving in 76 countries. 

For an agency with such a big purpose, of fostering international understanding and peace from the bottom up, the Peace Corps, an independent government agency, has never been well funded.  Compared to the military and defense budgets “we’re talking pennies, really,” Andrea noted. She is a retired 68-year old continuing education professional, thinking about joining the Peace Corps. I said I’d help, although I was careful to note that there are many other ways to serve the cause of world peace and justice.   

That was a chance to talk about senior volunteers, also a relatively recent phenomenon.  The model remains Lillian Carter, president Jimmy Carter’s mom, who served for two years in India while in her 70s. She  called it “a transforming experience.”   All volunteers would agree with that!  Now Peace Corps is actively recruiting over-50 volunteers.  They bring special wisdom to the field, as well as strong skills and experience. 

Throughout the discussion we wove in personal travel experiences.  June shared her experience with a church mission in Haiti, where the need continues to be so overwhelming, and the people resilient and joyful in spite of it. “It will be better tomorrow,” is the motto of the Haitian people, she said.

Same with the people of Ukraine, I responded, who have such strength and courage in dealing with daily life.  Volunteers in other countries around the world tell similar stories. We learn to love the people, their culture and traditions, in spite of the hardships, and to share their dreams. 

Peace Corps is a people-to-people exchange, personal interactions during which something new is created in the process.  That’s really the essence of the Peace Corps experience.  "We need more of this," the class agreed. 

Next week I’m bringing in two other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) to share their stories with us, one who served in Liberia, the other in China.  First-hand stories, on the ground, in the real world: that's  one of the best ways to learn about Peace Corps and to keep hope alive.    

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A visit to the pumpkin patch!

It is definitely Fall, because we are at Gust Farms, a beautiful working farm in Michigan just beyond the Ohio border. It takes only 15 minutes to get here.  Elissa is with grandson Philip, my great grandson.  Michelle is with Josh, Kyle and baby Chase.  It's sunny and cool, almost cold, so we bundle up, put on hats and gloves and scarves.  We walk the farm, check out the animals, hold the rabbits, pick out pumpkins, have donuts and warm cider.  Chase munches with joy on the best cookie he ever had!  The kids race from one thing to another, go on a hayride, play in the pumpkin patch, around and on and about the pumpkins.  Josh, Kyle, Chase and Philip. Our boys, having a great time!  It brings such joy to our hearts.

Michelle has taken her kids to the farm every year since Alli, Josh and Kyle were little kids.   She likes getting her mums here, and apples, jars of jam and apple butter, hay and gourds for her Halloween decorations and front porch.  She especially loves to see her kids busy, happy and enjoying themselves.  It's such a great family tradition.  I wouldn't miss it for the world!  

My neighbor's russet tree, from my back porch,
Sylvania, Ohio, October 2012
Russet leaves, red, orange and yellow
fall from wind-blown trees --
Autumn breathes a mournful sigh.

Days shorten, trees change, colors brighten as if
Nature anticipates the dying of the light,
the coming of winter darkness and early night.

I learned to love the changing seasons again when I lived in Ukraine. The haikus above were written during an English Club meeting at the Starobelsk Public Library one fall (must have been 2010), during a discussion on the topic “To Everything There Is a Season.”  I miss the English Club! 

The seasonal changes in Ukraine are just like those in Ohio, where I raised my kids and have returned; just like in Rochester where I grew up; or in colorful New England where I have family and went to college. Washington, DC has four seasons, too, and Fall is one of the most beautiful.  I love walking in Rock Creek Park and through northwest Washington neighborhoods at this time of year. Golden!    

The seasons in Ukraine were unlike Florida, however, where I lived for 10 years before joining the Peace Corps. It made the contrast starker. Not that Florida doesn’t have its version of seasons, but the changes are more subtle, like the ripening of the mangos or the falling seeds of the Live Oaks that cover cars in green ash. Of course the weather is mostly warm all year round, especially in winter.   

The changing seasons bring nature’s diversity to our lives.  Here in Ohio, from Cincinnati in the south to Sylvania in the north, we’ve come into Fall. Clear sunny days, crisp nights. The moon is bright. The days are short. All nature is color saturated. Four distinct seasons, each with its own beauty. 

Like the seasons of our lives.

Soon the flowers will be gone. The colors will fade. The trees will be bare. We’ll see life through diverse shades of brown branches awaiting their first dusting of snow.  It’s all good, when you embrace the four seasons.    

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bottom Line: Romney Doesn't Know Us

That 47% still rankles.  “There are 47%....who are dependent on government...who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

By now most voters know these were Romney’s remarks at a $50,000 per person fundraiser in Boca Raton (that's more than most Americans make in a year, by the way): "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” 
To Mitt, 47% of Americans may be a faceless number, but he was talking about you and me.*    

Half of this 47%, for example, don’t earn enough money for a household of their size to owe income tax; a family of 4 earning less than $26,400 wouldn’t pay taxes. Nor would the 4000 households in this 47% that make over $1 million a year; they don't pay taxes either.  

But Mitt meant that as president he wouldn't worry about the family down the street having trouble paying their mortgage; or your grandmother struggling with increasing medical bills and living on Social Security (which she earned over a lifetime of working);  or the young college grad in a first job, loaded with loans, trying to be independent, who can't afford to get his darn used car fixed.     

Mitt would not worry about the folks with a "pre-existing" condition who can't get health insurance, either, or those with sick and dying children who have exceeded their medical limits, or workers (not slackers) who don't get any health insurance at all, and there are plenty of them. 

He wouldn't worry about the folks working fulltime who are earning minimum wage, not enough to keep body and soul together, more and more of whom have to supplement their meager wages with food stamps. Most moms who need food stamps, moreover, or who need help with formula and medical care for their infants or with childcare, don’t like it, not at all.   They do what they HAVE to do, and hope to be self-sufficient one day soon.  "I'll never convince them to take responsibility" is NOT what they need to hear.  They need understanding, compassion, and support.  They need a president who cares, about ALL Americans. 

Romney's losers also include those members of the military who don’t pay taxes (16% of that 47%), many of whom are elderly and many just back from Iraq and Afghanistan with terrible physical and mental problems.  And then there are the people at the lowest end of the wealth and income gap, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, the homeless, the sick and dying (about 13%).  

It’s hard to believe someone could be so heartless.  And now Romney is telling us over and over that he really does care. 

Maybe he does, at some level.  But I think it’s hard for someone as wealthy as Romney, who was born into a privileged family and got richer off investments (some sheltered abroad) and Bain Capital, to understand the daily lives of ordinary Americans.  

From your multi-milliion dollar mansion on the beach front of La Jolla, CA, just one of at least three homes, it's hard to understand the Jeep worker who lives in a working class neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio, father of three, whose home is on the verge of foreclosure, or those friendly workers at Walmart's in Tampa, FL, who can't afford to go to the dentist.   

We don't begrudge Mitt his wealth, we just don't think he should cast aspersions on the characters of the rest of us, call us lazy, dependent, irresponsible, beyond hope. That's the part that hurts the most.  

It’s hard to backpeddle from your off-the-cuff remarks to super wealthy donors when your lifestyle is so different from the average voter, so far removed from working and middle class Americans.  

Bottom line: Romney doesn’t know us. 

*For this breakdown, see AP report on Yahoo news, “Who are Mitt Romney’s 47 percent? A breakdown,” Connie Cass with AP statistician Agiesta, September 2012.

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