Free Zimbabwe 1

Post #26, 13.1 miles into the marathon that is “52 Mondays.”  Most marathoners take their split at the midway point, begin self-assessing how everything is going, and often make adjustments to the pre-race plan.

Well, how is everything going?  Mom likes the blog and says dad would be proud.  That’s more than enough motivation to continue running, I mean writing.

Thanks to the detailed and insightful feedback of a much more experienced and knowledgeable blogger, I am going to make several changes to 52 Mondays, the majority of which will take awhile to implement because of my technical limitations.  Hopefully, I’ll launch a “new and improved” site by the end of the year.  One immediate change is not writing more, but in the interest of shortening my posts, posting mid-week on occasion.  

Transition 1.  A few weeks ago I told a friend of mine at work who oversees our First Year Program that I might create a new writing seminar based upon the positive psychology/happiness studies literature.  I think 18-19 year olds are at the perfect age to seriously explore what’s most important to them and how they want to live their adult lives.  My friend’s response was hilarious because I could tell he was trying to mask his gut reaction.  It was as if I had punched him in the gut.  This is what I read into his squeamish smile, “Are you kidding me?  I can’t believe you’re not just lending credence to that fluff, but you’re considering subjecting unsuspecting students to it too?”

His preconceived notions about positive psychology probably parallel many people’s thoughts when they hear the word “wellness.”  In contrast to a phrase like “social justice,” “wellness” conjures up images of people sitting in a circle, sharing their feeeeelings about all sorts of personal issues, and then sharing a group hug before going out to drink white wine together.

Social justice. . . Che Guevara, in your face street protests, dark beer, youthful, U2, cigarettes, piercings, tats, levis, birkenstocks.  Wellness. . . Oprah, group therapy, strawberry lemonade, middle-aged, Enya, vitamins, pleated Dockers, Topsiders.

So given that baggage, why the subtitle, “Wellness writ-large week-by-week?”  Because I don’t think about wellness as a watered-down version or weak alternative to social justice.  In my thinking, it should incorporate political well-being and be edgier and more substantive than people expect.

Transition 2.  Free Zimbabwe.

In the spring of 1990, while teaching in Ethiopia, L and I spent the week of spring break traveling throughout Zimbabwe.  We were amazed by how excellent the roads, hotels, and housing were, especially in the cities.  Quality of life in Kenya was much higher than in Ethiopia and the quality of life in Zimbabwe was much higher than in Kenya.  Among other highlights, it was awe-inspiring to hear the roar of Victoria Falls from a few miles away and then stand near its edge soaked by the mist.  As suggested, we rented bikes and road over to the Zambian side for an even better view of the falls.  We also visited an artists’ cooperative and bought a beautiful soapstone statue from the artist who made it.  Like in most sub-Saharan countries, there were pictures of Mugabe everywhere.  Even during this golden age of Zimbabwe’s development, some of our guides were critical of his leadership.  Also, one day on a Harare sidewalk, we saw a member of the security forces clubbing a person who had allegedly committed a petty crime.  Still, despite that disturbing scene and the criticisms of Mugabe, we had no clue of the tragedy that lied ahead.

Since then, Mugabe, age 84, has single-mindedly focused on maintaining his grip on power at the expense of everything else.  As a result, no citizens in any country on the planet have experienced a more precipitous drop in quality of life over the last ten years.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pace and extent of the cataclysm is unprecedented in world history.  In the last few weeks and months, Mugabe has ignored the results of an election he lost and vowed to ignore the results of the “runoff.”  His henchmen have killed at least 86 opposition politicians, illegally detained 2,000, injured and maimed 10,000, and internally displaced 200,000.  Mugabe can match credentials with any dictator on the planet, yet he flies under the radar because the U.S. and other western powers don’t think of Southern Africa as important and Zimbabwe doesn’t export oil.  To make it into George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” you have to be located in a strategically important place and/or have natural resources the West is dependent upon.


How many things do you own?  Think you could live with 100?  Some people are trying in what’s termed the 100 Thing Challenge.

Not sure of the catalyst really, but I’ve been growing increasingly minimalist in orientation for some time and I’m intrigued by the challenge.  Establishing a baseline could be tough and time consuming.  I’m pretty confident I own fewer things than most adults in my socio-economic strata and far more than one hundred things. 

If I do take up the challenge, how should I count?  If I have to count each book, each compact disc, each golf ball, and each golf tee; game over, no point of continuing.  With your approval, I’m going to employ the “collective noun” provision meaning books, compact discs, and golf accessories count as three possessions.  Yes men, of course I’ve considered eating with my fingers exclusively, but then it may be tough to get a good grip on the golf clubs.

Also, with your approval, I’m going to ignore consumable items like food and drink.  Of course that still leaves a boatload of Tupperware, kitchen appliances, Ziploc bags, silverware, etc.  No one said it was going to be easy.

Those last possessions bring to mind the issue of shared possessions.  For example, the double X’s and I watch two televisions, so I’m going to divide four by two and count television as one-half a possession.

I stand no chance of getting anywhere close to 100 without sharing more things with more people.  Would I be violating some unspoken American law of individualism if I suggested to my three neighbors that we sell three of our lawn mowers and share the remaining one so that it will only count as a .25 possession or will they drag me before the Homeowners Association for the insidious crime of Norwegian-like socialist sensibilities?

The trick, it seems to me, is not just getting down to 100 possessions, but staying there for longer than a year.  I’ve seen friends trim their possessions only to replace them, thus spending more money in the end.  Seems to me the question isn’t how much weight can you lose, but can you fundamentally change your lifestyle and keep it off in the medium and long-term?

Also, I wonder what percentage of the 100 possessions should contribute to some semblance of personal and family history?  I’m probably guilty of parting too easily with sentimental stuff. For example, please don’t ask me where my Father’s Day card is.  For a lot of people I suppose, sentimentality is the biggest obstacle to genuine simplifying.

I don’t know if I’ll take up the “100 Thing Challenge” or not because my focus has been on reducing the absolute volume of my material footprint more than reducing the absolute number of possessions owned.  My personal motto might be, “smaller, lighter, better.”  If I do decide to take up the challenge, I’ll create three piles. . . “definitely in,” “definitely out,” and the largest no doubt, “undecided.”

Here are a few “definitely ins” that immediately jump to mind.

1) Mountain Hardware down jacket fondly known as “Puff Daddy.”  Any possession with a name of course makes the cut.  I may look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy in Puff Daddy, but I couldn’t care less.  It’s revolutionized my winter life.  I don’t have a lot of body fat, but with PD, that doesn’t matter.  No more standing at butt-cracking cold soccer games in a light drizzle freezing my ass off.  Enuf said.  Welcome in Puff. 

2) Bose radio, old school, no CD.  When I was five years old, chillin’ in Louisville, Kentucky waiting for the first grade to start, I’d fall asleep listening on the radio to the Kentucky Coronels in the American Basketball Association.  Louie Dampier, Dan Issel, Goose Givens, good times.  Ever since, I’ve loved radio.  I listen to everything, Rush Limbaugh (in small doses granted), Dave Ramsey, sports talk, NPR, the BBC, and even music sometimes.  One day, about fourteen years ago, I was driving down Friendly Boulevard in Greensboro, NC, with my precocious daughter snuggly tucked into her car seat.  In the smallest, squeakiest voice imaginable she asked, “Hey Dad, Is that Car Talk, Money Talk, or Sports Talk?”  I darn near drove off the road.

3) 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid.  Nameless thus far.  Regrettably, I live too far from work to cycle, so this is a practical decision.  Also, I’m so close to my first 50 mile per gallon tank that I’m not going to stop until I achieve it.  I average about 42-45 miles/gallon during the cooler months, but in the summer the mileage improves.  A few times lately I’ve registered 49+ miles per gallon, but I can’t break the coveted 5-0.  Right now, I’m two-thirds empty and sitting at 50.6, the highest I’ve ever been this far into a tank.  So next week I will be the guy sweating profusely, doing 55 in the far right lane on Interstate 5, using cruise control until I’m midway up my driveway, and finally doing a celebratory jig at the Costco pump next to you.

4) Macbook laptop.  Without it I couldn’t blog as conveniently and my legion of faithful readers would suffer in ways I couldn’t stand to bear.  Hey wait a minute, it’s the university’s laptop.  Sweet, still at three.

4) Douglas Matrix road bike.  This enables me to maintain my fitness and some nice friendships since I ride with others.  Of course, for fitness, a pair of running shoes would probably be a better choice since I can run year-round.  And with the bike comes a longer list of accessories . . . helmet, gps computer, pump, spare tubes/tires, etc.  Once again, I’m going to lay claim to the collective noun provision and label those 5) bike accessories. 

6) A pair of running shoes.  These will have to do double, triple, or quadruple duty no doubt, meaning I’ll have to sprinkle baking soda in them to manage the odor (you’re welcome for the tip) and I’m making the unilateral decision that baking soda falls under the heading of “consumable item.”

7) Contact lenses.  The value of clear vision goes without mentioning and achieving it without glasses distracting from my natural good looks is an added bonus.

8-9) Two pairs of pants.  One pair will have to be jeans since they don’t have to be washed as often as most others.  The other I will have to think about very carefully.  I wonder if any of those zipper pants that turn into shorts come in versions where the zipper isn’t that visible so that they might work in professional settings.  

10) A swimsuit, polyester jammers specficially, which will have to do double duty as underwear.  I hereby promise to wash them nightly and they can dry as I sleep.

Related to 10, can I please add a pair of swim goggles to 7?  Be forewarned, if you don’t approve that request, I may have to wear prescription swim goggles both in and out of the water. 

I know, I know, I know, I’m still shirtless, sunscreenless, and sockless, but maybe I can work at home more, and if not, I still have another 90 to go.  Admittedly, the list is a bit fitness-heavy, but I think I’m off to a solid start.

Dear John

A “friend” of mine must have recently made a donation in my name to the Republican Party because I’ve been getting letters from the likes of Dino Rossi and John McCain.  Last Monday’s was “From the Desk of John McCain.” 

Hard to believe, but a reputable institution of higher education pays me to teach writing on occasion.  I last taught a writing seminar in the fall of 2007 and I’m not scheduled to teach another until the spring of 2009.  So, to stay fresh, I’ve decided to grade the letter “From the Desk of John McCain.” 

When I assess my students’ writing, I always start with three or more strengths.  Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes, not so much.  Next, I identify what I term “next steps” which helps create more positive momentum than the more conventional “weaknesses.”  I limit myself to three “next steps” so as not to overwhelm the student or presidential candidate.  Often, as in today’s example, that requires prioritizing.  Finally, I close with a summary sentence and the only thing some students and presidential candidates care about, the almighty letter grade.

Dear John,

I enjoyed reading your letter.  It’s obvious you spent a lot of time on it, which is admirable given the fact that you have been traveling a lot lately.  Among other strengths, the following four stood out.  First, you do an excellent job of masking your age.  For example, when you refer to your “vision for our country,” when you explain your need to “hit the ground running” given the “Democrats’ battle-tested fundraising machine—fueled largely by liberal special interest groups” and when you promise to “listen to the people of our nation,” the subtext is obvious, you can still see, run, and hear.  You subtle dog, all I can say is I’m down with that anti-aging literary trifecta.  Very nicely done.

Second, as I’ve emphasized in class, you do a great job of using details instead of vague generalities.  One of several examples is when you ask for “a generous contribution of $2,300, $1,000, $500, $100, $50, or $25 today.”  That’s much clearer and more engaging than your initial draft references to “heaps of money” and “bucketloads of cash sometime soon.”  

Third, you graciously acknowledge your readers intellectual limitations by zeroing in on three main ideas—keeping taxes low, cutting wasteful government spending, and ensuring our troops come home victorious and with honor—and then repeat each main idea three times.  Nice application of the KISS principle—Keep It Simple Senator. 

Finally, I was touched by the warm “Dear Friend” salutation (that’s the first line in the letter) and could hardly believe the “Monday Morning” date when I received it in my mailbox that same afternoon.  The fact that you hand delivered it shows extraordinary care and commitment.

At the same time, as always, there are a few next steps.  First, your postscript, “Please make a generous contribution of $2,300, $1,000, $500, $100, $50, or $25 to support my campaign to become your next president” is an exact restatement of the second to the last sentence that almost immediately precedes your postscript.  Postscripts should communicate an altogether new point, something you forgot until the very last minute.  For example, “Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein.”

Second, and more importantly, try to pay closer attention to the internal consistency and logic of your arguments.  For example, on the top of page 2 you write, “I know the voters want more than petty partisan bickering.”  But then only four sentences later you write, “Whether it’s the rising costs of food and gas, the mortgage crisis, out-of-control government spending, the war in Iraq, or soaring health care costs, the Democrats’ proposed solutions to these problems have proven time and again that they are out-of-touch with the beliefs of most Americans.”  Since your letter is in effect a monologue it doesn’t necessarily come across as “petty” or “bickering”, but it’s clearly partisan.

Third, in terms of the substance of your ideas, I want to encourage you to highlight other issues—climate change, domestic and international poverty, the need for a national energy plan—that are of interest to many voters.  Also, when you say you want to “keep taxes low” you should follow through more and explain what governmental programs you intend on cutting and why. 

In short John, this letter shows genuine improvement.  If you continue to work hard, and show this type of progress, there’s a chance you may pass the course.  To borrow from the last African-American presidential hopeful, I’m going to “keep hope alive.”  Please come to office hours if you have any questions and remember you have one week from today to resubmit for a higher grade.


Final Grade:  C-

Voluntary Deprivation

Best shower ever?  Easy, the first one after a weeklong backpacking trip in the High Sierras many moons ago.  Why?  Because I don’t think I’ve ever been as dirty, and afterwords, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as clean.  The impossibility of showering made me appreciate a daily activity I’d come to take for granted.

Best road ride of the year (so far)?  The first one upon returning home from Europe, May 25th.  Despite the lack of fitness, I felt like the seven year old kid I once was cycling to the park to prepare for baseball tryouts. 

On the other hand, as a Pacific Northwesterner, I’m certain I appreciate sunny dry weather more than my brother and friends who live in Southern California.

It seems like it’s human nature to gradually take for granted those things—health, close friendships, sunshine, romantic love, nature, warm showers—that enrich day-to-day life.  I get frustrated with myself for only appreciating my health after I fall ill.  Similarly, I take working out too much for granted.  That is unless my back gives out or I develop a micro-tear in one of my calf muscles.

What’s the secret to appreciating more consistently and deeply those people and things that enrich day-to-day life?

Three weeks ago LAJ and I were hiking in Grindelwald, Switzerland in the Swiss Alps.  We decided to travel to Grindelwald based on the recommendation of a close friend.  “Come on,” I said to our friend, “we live next to Mount Rainier, how much nicer can it be?”  “Imagine three Mount Rainers,” he replied, “and you’re right in the middle of them.” 

We had a tough time getting to Grindelwald, arriving at 10:30p from Cinque Terre and Milan, Italy.  Since it was pitch black we struggled to figure out which mountain path led to our hostel until some friendly people helped us get going in the right direction.  The next morning I immediately pulled the curtains back and looked out the window at. . . fog. . . we were socked in.  My first (and only) task of the day was to hike back down the hill to the train station to purchase our next set of train tickets.  As I hiked down the hill, the fog began to lift.  It was like sitting in the nicest performing arts center imaginable and watching gigantic curtains open.  By the time I hit the train station, it looked like I could reach out and touch the peaks.  Spectacular, awe-inspiring beauty.  Indeed, Rainier times three (with cows). 

Later that afternoon, during our hike, L and I stood wide mouthed at the sight of the most amazing mountain peak we’d ever seen.  [A and J were in “Yeah nice whatever, three more days until we get to see our friends” mode.]  Standing there, I said to L, “You know, the amazing thing about this view is the locals probably get used to it and take it for granted.”  To which she replied, “Oh no, impossible.”  To which I replied, “I’m not so sure.”  I let it go, too transcendent a setting to play one of our favorite games, “Whose most stubborn?”

Fast-forward three-four hours to a very nice hotel restaurant where  L’s parents treated us to an amazing meal.  While eating, we befriended the waiter/maitre de, a middle-aged local cook/mountain climber who grew up in Grindelwald.  In the middle of some mountain climbing talk, L asked, “Having grown up here, do you take the incredible views for granted?”  I took some pride in the fact that my thesis was nagging at her.  To which he said, “Yes.  I’ve lived here my entire life except for about ten years when I left to attend cooking school and then cook in different places in Europe.  When I returned home, it wasn’t until I began listening to visitors talk about the mountain views that I realized how special they are.”  At this point, L shot me a telepathic message that only people married two decades plus are able to transmit.  “Wipe that smirk off your face.” 

One way to stay appreciative of the people and things that enrich daily life is to take purposeful breaks from them.  You’re probably familiar with the “voluntary simplicity” movement.  I’m thinking of something related, “voluntary deprivation.”  This could be tricky, in this economy in particular, where a lot of people are fighting involuntary deprivation.  What about starting out small, and quietly and humbly giving up driving, caffeine, eating out, or television (after the US and British Opens of course) for a day, week, month, or year?  

Cynicism and semi-abrupt transition alert.  Modern parenting in the burbs seems to be based on the complete opposite notion of “immediate gratification”.  For example, there are some movie franchises (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates) that 99% of my friends take their children to within the first seven days of a release.  Guaranteed.  Similarly, several years ago, in the course of a few days it seemed, every parent in my neighborhood bought their children Razor Scooters.  Young people are no different.  I think they’d appreciate going to the movies with friends or families more if they did it less often.  Similarly, I think they’d appreciate their material possessions more if they had fewer of them and had to work longer and harder for them.

Admittedly, proposing voluntary deprivation is counter-cultural, but I’m going to continue to think about it until you convince me there are better ways to be truly and continually appreciative of the people and things that enrich our daily lives.

“Greatest Country” Lunacy

A month or two ago, in Norway, I was watching Larry King on CNN. It was a free-for-all debate among some know-it-alls about Barack Obama’s relationship with his pastor. One obnoxious woman concluded her convoluted rant with “. . . and that’s why the U.S. is the greatest country in the world.” Similarly, I wish I had a dollar for every right wing talk radio host that ends his/her program by declaring the U.S. is “. . . the greatest country on God’s green earth.”

That self-declaration is ludicrous on so many levels, why do we let CNN guests, radio hosts, and others get away with saying it? Of course the “greatest country on the earth” choir can belt out their chorus whenever they want, but whenever they do, instead of us passively/mindlessly accepting their parochial kneejerk claim, we should pepper them with the following questions: How many countries have you lived in? What did you do in those countries to understand how ordinary people live? How many languages do you speak? How many regions/cultures/countries histories are you intimately familiar with? What’s your methodology for ranking countries? Is arrogance factored in?

Absent those types of questions you and I have to take some responsibility for the “greatest country” idiocy.

Often it seems “greatest country on the earth” thinking is equal parts conservative politics, nationalism, and tortured biblical interpretation. I sometimes envision these folks flashing their US passports at the pearly gates like some self-important bozo cutting in the front of an airport security line, “‘Scuse me, American coming through, ‘scuse me, ‘scuse me!”

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why so many conservative, literal interpretation-bible believing, “greatest country on the earth” proclaiming Christians refuse to evaluate our nation’s historical actions in the context of the attributes highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount. Go figure, instead they highlight our relative military might.

Don’t insult my intelligence by suggesting I have to either proclaim, “America is the greatest country on the earth” or succumb to anti-Americanism.

I propose a reframing of the question to, “Is America an admirable country?” Foreigners are best positioned to answer that and they will not be swayed by style over substance. Our best hope is to boldly challenge the arrogance of the “greatest country on the earth” contingent while redoubling our efforts to realize our extremely inspiring, yet still unfulfilled ideals spelled out in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.