Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Peace Corps Success Story: Good news from Starobelsk, Ukraine

Photos of Starobelsk English Club
Does Peace Corps make a difference in the communities it serves? Here's one success story.  One of many.

I just received this good news from Starobelsk, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years, 2009-11: the Starobelsk Public Library has received 15 computers from the Bibliomist project.  At last.  Hurray. Ура! What fantastic news!

Bibliomist is a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project, managed by IREX, to computerize 1000 Ukrainian libraries. 

We started the process in Starobelsk in the fall of 2009.  That's when I read about the project online and immediately got information to share with the local public Library. The Library was skeptical at first. Some of you remember my blogging about it.  

How, I wondered, could I work with the Library to help it improve its services and grow into a 21st-century community resource?  How could we help make this Library a center of information, change and civic education?  

My models were our fantastic American libraries, but most Ukrainian libraries, especially in small towns and in the east, were far from that model.  Very far.  Most didn’t have computers; used old card catalogue systems; did not encourage borrowing; did little community outreach. 

The USAID “Windows on America” project helped Oblast (county)-wide libraries, and I remember how important it was to the Chernigov Biblioteca when I trained there.  I tried to get "Windows on America" for Starobelsk, appealed and begged, but the library is not county-wide and I couldn’t convince USAID to make an exception. 

So I began to position the Library to apply for the Bibliomist project, with the ultimate goal of getting 15 computers, support for internet connectivity, and computer training for the librarians.  It was a step-by-step process, not easy. The interpretive services of Natalia Dohadailo, who teaches English at the local university, were essential. We also had help from Anton the poet, whose mother was a librarian and friend of the director.

First I started an English Club; that took many cups of tea, patience, and perseverance.  Then, with a Peace Corps Partnership grant, and help from Toledo donors and many of you, we began an English-language book collection, another first for the Library.  Then we made an initial application to Bibliomist and learned we had to 1) begin with preparing the library for computer installation (modern wiring, sprinkler system, security), and 2) apply to Bibliomist for small community outreach grants. 

I raised funds ($800) from friends in the US for computer installation preparation, essential but not the most exciting part of the project.  With help from Marat Kurachevsky at Peace Corps headquarters and Bibliomist staff, the Library received a $2,500 grant to reach out to teachers and develop a "sister" partnership with an American library, the Boyd County Public Library in Kentucky.  Amanda Stein, the outreach coordinator, helped make that possible.  

The Library learned as it went. It didn’t know how to partner with the American library and of course had trouble with outreach and access.  Still, when I left, the Library was better positioned to get 15 computers. I was also hoping it would get a PCV to move it forward. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure it would happen.  

Then I got the news: the Starobelsk Public Library does, indeed, have 15 computers!  The Library and community will celebrate on 1 February 2013.  I hope I can Skype in and join the celebration.   

Peace Corps Volunteers often wonder whether or not they make a difference.  I wondered the same thing.  Now I can say my work did make a difference.  I left a small legacy in a village in far-eastern Ukraine. Not alone, of course, but in partnership with Starobelsk's concerned citizens and friends.  Together we helped “e-power” the library so it could in turn empower the community it serves.   

Peace Corps does makes a difference, one community at a time, from the bottom up, all over the world!  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Plea on behalf of all Aspies: Keep Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis in the new DSM5

The American Psychiatric Association is soliciting comments on its proposal to eliminate Asperger's Sydrome as a diagnosis in the DSM5, the diagnostic bible of the profession. It wants "autism" to cover it.  But I do not think autism fits all, and certainly not people like my brother Loren. Many people will fall between the cracks, as he did for so many years.  Please write the APA if you think the Asperger diagnosis should stay in the DSM5.  Below is my letter, which you can take from as you see fit.  Thanks!

Dr.Dilip Jeste, MD, and the Board of the American Psychiatric Association
1000 Wilson Blvd. Suite 1825
Arlington, VA  22209

Dear Dr. Jeste and Psychiatric Association Board:
My brother Loren Curro, who died at 63 two years ago, was a late-diagnosed Aspie. He lived with “a problem that had no name” all his life, and suffered for it. No diagnosis, no intervention, no help.  That’s why I pray, with millions of others like my brother, that the Psychiatric Association does NOT eliminate Asperger’s Syndrome from DSM5, as proposed.    

Loren wasn’t diagnosed until he was 55 years old.  I enclose his autobiography, An Asperger Journey, published 3 months after his death in 2010, so he can speak for himself.  My sister Andy and I say that he died from Asperger’s, in the sense that as brilliant as he was in some things, he couldn’t connect the dots, recognize the symptoms, tell his doctors or us about them, and save himself. 

Eliminating the Asperger diagnosis from the DSM5 would mean people like Loren, with his constellation of symptoms, would be left to their own devices and might not be diagnosed at all. My brother went to doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists all his life: Even in his fifties, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, everything but autism, and never Asperger’s (see Chaps 8-11).  He never had any intervention as a child, a teen, in college, as an adult. He was socially awkward but very smart.  He wanted to be accepted, and he tried mightily to work on his behavior and find his identity and purpose,  joining many environmental and political causes that made him friends. 

But Loren was different, and he knew it.  The Asperger diagnosis at least gave him a handle on his behavior and thinking processes.  The best thing about it was that he could disclose this diagnosis, which helped him understand himself, and others understand him better.  And that is really the heart of the matter: Not the inner sanctums of a profession, doctors talking to doctors, researchers to a few other researchers, but the social reality of day-to-day living and related SOCIAL issues that go along with it.  

Without the Asperger diagnosis people like my brother will once again be left behind, by the medical profession, the insurance companies, schools, state and federal agencies, and other social services.   Public awareness is critical for treatment, intervention and understanding.  Take away the Asperger’s diagnosis, finally in the public domain, and we’re back to the 1950s and 60s, when doctors didn’t recognize an Aspie diagnosis and blamed mothers (including our mother) for Loren’s disorder.

On behalf of my brother and millions like him, leave the Asperger's diagnosis in the DSM5. Please, “DO NO HARM.”  Thank you,

Francine Curro Cary, PhD 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

More Bangs for the Buck!

uglyduckling at www.last.fm
My friend Alice in New Jersey directed me to Jon Stewart’s hilarious take on the inauguration, which was, yep, insightful.  My friend Suz in DC had bemoaned the meaningless “pomp and circumstances,” too, as  I blithely went on about the symbolism of the day.

I've taken it awfully seriously and with earnest intensity, from the symbolism of  inaugurating our first African-American president a second time on MLK day, to the president’s “coming out as a Liberal” (as Steward delicately put it with his usual double entendres),  to the wonderful epic poem by Richard Blanco.

Still, there’s something to be said about the fact that Michelle Obama’s new hairstyle took center stage.  Even the president admitted as much.

That led me to a new way of looking at the media coverage of the inauguration: I call it "More bangs for the buck."

The idiom came to mind as I directed my thinking away from the serious import of the day to the emphasis on Michelle’s bangs, her coat and outfit, her inaugural gown, her fashion statements, her eye roll at the luncheon at the Capitol, and other  media highlights, which are now called “photobombs” and “memes.”

In hindsight, I have a few to add myself: like Jennifer Hudson’s song at the Commander-in-Chief ball (she looked awfully skinny by the way), when she didn’t know what to do after she sang it and no one cared.  I'd also hype the image of Joe Biden running around and across Pennsylvania Avenue like a flaming presidential candidate.  Good lord. The thought entered my mind, and it won't go away.  He's running for president!  And Obama's 2nd term is just beginning. And Hillary's in the wings.  

I guess I need to catch up with the cultural tempo of the times.  And “more bangs for the buck” seems a good idiom for the day right now.  The media sure did get lots of money and excitement and value out of those bangs.    

Maybe Americans have had enough of partisan politics and would rather focus on less serious issues, let’s put it that way.  I’d go with the bangs, myself, rather than more of the “fiscal cliff” politics that preceded the inauguration and will follow it.  And that continue in the form of Republicans in Congress haranguing and harassing Hillary Clinton and politicizing yet again the tragedy of Benghazi. 

There's more to America than "One today....One Sky."   

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"One Today....One Sky": Richard Blanco's Inaugural Poem

21 January 2013
Below is the inaugural poem by 44-year-old poet Richard Blanco, read at the 2nd inauguration of Barack Obama.  I want to record it for myself, for my kids, for posterity.  Blanco is the first gay Latino to read a poem at a presidential inaugural.  Starting with Robert Frost in 1961, there have only been four inaugural poets. 

Blanco's mother was from Cuba; he was raised in Miami. The Cuban community there is vibrant and diverse, in the recent past virulently anti-Castro but now less so.  The younger generations are establishing their own American identity and a different connection to Cuba than those first immigrants.  Blanco demonstrates this, a rising generation of Cuban-Americans who have become more American than Cuban. 

The poet and the poem embrace President Obama's theme of civil rights, making progress toward our ideals, and inclusion in a diverse society: from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall. 

Blanco's poem fit right in, a song for immigrants to America, the story of constant waves of newcomers from other shores.   America is, afterall, a nation of immigrants. It was one of the things I represented the most when I served with the Peace Corps in Ukraine. American diversity, our multi-cultural fabric, quite different in Ukraine.  

We all meld eventually, not melt our origins away, but meld like a great cultural stew, after a few generations.  We meld on the land of the native Americans.  The people and cultures here before us. Long before  us. One land.  The only other theme I would add to a poem about America becoming.    

Blanco's song for immigrants who struggled to make a new place home and to create better opportunities for their children, resonated, for I am a third generation child of Italian immigrants.  A song for his mother who worked hard all her life "so I could write this poem."  A song for all immigrant mothers and fathers. 

"One today" is a powerful metaphor, and "One sky," "One moon," the universal framework and the transcendent unity of humanity.

"One Today" - By Richard Blanco
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
worn as my father's cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues, the symphony of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Oh, what a day! Obama's 2nd Inauguration and MLK Remembered

Yahoo image
"We will feel the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, of the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, of a Thurgood Marshall," Moss said. "Persons who have borne the burdens in the heat of the day and worked sacrificially for things to come, knowing that they would perhaps not live to see the fruit of their labors but nevertheless knew that this day would come."  Rev. Otis Moss, Jr.'s prayer for President Obama’s first inauguration (quoted NYT, Jan.2009).   Moss, pastor at the historic Olivet  Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio,  was a  friend of MLK and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where MLK  delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, still moving to this day.  

Monday 21 January
President Barack Obama
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File, Huffington Post,  20 Jan. 2013.
This is truly an amazing juxtaposition: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,  the 50th anniversary year of the “I Have Dream” speech, and the 2nd Inauguration of president Barack Obama.    

It seems fitting, on the same day, to commemorate the life of a Civil Rights icon who fought long and hard for equality, with thousands upon thousands of extraordinary and ordinary Americans;  to remember the famous and prescient speech he made at the March on Washington in 1963; and to celebrate the 2nd inauguration of the first African-American U.S. president, and the theme "Visions for the Future."  

I can’t think of a better way to honor this day.  The past, present and future, all rolled into one, like E pluribus unum,  from many, one,  a powerful metaphor for upcoming generations, and for the history books.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Barby Remembered: Memorial Gathering

"Books are my passport to the stars."

Memorial program for Barby, those special books, Barby with son David on a Caribbean vacation. David gave a lovely eulogy with a wonderful rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." .Storytelling friend Pamela Hollenbeck perfectly rounded out the service by reading the last chapter of "Charlotte's Web," a Barby favorite, which friends had been reading to her, chapter by chapter, as she lay dying under hospice care. "We never got to finish the last chapter," Pam noted  And so she read it.  We are sure Barby was very happy.  
These are some of my memories of my friend Barby.

Once upon a time, as Barby would begin her stories, the Britsches and the Carys shared some summers on Nantucket Island.  Jim and Barby fell in love with the island and, in her own inimitable way, Barby started collecting all things Nantucket. She collected books, more books, puzzles, more puzzles, posters, maps, art, & memorabilia, which filled her house to the day she left it. I now have a few of these momentos gracing my apartment, special reminders of a dear friend.  

We walked the beaches, picked blueberries on the moors, enjoyed fresh fish dinners.  Once we had a memorable brunch at the famed Jared Coffin House. It was so fantastic, the food, the ambience, the historical setting, that it inspired Barby to get ALL the recipes, including for its famous cold cherry soup.  Then one December, we brought a little of Nantucket back to Toledo, hosting a Nantucket Brunch for our wonderful “Brunch Bunch” in the Old West End.  Diane Pribor and Sue Craig and Susan and Nick Muska remember it still, they said to me after the service. We reminisced.

One of Barby's
 says is all. 
On Nantucket, we’d run to the beach to catch the sunset, cocktails in hand, and then return to "Cross Rip" to play roaring games of scrabble at night.  We made great words and connected letters in super ways, and of course we made great use of this book:  The Official Scrabble Dictionary!  Yes, this is Barby’s. And she made us use it!
So how did we ever “cheat” in a game, as it were?  Well something happened. It seems that one of us got away with the word “twink” in one of our games.   And, wonder of wonders, we didn’t catch it until AFTER we were done with the game and reviewing the board.

“TWINK?!!”Barby asked incredulously?  We just looked at each other, like well, it couldn’t have been me!   “Gee and no one added an 'S' to it?" Jim asked in amusement. Roars of laughter.  Super blunder. A fish’s tale if there ever was one!  Ever after, Barby would just say the word “twink” from time to time, with mock dismay, in that splendid storytelling voice of hers.  She didn’t let us get away with that one.  

And then there was the time that Jim and Barby saved our children, Elissa and Michelle. Jim and Barby were sitting on their grand front porch at 2308 Robinwood, on the 3rd floor of that fabulous 4-story red brick apartment building that our family had lived in before buying a house down the street.   They were sitting there, enjoying a drink and the sunset, when they noticed two little girls walking by on the street below them.

Well, good heavens: it’s Michelle and Elissa Cary, and Michelle’s carrying a suitcase. “What are you doing with the suitcase, Michelle?”  "She’s running away,” Elissa called up, “and I’m helping her.”  

“Well girls," Jim called down, "why don’t you come up for chocolate milk and some of Barby’s homemade chocolate chip cookies first!”  The girls jumped at the chance.  Jim and Barby took the suitcase, fed them, regaled them, held their attention, as only they could, and gave us a call. We ran over right away, quieted some ruffled feathers, then enjoyed an evening together.  Our girls were rescued, and not for the last time.  Barby and Jim were such dear friends, and my girls adored them as special grandparents. "My memories of Barby are still as a child," Elissa said after the service.  Barby would love that!

Now my children are passing their memories of Barby down to their kids, to my 6 grandkids and one great-grandson, Philip. And as luck would have it, David let me take his mom's special collection of wind-up toys and a few of her children’s books. And who had more of them than Barby?!   I took the "Winnie the Pooh" pop-up book, which I remembered from years back, with joy, and shared it with Philip one afternoon.  We opened it and... Pooh’s forest popped up! Enchanting.  Then we saw in the little storybook that came with it that there were cutouts that Barby had NEVER cut out and used.  They were there for Philip.

"Philip, look, Barby left these for you!  We made a new discovery."    Philip's eyes lit up.  He started to yell to his GranE.  "GranE come look. WE MADE A NEW DISCOVERY! We made a new discovery! We have cutouts!”

For hours after that, Elissa and Philip and I carefully cut out Pooh and Rabbit, Christopher Robin, Kanga and Roo, Owl, Piglet, Eyeore and Tigger, and found them homes in Pooh’s forest.  Philip was enthralled.  Elissa and I could feel Barby’s presence, smiling down on us, glad that Philip had discovered something new in Barby’s "Winnie the Pooh" book.   Something just for him. So fitting. So special. So Barby!

“...and they all lived happily ever after.”  

Momentos from Barby:  painted cups (maybe from a trip to Portugal?) and carved  English-replica houses on my window sill. A hanging lamp with tiny tin angels. Nantucket poster (a favorite) and a fun artistic map of Nantucket treasures and things to see and do on the Island.  .

May your spirit stay with us forever, Barby. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kronos String Quartet: For the Ages

A great sculpture on the way in to the Valentine, a beautifully restored theater in downtown Toledo. Getting our tickets from grandson Tony , with his mom and me. Tony works the box office with friend Sue Dessner.  Interior scenes and  handsome V logo above the grand stage. Promo for upcoming production of HAIR, which Tony is taking his mom to see. 

From Valentine theater program notes.
A fitting ethereal image like the performance itself. 
The Kronos Quartet played at the Valentine Theater last night, and Elissa and I had the great good fortune to experience a profoundly moving musical evening.  

Kronos was formed 40 years ago by violinist David Harrington, ahead of his time then and now, and includes Harrington, John Sherba, also on violin;  Hank Dutt, viola; and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello.  Brilliant musicians all, pushing the limits of their instruments in extraordinary ways, perfectly attuned to one another and the international avant garde music, much of it specially commissioned for Kronos. As one grateful member of the audience, a violinist, said to me during intermission: "It moves me to tears."   

The juxtaposition of contemporary classical music in a restored 1895 theater in downtown Toledo added to the experience. Here we sat on red fabric chairs, upfront and close, surrounded by gold gilt and crystal lights, in a European-style grand structure, a house of culture, built during the heyday of the Victorian era.

But we were listening not to Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, but to modern composers from all over the world: Bryce Dessner, Laurie Anderson, Cafe Tacuba, Nicole Lizee, Ram Narayan, Alter Yechiel Karniol, Omar Souleyman, Sigur Ros and Aleksandra Vrebalov.  

In a recording studio, BBC image.
Most of the composers were new to me, and to the audience.  We were enthralled. The only composer most of us knew was Richard Wagner, and Kronos put his music in critical context.

Kronos played Wagner's "Prelude from Tristan und Isolde," which I have always loved, in an arrangement only Kronos could imagine, every note exquisite, emphasizing the composition of the piece in ways I had never heard before.  I don't think I could ever listen to it again played by any other group, or symphony.

Interestingly, David Harrington, so absolutely brilliant on the violin, introduced the music in a minimalist but powerful style.  He acknowledged Wagner's virulent anti-Semitism but noted the quartet's focus solely on the music, which is astonishingly futuristic as Kronos interprets it. Kronos performed it in an intentional and thoughtful sequence, as well, after the moving Jewish "cantorial" music of Alter Yechiel Karnio's "Sim Sholom."

The whole program was brilliantly conceived and executed, one piece leading to another, new instruments, old instruments, moogs and syntheziers, a drum called a tapan, fascinating instruments I had never seen or heard before, and the use of pre-recordings that seamlessly enriched the cacaphonous sounds and meaning of the music.

I thought the stage set was brilliant too, simple and complex, brought to life by lighting designer Laurence Neff and audio engineer Brian Mohr, who together highlighted the musicianship with great skill and sensitivity.

The program notes, which I didn't read until I got home, put the experience in context: "For nearly 40 years, Kronos has pursued a singular artistic vision, combining a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to expanding the range and context of the string quartet.  In the process, Kronos has become one of the most celebrated and influential groups of our time, performing thousands of concerts worldwide, releasing more than 45 recordings of extraordinary breadth and creativity, collaborating with many of the worlds most eclectic composers and performers, and commissioning more than 750 works and arrangements for string quartet."  (See also www.kronosquartet.org)

Kronos transported us to new dimensions.  "Awesome," Elissa called it. I think that's the best adjective for this magical musical evening.   

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Our Dragonfly Cafe: Food for the Soul

Artwork among the artists, musicians, storytellers at Dragonfly, 16 January 2013. Matt on guitar (a great musician, a great voice), with Gordon singing; Mike joining him on guitar; Maw telling a story of growing up in Poland, Cheryl (in orange) and others enjoying; Jennifer talking about a spiritual journey; Matt a young boy's adventure in Canada with a plane that took off from a lake, fishing and freedom,. We were all over the map, geographically, spiritually, musically.   
It was Poetry and Acoustic night at Dragonfly, our neighborhood café in a lovely old home with a Victorian-like setting, warm and cozy, so I decided to wander over.  It’s been a while, but it was a clear evening, winter cold but refreshing, and “the Fly” sparkles at night.  It’s comforting to know we have such a welcoming place, with  good food and creative camaraderie, right on Main Street in downtown Sylvania. Owner Jennifer Miller Blakeman was in the kitchen, and that in itself is comforting.   

I’m glad I went.  The poets took a night off, it seems, and we were a small group, but we had wonderful music, sing-a-longs, and stories.  Matt Meeker, on guitar, started us off with Crosby, Stills and Nash (some of my favorites including “Southern Cross,” which takes me back to Australia), and some I didn’t know but really liked, like country music artist Alan Jackson’s “Remember When.”  Lovely lyrics (see below). Gordon sang along with Matt a few times, and made lovely harmony, I thought. 

Then it was story time.  Spontaneous. Informal.  Jennifer shared a coming-of-age story about a challenging but sobering spiritual journey that took her from “the Farm,” near Mansfield, Ohio, out west to California, hitchhiking with interesting characters, one from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, a trip that shaped her life and outlook, her thinking and values. Young Maw (not sure of spelling) shared a story about growing up in Poland, and memories of the Catholic Church and how it wove in and out of her life.   I shared memories of a transitioning Ukraine, struggling to find it’s own identity after becoming independent of the Soviet Union. Matt told a poetic tale of a trip “up North” on the Ottawa river and lakes of Ottawa, Canada near Quebec, when he was fourteen years old, taking off in a little plane that lifted up from a lake and came down on another in some remote forest, where the fishing was also fantastic. Gordon shared his adventures to Russia to meet his fiance’s family in a Ural Mountain village, a meeting of nuclear scientists, and his navigating the ways of a foreign country, not understanding the language.  I understood.  We had traded travel stories, international stories, and growing up stories.  We understood. 

I probably don't have all the details right, but sharing stories and music with kindred spirits provides food for the soul, food for thought, transports us to far-away places. Matt brought us home with some closing music, perfectly rounding out a lyrical evening that couldn't have been better if we had planned it. That's Dragonfly for you!  

 Remember When, by Alan Jackson (www.elyrics.net)
Remember when I was young and so were you
And time stood still and love was all we knew
You were the first, so was I
We made love and 
then you cried

Remember when

Remember when we vowed the vows and walked the walk
Gave our hearts, made the start and it was hard
We lived and learned, life threw curves
There was joy, there was hurt
Remember when

Remember when old ones died and new were born
And life was changed, disassembled, rearranged
We came together, fell apart
And broke each other's hearts
( From: http://www.elyrics.net )

Remember when

Remember when the sound of little feet was the music
We danced to week to week
Brought back the love, we found trust
Vowed we'd never give it up
Remember when

Remember when thirty seemed so old
Now lookin' back, it's just a steppin' stone
To where we are, where we've been
Said we'd do it all again
Remember when

Remember when we said when we turned gray
When the children grow up and move away
We won't be sad, we'll be glad
For all the life we've had
And we'll remember when

Remember when
Remember when

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Life After All

I've changed my blog title and look.  I'm experimenting. But it's still all about all of life, after all!

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, 2009-11, I called my blog: “fran-ukrainian-adventure.”  That’s when I started blogging, to let friends and loved ones know what I was doing in a little village called Starobelsk in far-eastern Ukraine, that Russian-speaking far-away place. I wrote 229 blogs about my daily life in a beautiful country the size of Nebraska that was struggling to find its own post-Soviet identity.  I wrote about the projects I worked on and the people I worked with, about my travels and discoveries, the Ukrainian people, culture, cuisine, and traditions. I was completely out of my comfort zone for two years, and I had never felt better about what I was doing!  A dream fulfilled.  It was a transformative experience, one I enjoyed sharing and shall never forget. I copied my last PC blog below.     

When I returned from Ukraine in April 2011, I called my blog “Life after Peace Corps.”  Before and after Peace Corps became a divide, a borderland between the past and the present.  It was a tough transition back to a more normal way and pace of life.  I was back in my comfort zone, but not feeling all that comfortable.  Like all adventures, however, this new chapter has proven to be exciting and worthwhile.  I  sold my condo in St. Petersburg and moved from Florida to Sylvania, Ohio, to be closer to my daughters Elissa and Michelle and their kids.  And it's been fantastic. The best decision I could have made, to come full circle to the place I raised my children and to be with them as they raise their children, my precious grandkids.  I've written 248 blogs about this post-Peace Corps chapter, an ongoing saga moving across the continuum of time. 

Now, almost two years since I returned from Ukraine and moved to Sylvania, I'm moving on again, not geographically but figuratively speaking.  Hard to believe.  Tempus fugit, I remember from Latin.  Time flies. Times change. Life changes.  So I've decided to change the title of my blog to simply: “Life After All.”  I’m writing about all of life's experiences, before and after Peace Corps, about how the past looks from the now, how the present is unfolding, and how it might look in the future.  All of life.  

I love writing and thinking about our times, about history, culture and politics, about family, community and place.  I like playing with ideas, and making new connections between the past and the present. That's what I'll continue to do. Just because I like to write.  it’s life, after all! 


FRIDAY, APRIL 15, 2011

What Peace Corps Means to Me: My Final PCV Blog

This is my final PCV blog. My Ukrainian adventure has come to an end, but not my Ukrainian experience, my stories, my memories. They will always be with me. They are a part of who I am. Now a new American adventure begins, and a new blog, "Life After Peace Corps.” I look forward to sharing more adventures on the journey we all share.

Life Inspired, A Life of Purpose: The Peace Corps Experience

When I began work at the public library in Starobelsk, a Russian-speaking village of about 18,000 in far-eastern Lugansk Oblast, Ukraine, I had a minor run-in with a librarian who thought all Americans were ignorant and arrogant. He went on for quite a while, to the embarrassment of the director, but I smiled and said I understood and it was okay. He ranted while I nodded amiably. It helped that I understood only every other word or so!

Near the end of my service, this librarian came up to me to say how much he has liked seeing me work with the Library. The English Club and the English-book collection have brought more people and new energy to the library, he said. He admitted, a bit sheepishly, that he had a bad view of Americans for a long time, especially while growing up, but now he sees we can be friends. I was the first American he had ever met. I responded with a big smile. “I am so glad we got to know each other!”

This is the essence of the Peace Corps experience. When we began our Peace Corps journey, many of us Community Development (CD) PCVs thought that using our skills and experiences in support of Ukrainian NGOs was the top priority, the number 1 goal. We were in Ukraine to be useful, to do good work, to transfer our skills. We embraced this goal with enthusiasm.

Now I think that the two other Peace Corps goals are equally important: getting to know a country and its people, and their getting to know us and America. On this level the Peace Corps experience is about modeling and mentoring good will, optimism, a “can-do” spirit, a positive but flexible attitude. It is about modeling how change can take place and mentoring some ways of achieving goals, one step at a time, from the bottom up.

What does this mean? For me it meant working with an NGO to address human rights abuses through a “Know Your Rights!”civic education project. It meant having fun with kids at a summer Camp, walking around with a globe, maps, and a dictionary, ever-ready to connect and instruct. It involved discussing history, poetry, folk traditions and holidays at English Club meetings. It meant engaging members in hands-on projects like making peace cranes, origami pumpkins, Halloween masks, holiday trees and cultural maps. It meant helping an artist write a cultural preservation grant to preserve the decorative paintings of the ancient Lugansk region. It involved attending seminars of the spoken word, celebrating the publication of a book, honoring local poets and local talents from the past and the present. It encompassed leading literature discussion seminars with English classes at the University, exploring American short stories by Jack London, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Thomas Wolff.

Through all these activities, it was the connections that mattered most. The Peace Corps experience is about building bridges across cultures, and of course it's true: once a human connection is made, it's hard to sever. It feels good to connect on the level of human kindness, on a level that transcends differences. It’s wonderful to be a part of the daily life of a village: enjoying meals, many meals, and toasting to good health and good fortune; celebrating birthdays and holidays, and there are many in Ukraine; visiting a friend’s farm; attending programs at local schools and cultural centers; biking along village paths to go pick apples in fall; swimming in the river in summer, or relaxing on its tree-lined banks; joining friends on a vacation in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov; traveling around the country; meeting friends like the incomparable Stefa and Bogdan in Lviv; and having tea, many cups of tea, in homes and cafes, getting acquainted, practicing a new language, developing trust and bonds of friendship.

All these activities, big and small, personal, work-related and social, inspire and energize the spirit, feed the soul. They strenghthen the foundation of grassoots change. They create brand new networks among people and organizations in the same village who had not connected before. They build lasting friendships. This was the essence of my Peace Corps experience for two years in the wonderful town of Starobelsk, Ukraine. I will always remember. Я буду всегда помнить.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eugene Patterson and Pioneers for Civil Rights

"A Flower for their Graves"
“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham....In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her....Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand. … We who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. … [The bomber] feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us. We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.”       
Eugene Patterson, "A Flower for their Graves," in the Atlantic Constitution, September 16, 1963, about the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four little girls.  Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/01/eugene-patterson-dies-at-89-86095.html#ixzz2Hs3UcgZK.  

The earliest pioneers of most reform movements are often forgotten, in the shadows of those who became their charismatic leaders and public voice.  Some were well-known in their time, but most remain anonymous, their names unknown, their stories muted, their fate unknown.  

+Eugene Patterson, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for editorial writing who just died at age 89 in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of these pioneers. 

A southern white man from Georgia, whose only solace as a child, he once said, was "school, fishing and literature," was editor of the Atlantic Constitution in the 1960s, an early enlightened voice for civil rights. Patterson wrote with compassion about the effects of racism and the need for social justice. He is probably best known for an elegaic column he wrote after the horrific bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 by a white supremicist, a senseless, hate-motivated crime that killed four little girls.  Patterson wrote with compassion and sorrow "A Flower for their Graves."  (Quoted in part above.  See also Mitch Stacey, AP article, Yahoo News, January 12, 2013).    

Patterson carried his convictions and his high standards of journalism to the Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.   For Patterson, the pen was mightier than the sword.  

In the wake of Patterson's death, other forgotten pioneers also come to mind: Grassroots organizer +Fannie Lou Hammer, daughter of a dirt-poor Mississippi sharecropping family who became a voting rights activist;  +Rosa Parks, who held her seat in front of a bus, too tired to move to the back.  Young African-American college students who sat at lunch counters in whites-only sections of stores, and were defended by the likes of +Thurgood Marshall and other professors at Howard University in Washington, DC.    Unsung heroes.

Thousands of ordinary citizens like these plowed the fertile fields of injustice and planted the seeds for what would become a national Civil Rights movement.  They created the environment for the likes of +Martin Luther King, Jr.and +John Lewis, and those who became leaders. We might not know their names or remember their efforts, but change would have been impossible without them. They fed the Civil Rights movement with their minds, hearts and, yes, their bodies, some dying for the cause.  And they kept the movement going.  Foot-soldiers. Nonviolent warriors for justice.

Leaders emerge when followers rise up to support and sustain them. 

Eugene Patterson helped create an environment for change, and so did thousands of other ordinary citizens in various walks of life.  Leaders stood on their shoulders, then gave them hope. We need to remember that. We need to remember the anonymous Americans who brought change from the bottom up.  Flowers for their graves, too. 

+Fannie Lou Hammer, on why she kept up the fight to register voters and helped found the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party:
"I guess if I'd had any sense, I'd have been scared--but what was the point of being scared?  The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember."  (Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America.)

I was reminded in looking up her biography that Hammer was in part referring to her steriilzation in 1964, without her knowledge, by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks (Wikipedia). How could we forget this? How could such atrocities have occurred in America in our time?  Hammer thought she was having a tumor removed, but the doctor decided to do a hysterectomy as well.  A crime that the state of Mississippi had sanctioned, made legal.  Reading this sent chills up my spine, recalling the unconscionable acts that shocked me then, and still do, and these terribly tragic times in our history when the ideals of democracy lay dormant and white supremacy reigned.  We need to remember this history, so we don't repeat it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Retail Woes

Logos from store websites

I feel bad about these retail stores on the brink of closing: Abercrombie, Sears, the Gap  ("Where you might not shop in 2013," Yahoo news, Jan. 11, 2012). .I just read that Penny's and Radio Shack, and several others, are in trouble too.

I don't understand the business of retail, except to know it can be almost as precarious as opening a new restaurant. And online massive open platforms, including for shopping, are making bricks-and-mortar institutions across the board in every sector obsolete.

But I grew up with Sears, when it was Sears and Roebuck and  had a fabulous catalog and Christmas Wish edition.  My grandkids think Abercrombie is a fun store, dark and thumping; they have several t-shirts with its name blazoned on them.  And the Gap, well, it's a family store, too, sporty  casual clothing of quality, jeans, sweaters, and tops for men and women, young and old.

Maybe it has to do with changing fashions?  The tech revolution? Spreading online access, worldwide? Even the village of Starobelsk in eastern Ukraine, where I lived for two years, is now wired!

With Sears I can see that its old stores in old buildings are no longer up-to-date and futuristic-looking enough to appeal to the younger digital generation that likes modernity.  But Abercrombie is pretty hip, isn't it?  And the Gap can be re-created for the future, can't it?

We live in a transient society, ever-changing, ever mobile, ever frenzied. Brand loyalty, like job loyalty, is frivilous, a relic of the past. Convenience, conspicuous online buying, hipness matter more than ever.

The famed economist Thonstein Veblen wrote about this at the turn of the century, the 20th century that is, in his "Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899).    He wrote about "conspicuous consumption" and status-seekers well before journalists and social critics like Vance Packard ("The Status Seekers" and "Hidden Persuaders").  In the tradition of Veblen himself, the post-WWII social critics hit the culture of the 1950s in the solar plexus.

Technology and spiriling digital innovation are doing the same thing today.  Hewlett Packer author Ken_Howard, in "Retailers consider Digital commerce," HP Discover, Jan. 10, 2012, wrote that:
      "The retail industry is facing a tall set of challenges as it enters 2013. The  convergence of new trends in technology, economics and society are compelling retailers to transform their enterprise around the modern consumer....In particular, retailers must understand and adapt to modern consumers whose loyalty hinges on the latest experience or peer review—all while making IT work for the business, improving the supply chain, ensuring data security, and managing costs." 

I guess that's it in a nutshell, the words of an IT guru for today's retailers. Echoes of Veblen. 
The computer and the internet, mobile phones, iphones, ipads,  nooks. other technologies, and their interconnections in new ways, are changing the way we live, work, educate (MOOCs for example) and....shop.    Nor is there any end in sight for these inventions, discoveries, and explosive agents of change, except for the retail stores that are doomed to failure because they didn't change fast enough for the times, and were left in the dust by the digital revolution, like American newspapers (NYT), magazines (Newsweek) and print media in general.     

Some people think that educational institutions of higher learning are not far behind. 

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