In Defense of Education, Books as Armor

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At first glance, they look like books. At a second glance, more like homemade versions of book covers. In fact, they are shields — albeit made out of cardboard and painted. But they do have handles on the back of them. These book shields, as they’re known, were created for Wednesday’s May Day events at Cooper Union, where students and activists plan to hold classes and a march to promote increased access to higher education. Conor Tomás Reed, an organizer of the book-shield project and a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, told me that while book shields represent a symbolic merger of art and politics — “We’re showing that our ideas and politics protect us” — they also offer very real protection during any possible clashes with the police. Continue reading at nytimes.com

Undoing a Spell (Without Magic)

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As someone who uses The Times’s stylebook frequently enough to have installed it in the upper-right-hand search window in Firefox — it’s my second search-engine option, after Google — I’ve been interested in the ways that words are continually evolving at The Times. A couple of days ago, editors at the paper updated the stylebook’s guidelines on the use of “illegal immigrant”; a little more than a week before that, Margaret Sullivan, The Times’s public editor, argued that more attention should be paid to the way the paper uses the terms “torture” and “targeted killings.”

Another term (albeit less loaded) that generates some debate is “Voodoo,” … Continue reading at nytimes.com

End of the Adventure for an Enigmatic Heiress

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This New York Times Magazine cover story from 1989 marked what the author, David Margolick, now calls the “last hurrah” of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born immigrant who married into the Johnson & Johnson fortune. Margolick, a former New York Times reporter, wrote about Johnson’s attempt to “become a heroine” in her native country by donating as much as $100 million to rescue the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, an effort coordinated by the labor activist Lech Walesa. After what Margolick calls her “marvelous P.R. stunt” failed, and sometime after his article was published, he told me, Johnson “fell off the face of the earth.” She died on Monday.

Here’s how Margolick described Johnson in his article: … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Parking Spot Causes Fight (No Drivers Are Involved)

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

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Kate Blumm moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in June 2011, seven weeks before her daughter, Zelda, was born. After “falling in love with the merchant community,” Ms. Blumm, and her husband, Michael De Zayas, opened a cafe last March on Franklin Avenue called Little Zelda.

The couple began to notice that bicycle parking seemed to be scarce in an area where bike traffic seemed to be on the rise.

So they did what a handful of other small-business owners in New York had started to do: ask the city to install a bike corral, a new style of rack that accommodates multiple bicycles and is installed in the street, taking the place of a parked car. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

When Living Hand to Mouth Becomes a Career

Grant Cornett for The New York Times. Food stylist: Suzanne Lenzer.

Grant Cornett for The New York Times. Food stylist: Suzanne Lenzer.

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This mouth, appearing on the cover of this weekend’s issue, belongs to Laura Williams, a model whose lips, teeth and hands are frequently sought for advertisements.

When we conceived of an image to accompany Michael Moss’s article on the addictive science of junk food, we wanted to emulate the way a food advertisement looks and feels — idealized, clean, enticing. So we called Parts Models, an agency that specializes in body parts, and it led us to Williams. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

When North Dakota was ‘The Country of Lonely Old Women’

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The North Dakota in this Sunday’s magazine is one marked by rapid transformation, a place where oil derricks are springing up everywhere, and as the author of the cover story, Chip Brown, puts it, you might find “single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field.” Striking black-and-white photographs by Alec Soth, taken in the Williston Basin, in the northwest corner of the state, accompany the article. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s Experiment with Images

Courtesy of Rhizome

Courtesy of Rhizome

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When Taryn Simon, a photographer and artist, collaborated with the computer programmer Aaron Swartz last April, she noticed that the way he logged into his online accounts seemed exceptionally complex. “The length of time it took to enter his password conveyed a certain pressure that was upon him,” Simon told me. And indeed, he was facing criminal charges at the time, following his arrest in 2011 for illegally accessing Jstor, a private scholarly database. “There was this sense that something was closing in on him,” Simon added. “Something that needed to be guarded against.” … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Snapshots of the Instagram Debate, Through the Lens of Professionals

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“During Hurricane Sandy, I was on assignment in Arizona. At the hotel where I was staying, they had really bad cable. The best way I could follow what was going on with the storm was by seeing the photos being posted to Instagram. It was amazing.”

That’s how Mark Peterson, who has photographed many stories for the magazine over the past 20 years, described to me his regard for Instagram. But now Peterson is one of many professional photographers, many of them Times contributors, who are upset with the photo-sharing service for changing its terms of service on Monday to allow for the possible use of posted pictures in advertisements. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Six Things I Learned Reading Every Last Word of Huck

 

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

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Among snowboarders and skateboarders and others, to “huck” is to throw oneself into a jump without inhibition (the term was inspired by the wild spirit of Huckleberry Finn). But in the British magazine of the same name, the boarding subcultures are but entry points for articles about music, politics and places all over the world. My initial skepticism (a British surfing magazine?) turned into appreciation for all the waves I caught in the August/September issue. (I read it in print, but you can also read it in full online.) … Continue reading at nytimes.com

The Last King of Print

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times

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“I don’t actually go to newsstands anymore,” said Tina Brown, the editor in chief of Newsweek/The Daily Beast, a few days after she announced last week that Newsweek would become an all-digital publication and terminate its 79-year run in print by the end of 2012. But while Brown insists that she prefers reading on her Kindle when traveling and she sees “everybody reading screens,” there are still places in the world that thrive on stacks upon stacks of printed matter. One such is the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

Could the Next ‘Cult Wine’ Come From Manhattan?

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On his patio last Saturday afternoon, Matthew Baldassano stacked up crates holding the 2,500 pounds of fresh, deep-purple California grapes (petite syrah, cabernet and zinfandel) that had been dropped off for him on the sidewalk that morning. Two wooden barrels of wine took up part of his living room — he keeps his ground-level Manhattan apartment at 68 degrees or below so that it can be a sort of year-round wine cellar — and all over his place there were signs of pre-party chaos. A friend helped string lanterns while Baldassano arranged large, plastic liquid-catching tubs outside (meanwhile, his dog scurried in figure-eights around my ankles). Baldassano was preparing for the “first crush” of the grapes that night, his second annual party where 60 people or so gather to help pulverize the fruit, marking the start of a new winemaking season. … Continue reading at nytimes.com

What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure

This post was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Volunteer life bursts with cultural faux pas, fruitless projects and second guesses. For two years, I felt like the joke was on me. Even on my best days in Senegal, the sudden scream of “toubab,” a taunting word for foreigners, reminded me that my cheerfulness was jinxed, my presence perhaps unwelcome.

In West Africa, I confronted the toubab version of myself, a self previously foreign to me that was lethargic, cynical and at home with failure.

For a long time I hesitated to admit that I felt incompetent as a Peace Corps volunteer. I felt that if I expressed my suspicion that I was inept, it would confirm criticisms that the program itself is irresponsible and presumptuous. I signed up largely because I saw myself as a go-getter and I wanted a challenge. I have a childlike loyalty to getting things right; I lack a cleverness for bullshitting. Yet these traits, from which I had previously derived strength, became the source of my immense heartbreak.

I did extra work in my demonstration garden only to find out later that agriculture agents resented me for it. I had lengthy, optimistic conversations with a village chief about starting a community garden only to discover that I misread his reaction and that he was, in fact, against the whole endeavor.

When a project faltered, I wondered if I should blame the cultural difference or my language skills, my lack of expertise or my accidental impropriety. I never knew for sure.

And yet, seeing my confidence unravel was helpful. Maybe everyone needs a period in their lives when they barely recognize themselves.

The story that Peace Corps volunteers like to tell — and Americans like to hear — is one of urgent and awe-inspiring work. Americans like to feel that at least someone is out there fighting all those incomprehensible African problems.

This narrative is too simplistic.

As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary, some still find it hard to put a finger on what exactly the program achieves. There are both quantifiable yields, like number of wells dug and trees planted, and unquantifiable gains, like the intimate bonds volunteers make with people all over the world.

One benefit of the program that is never trumpeted (and likely never will be) is that it produces a group of young Americans who understand failure.

Americans, especially the variety who join the Peace Corps, are raised to believe that hard work pays off. We come from a place where the phrase, “We’ll meet tomorrow at 5,” means, “We’ll meet tomorrow at 5” — where you put a stamp on an envelope and it gets delivered.

“Failure is not an option,” according to the locker room poster likely brought to us by the same people who birthed “Impossible is Nothing.” Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that’s why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it.

We all have failures, yet we bury them in the folds of our pasts as curious gaps in our résumés and cryptic replies to direct questions. If we are unable to emerge triumphant, our failures eat away at us.

My Senegalese comrades are less brittle. They admit freely that their lives are full of fiascoes, delays and disappointments.

When I asked locals in Pulaar how work was going, I didn’t often hear: “Oh, just fine!” Instead, the response was a more honest, “I’m trying, little by little.” It seems to me that growing up with unpredictability has better equipped the Senegalese people to persevere in the face of real obstacles.

The same barriers Senegalese people manage to climb over regularly ended some of my projects. When I tried obtaining a grant for a women’s farm, the land rights had to first be legally transferred to the women themselves. While the paperwork lingered in a government office, I foolishly kept preparing for the project that would never be, blocking off months in my calendar that I would devote to it. Meanwhile, the women moved on, continuing their own, smaller version of the farm they wanted. They knew not to rest their hopes in government offices and the men who shuffle within them.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Peace Corps volunteers don’t accomplish anything. We do a lot of the things other aid organizations do, but our version is less grandiose: We hold small-group trainings on childhood nutrition and organic pest control. We help small businesses grow, often through a series of one-on-one interactions. Our hyped-up expectations of success are often quashed–we learn quickly that smaller is better.

I survived two years in the Peace Corps. My proudest accomplishment during my time in Senegal, one that can’t be expressed on a résumé, is how much I grew up.

I now know that no occupation, despite my generation’s obsession with passion-following, is without compromise or disappointment. And I know that failure, despite its negative connotations, takes practice.

 

 

 

My friend Emilie’s interpretation of my transformation from a legal assistant in Manhattan to a free-wheeling Peace Corps volunteer

On coming back

Out of the window of my Royal Air Maroc flight into New York last week, one of the most exotic things I saw below was red-colored leaves. We seemed to be flying over a suburban area of Long Island. Little houses, knitted together with streets and autumnal trees, reminded me of the feeling I get about New England: thoroughly “American” but from my perspective, never quite “home.” I was flying in from Casablanca after having changed planes from Dakar; almost everyone on the plane was Moroccan. As I’ve experienced from other plane rides I’ve taken in developing countries, everyone clapped when the plane landed, myself included. Perhaps it was to thank the crew. Or to rejoice in the end of a cramped situation. For me, it was for being alive and back in New York.

My first night back, my friend Jessica acted as my stylist as we used her wardrobe to pick out some updated, weather-appropriate clothing for me to wear so that we could go out to dinner in Brooklyn. I was like a clean slate—not used to the cold yet, no pulse on fashion yet, and only hesitant memories of which train stops where. I had lived in New York for the same amount of time I had lived in Senegal. I was an American on reset.

The cheese selection in the C-Town grocery store in Bushwick.

Of course, I’m still on reset—and it’s a blast. I believe this feeling is one of the greatest gifts I could ever give myself—the chance to experience something I love and know quite well (in this case, the United States), as if it’s new again. Rite Aid. Cheddar cheese. New Jersey accents. Cafes. Good booze. Babies in strollers instead of on backs. Brunch. Public parks. Anonymity. I’m that person walking down the street gazing at everything, eating lunch alone just because the food’s really good, agreeing to meet friends in absolutely any part of town they want, agenda-less.

I’m wondering if the whole reverse culture shock idea is overblown. Some of my friends who are returned Peace Corps volunteers say it was like a hoax the way people advertise it and then it never materializes. Maybe it’s like amoebasI was convinced I’d contract them in Senegal, yet I never did. And maybe being away for two full years allows a person to come full circleyou’re coming back at a point when you’re truly ready to come home, rather than still being high on foreign adventure.

Yesterday, after hearing about the midnight police raid on the protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I went down to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to see the scene. I’d heard so much about these protests for months from abroad. Then, it was as if the minute I returned to the United States, the park was swept clean like nothing ever happened.

A police officer staring me down in Zuccotti park.

Except, of course, things weren’t normal in the park—police were now occupying the space. I took pictures of the officers behind their barricades, many of them wearing riot helmets. I talked to protesters and bystanders. Demonstrators marched around the perimeter, yelling at the police. There were little clashes everywhere. A man was arrested, wriggling behind a cop as dozens of cameramen leaned in to take snaps.

What a sight! No dumpsters. Not a trace of the tent city and all its inhabitants that had been there hours before. Police officers allowed me to approach them with cameras and talk to them, something I wouldn’t expect to go over well in Senegal. The yellow trees were flawless. Amid the tension; despite the injustice of police blocking anyone from entering a public space; in face of the mounting anger with which the Occupy Wall Street movement would now move forward; in my eyes, an alien swiftness to everything.

I realized once I arrived at Zuccotti Park that I had once eaten lunch sitting in it, more than two years ago. It was for work; I was attending an arbitration that my law firm was involved in. It took place in the large black skyscraper adjacent to the park, One Liberty Plaza. Back then, I thought I wanted to go to law school and accompanied the lawyers in my firm to any interesting event that they would let me attend. The lawyers and I ate lunch at least twice in Zuccotti Park during our breaks from the arbitration. Our client was a woman bringing a gender discrimination claim. We had worked hard on her behalf. We lost.

• • •

By now, I’ve gotten used to wearing socks again. I’m still startled though, when I crawl into bed and notice that my feet aren’t cracked and dirty like I’ve been used to. I plug my electronics straight into the wall instead of wiggling them into an adapter. I switch lights on from the inside wall of a room. I tip waiters. I’m more friendly to strangers than I ever was before. I’m excited to keep meeting new people.

But I know, as a huge adjustment from Senegal, that I’m not supposed to greet random people on the street.

Image

Meanwhile, back in New York…

pretty trees

Notice how gorgeous the trees are amid this tense situation as police block Occupy Wall Street protesters from using the park this morning. Police were jovial with each other and allowed me to approach them with my camera quite close up. Such a shock from the unspoken no-camera rule in Senegal.

A protester being arrested this morning.

An experience you won’t soon forget

Why overspend on a spa-quality sauna when you can enjoy a 6-12hr, frequently treacherous, mobile sweatroom as the parched scenery of Western Mali flickers past the sealed windows? Join us in our moving saunas, where we do our best to never let the internal temperature dip below 90 degrees. As your only viable transit option, we elevate you from the confinement of “expectation” by keeping you guessing: When it will end? Will I reach my final destination? Was this all just a big mistake? Here, you’ll discover in yourself a new you: a you who claws for the last of your tranquilizers and becomes prayerful over the continuation of your iPod battery, all in hopes of numbing you through the body odor bonanza.

MTC Sarl Bus Company, Bamako, Mali
Member of the Transit Shitshow Extravaganza Alliance

Senegalese Sex Tourism

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

Many Europeans come to Senegal for sex. They do it because West Africa is poor, anonymous and convenient. Fancy resorts, with their attendant communities of tourists, are few and far between here. The country’s grittiness keeps away the judgmental gaze of Western visitors.

In coastal cities like Mbour and Ziguinchor, male prostitution is common. I have observed as older white European women embrace young, athletic Senegalese men for company, and I presume, for sex. In Mbour, I’ve seen the men exercise on the beach, flexing muscles: auditioning. They later approach female tourists, who take their pick. Some men, after their workouts, have traipsed up to me as I’m reclining on the sand, hoping I might be interested. Perhaps it’s clear after I respond to them in a local language that I’m not a tourist with money to spend.

Inland, where I live, female sex work is more common. The main hotel in Kolda, a leafy oasis with a pool, a sports bar, a restaurant, and wireless internet, is the hang-out for European men and their Senegalese “girlfriends.”

These men spend their days in the bush outside Kolda somewhere, being driven around in 4WDs, walking through the forest in their camouflage-print outfits, shooting at game. On days when I use the internet at the hotel, I see them arrive in the evening with their Senegalese guides trailing them in matching camo gear dragging their furry catch. If these men wanted to hunt, they would have headed to East or Southern Africa. Here they settle for warthogs, squirrels and pigeons.

By night, the Europeans sit at long dinner tables by the pool, each of their arms slung around young Senegalese women. It’s like they are all on a singles retreat or at a swingers’ party. Everyone canoodles with everyone else.

There seems to be a lot of pretending going on. The Senegalese women pretend to be girlfriends, spending time with the men, talking, laughing and sleeping with them. While I’ve never seen money change hands, the monetized nature of these relationships is something everyone talks about. A woman my age who I teach English to after her shifts as the hotel hostess says she’s embarrassed to sometimes be confused with the other young women who hang out there as prostitutes.

Perhaps there are deeper romantic connections I’m unaware of between the European men and their Senegalese paramours, but given the attractiveness of these women, I doubt that overweight, middle-aged men from the South of France would be their ideal mates if it weren’t for the monetary and immigration issues at play.

Some say that this is a harmless win-win for everyone. Senegal’s HIV/AIDS rate, at 1%, is one of the lowest in Africa. Locals I talk to about it seem ambivalent: they seem quietly disgusted by sex tourism, but then shrug it off, unable to come up with a more viable financial alternative.
There is also the argument, propounded by some economists, that African women who choose to engage in sex work are making an extremely rational economic decision, one that could improve their lives in real ways.

All that aside, I still can’t help but be sickened by the obvious power differential between an affluent Westerner making a kept woman or a kept man out of a Senegalese local. I have a visceral reaction to this form of inequality. Sex tourism, with its explicit racial components, seems like colonialism of the most intimate and worst kind.

The Only Time I Ever Have—Or Will—Asked for a Donation

Last month, I celebrated two years in Senegal with the Peace Corps. That’s two years since I’ve tasted fresh strawberries, two years since I’ve been chilly enough to wear anything made of wool, two years since I’ve worn high heels. As many of you know, my time here has been incredibly challenging, yet also very rewarding.

Up until this point, I have been firm on not asking friends and family for donations in any projects that I do. I believe that support must come from within and that budgets should remain small.

But the program I’m seeking funding for— the Michele Sylvester Scholarship—is an unusual case in that it is so straightforward, and its effects have been proven over many years.

The link to make a tax-deductible donation is here.

Aissatou Combe Djiba, one of the young women whose good grades qualified her for the scholarship last year.

For the past two years, I have taken part in the Michele Sylvester Scholarship, which was started in 1993 to honor the memory of a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal who was killed in a car accident during her service. Both years, I worked with the principal and a female teacher at a local middle school to select 9 girls who had good grades but were needy financially. The 9 selected girls were then evaluated by a writing contest, teacher recommendations, and interviews with me and the teacher where we visited their homes and asked them questions about their aspirations as women. I also helped organize workshops for them on self-esteem building.

3 girls went on to become winners and received school supplies ($30 each), and all 9 candidates got their school entrance fees for the next year paid for ($10 each). While this is a tiny amount of money by American standards, for the poorest Senegalese families this goes a long way. Many girls do not continue with school because it is too expensive for their families. Instead, they often get married off (sometimes in their teens), while their brothers are encouraged to continue with school.

The principal at my school has said that the scholarship has already encouraged young women to keep up their grades. We often don’t realize how rare it is for young women in this part of the world to have people tell them how smart they are, how hard they’ve worked, and how going to university is a worthwhile dream.

Together with other Volunteers, I am helping to raise the $10,000 it will take to fund this program for more than 400 girls nationwide. While this may sound like a lot, even contributions as small as $10 can help one of these girls stay in school for another year. The cost for the entire program in my community is just $200, and any funds raised above this target will be used to support the program in other schools and to fund follow-up activities to further empower these young women. To make a tax-deductible contribution, follow this link.

I truly think basic girls’ education is one of the most pressing issues in development. Research has shown that advancements in education, particularly for girls, lead to faster economic growth, smaller and healthier families, reduced rates of HIV transmission, and more equitable and democratic communities. As leading economist Lawrence Summers puts it, “…investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world.”
Thanks for your support.

—-

“Peace Corps provides the best return on the dollar in America’s entire foreign policy budget. The program educates thousands of young Americans in each new generation about the reality of life as lived by most of the world’s population. It creates a permanent constituency of informed Americans who will go on to work in development, politics, journalism, diplomacy, and other fields, and will care about the underdeveloped world and carry an intimate knowledge of one corner of it for the rest of their lives. It builds long-term relationships between Americans and people around the world who ordinarily are forgotten when foreign policy is discussed. It leaves behind a generally warm and hopeful view of America and Americans in the minds of people around the world whose individual and collective lives can have a profound effect on the rest of us. In an age of chronic anti-Americanism, with the U.S. portrayed in cartoon-like fashion by much of the global media, the presence of a flesh-and-blood American for two years in a poor village or city slum is a badly needed corrective. Generously funding Peace Corps is a no-brainer for anyone who cares about poverty around the world and America’s standing in it.” -Rajeev Goyal