Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Take a Hike...If you dare.

After 22 hours, I'd had enough.

The ice-mist had been steadily falling since 5:00 PM the previous evening, just before my extended family packed themselves into my aunt's SUV to head home from our Saturday early-Christmas dinner. I don't think I set foot outside the house all day, and I was seized with the sudden need to stretch my legs before night fell again. I decided to leave the rest of my gift-wrapping for later, laced up my almost comically thick hiking boots, donned a winter coat I hadn't worn since high school, and headed out into the sub-freezing afternoon air. 

As I half-walked, half-slid down the icy road that connected my childhood home to the growing commercial hub a mile or so away, I became more and more aware of how much I'd come to take the walkability of DC for granted. The snowbanks, ice and slush that lined the streets were honestly the least of my problems- the sheer lack of pedestrian infrastructure shocked me much more than I thought it would. I mean, I'd traveled the road hundreds of times before, and knew full well that it was basically impossible to get around much of my suburban home city without a car. But when I passed the desolate looking mall...

How many shopping days left?

...and continued toward the roundabout that, on most days, would be controlling the traffic flow through the area...

I think there was a sidewalk here at some point? Maybe? I can't be sure.

...I suddenly realized that I was that guy. The guy that I, myself, had vocally or silently made fun of dozens of times while still living at home. As some hapless walker would hop between curbs, and negotiate the travel lanes like some high-res version of Frogger, I'd voice a mix of sympathy and disdain for this poor soul who either didn't have access to a car, or had somehow CHOSEN not to use one. In the same way that 17 year-old me couldn't imagine wanting to travel any other way than by car, 29 year-old me was taken aback not to be given the option. Not really, anyway- I have to assume that the motorists who slowed to let me cross the street did so only out of the same misguided blend of sympathy and disdain I used to feel, sprinkled with a little Christmas spirit perhaps.

Of course, I made a conscious decision to get to the Mount Auburn Ave. Starbucks the way that I did. Many people, both here in my first home and in my adopted home of D.C., don't get to make a choice about the way they get around every day. And while downtown, Eastern Market, Columbia Heights, and other places I've lived are easily walkable and bikeable, so many parts of town are structured more like my suburban hometown. People without a car or who'd rather not use one are confronted every day with the obstacles I sought out while on vacation. I imagine the thrill of adventure would get old pretty quickly.

I couldn't even imagine what it would take to make this area, and other like it, more pedestrian and bike-friendly. The one half-assed bike lane on one side of the street ran for a whole 100 feet and ended promptly at the curb where the road narrowed after the turn-off. The sidewalks looked like they'd be an afterthought on the best of days.

 But I had to wonder if the area, and the dying mall in particular, might be better off with a few smaller stores and some useful infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists- even to get from one side of the giant retail complex to the other without having to drive in between. Certainly, such a suggestion would be looked upon as wasteful, beneficial only to the few people who live nearby or are somehow both rich enough AND poor enough to be riding bikes around.

If you followed that link, by now you'll know a thing or two about what cycling does for the places that welcome it. So maybe a little bit of investment in non-internal-combustion-engine movement would do the area some good. At the very least, it might lessen the chance of an idiot like me getting hit by a car while sprinting from curb to curb across 4 lanes of traffic just to get a peppermint mocha.  And I think that's a goal we can ALL get behind. So as we close out December and get ready for 2014, let's put our support behind walkable and bikeable communities no matter where we are.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, keep your 2014 resolutions reasonable, and for God's sake don't fall on the ice. Or off the curb.

-AWG that all the children call their favorite time of year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Collaboration and its Discontents

Like most of you who use Skype even occasionally, I sometimes get e-mails about the stuff that they're doing or want me to participate in. Also like most of you, I get way too many e-mails in general. The majority of the stuff Skype sends me doesn't even bother to look interesting, so their messages tend to be summarily DELETED along with all the "special offers" from every store that's ever sold me something online. Yes, I realize I can unsubscribe from like every single one of those. But this is me we're talking about. What if I happen to be in the market for a mechanical omelette flipper and I don't know I can get 90% off at Bed, Bath, and Beyond because I didn't get their stupid e-mails? What then, check the website? WAY too much work. Yeah, welcome to my brain. It gets dark in here sometimes.

Anyway, I was conducting my daily mass deletion of junk e-mails last night when I noticed one from Skype that somehow caught my attention. The subject heading read: You're invited to join the Skype Collaboration Project.

"The Skype Collaboration Project? And I'm invited?!" I shrieked with excitement, thinking that my chance had finally arrived to do something meaningful. Having been inundated with studies and anecdotes arguing for the power of technology to foster understanding and forestall violence, and remembering the role played by social media during the Arab Spring, my thoughts immediately turned to the applications of Skype as a tool for peace. As I opened the e-mail, my brain was on fire with possibility- would we be conducting video panels on open government? Sharing insights on rule of law with local stakeholders? Participating in a dialogue for human rights advocacy? Harnessing the virtually unlimited power of technology for the betterment of a troubled world?


None of the above. Promising "the who, what, where, and how for the next generation of do-ers, " Skype had instead blessed me with the opportunity to cuddle up to my "favorite industries" and have them tell me what I ought to putting on my lanky frame over the next 20 years. As an added bonus, I'd get to hear Posh Spice wax nostalgic about her own meteoric rise as a...whatever she considers herself to be. I guess some lesser gods of fashion and design would also listen to my puny contributions? Maybe? At some point?

"When in doubt, pinky out"

The whole thing is nominally aimed at helping me "fuel [my] own creative journey," but let's be honest here. To the extent that I even have a creative journey, stylists, brand consultants, and award-winning textile designers probably aren't going to be prominent characters in it. Are these really the "do-ers" I should be emulating?

Despite the lofty rhetoric, somehow this seems like the darker side of "collaboration," like locals collaborating with an invading military force or something.

I mean, I'd almost rather they just gave it to me straight and said "We know you like to consume, we've been tracking your page visits. Why don't you go ahead and cozy up, and we'll tell you what to buy and what to talk about. You'll even feel like you're making a difference, a little!" I think I can indulge my inner Little Eichmann just fine on my own, thank you.

Then again, maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Maybe some of my "favorite industries" could include breweries that support sustainable transportation initiatives. I literally just thought of this. Textile makers/designers committed to socially just sourcing and labor standards. IT companies dedicated to connecting under-served and marginalized populations and fostering civic engagement. Corporate social responsibility! Maybe this could be a tool for good rather than just another attempt to splice rabid consumerism into my very DNA, and we should all get involved instead of being a Grinch about the whole exercise.

So all right, Skype. Let's see what you've got behind that "Get Involved" button. Let's see what the fashion world can do for the rest of the world if I decide to "collaborate." Cause I'll do it.

Right after I finish buying clothes and accessories and all manner of branded items for the people in my life this holiday season, to show them that I care.


...but if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing's changed at all?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Monday, Monday

I'm no different from everyone else- Mondays are not my strong suit. The day after a holiday weekend is even worse, since in my line of work, families getting together usually means lots of disputes to sort out the next time we open our doors. Even if you have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend (which I did- Amanda time, chill time, dog time, lots of food, bike riding, and the Hunger Games,) the hangover of a new week hits you pretty hard. But letting myself feel drained and irritated by lunch time is not the most adaptive way to handle this inevitability, there must be a better way. Darryl at Loving the Bike tends to treat every Monday as a mini-Thanksgiving of sorts, a time to post about the things he's thankful for and happy about. I guess it must work- dude seems to be happy a LOT.

I'm always hearing that I should "choose my attitude," so in that spirit, I made a point of noting the best things I saw during the day yesterday. Fair warning, my observations are tinged with plenty of sarcasm, because a sea-change in worldview in the space of one day just isn't going to happen for me. Be assured, I really am trying. So, rank-ordered list here we go.

Going to a spin class instructed by a woman who looked like she probably hadn't touched a bike in years, but was a surprisingly good coach.

A guy wearing a t-shirt with that "Injustice anywhere..." quote attributed to "Martin Luther King, Jr., American Activist." Because it's important to avoid confusion with all the other Martin Luther King Jrs. who might have said that thing.

A bike cop with one hand holding his coffee cup and the other on the handlebars, talking on a phone that was tucked between his cheek and the chinstrap of his helmet. He rode up onto the sidewalk, I suppose to regain his balance, and got the antenna of his walkie-talkie stuck in between two parking signs. It took him a full 30 seconds to get it unstuck.

A guy standing in the locker room, eating Milano cookies in his underwear. Unclear whether he was about to start his workout, or had just finished. Which would be funnier?

So there we are. Good/funny things on a Monday! Positive attitude! Holiday Cheer.

Went to buy batteries, and almost said "B-batteries" in a fake stutter to the lady at the counter because of a Demetri Martin joke from like 6 years ago.

Happy Tuesday!


...I think we could use a little memory to add to the database.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A thank you message...

I want you to know how grateful I am to you. You know who you are. Very, very grateful indeed.

I was going to just post this directly to Facebook, but come on, you know how verbose I am and it seemed crass somehow to put up such a long/gushy status message.

So here we are. Thanks to to you, my amazing friends, family, and coworkers, I have met (and exceeded!) my fundraising goal for the Best Buddies Challenge this October. And we did it a full month ahead of schedule. You guys (and girls) rule. The most. Seriously. I'm touched to be surrounded by such generous, supportive, good-hearted people.

As you well know, I feel strongly about the importance of Best Buddies' mission- to enhance and enrich the lives of people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities through services, advocacy, and person-to-person partnerships. I'm thankful for the opportunity to combine my love for cycling with such a worthy cause. And I'm doubly thankful that you were so willing to step up and help me meet the challenging fundraising commitment, several of you chipping in for the second year in a row.

A 100-mile bike ride is no easy jaunt, and while the Challenge isn't a race, I'm determined to do you proud out there on the route. My training continues into the fall, and I'll be testing myself against the mean streets of Berryville, Virginia along with a few of you this Sunday at the Back Roads Century. With all that and more riding through October, I should be in pretty good shape for 10/19.

So a thousand thank-yous to each and every person who chipped in to support me this year. I really could not have done it without your help.


Friday, September 6, 2013

I can't back Obama on this.

OK, so we're possibly days away from going to war. Again.

I can't help but remember a page from one of my history textbooks in high school. It showed a map of Europe on "The Eve of World War II." I remember thinking that was kind of a comical way to put it, since I usually associated the word "eve" with Christmas. We all knew when Christmas eve was coming (and were excited for it!) but with war, how could you know until afterward that it was "the eve?" Well, as I later learned, sometimes the signs are pretty clear.

Sure, maybe we could still avoid it. Maybe the Senate won't give its approval to military action. If they do, maybe the House won't. It's been one part fascinating, two parts mind-numbing to watch an endless stream of journalists and pundits try and pick apart how the legislature is going to shake down on the question of going to war in Syria. That's not a dig against the pundits, they're only doing their jobs, of course. But there's been a bit too much made over the fact that anti-war progressives will suddenly find themselves in bed with conservative hardliners(!) who will do anything to derail President Obama, or that right-wing hawks will find common cause with left-wing humanitarian doves, lions will lie down with lambs, swords to ploughshares, etc. and so forth. Yes, the debate over military action has transcended the heavily partisan political dynamic that's dominated the last few election cycles, or at least flipped it upside down for the moment. Still, I think the bigger question, and the bigger story, is whether the people who elected all these characters will be in support of the decisions their representatives ultimately make. Will our (still hypothetical but increasingly likely) intervention in Syria have the backing of the American people?

It looks more and more as though it wouldn't/won't.

I'm not the first person to suggest this, certainly. Long-time war protester Medea Benjamin, writing for Al Jazeera, pretty clearly thinks the Obama/Kerry one-two punch is trying to hoodwink us on this one.  If so, where's our outrage, our vociferous opposition to having our collective will hijacked by the foreign policy old guard who see no alternative to humanitarian intervention by force? Well, several people from both my own social circles (such as they are) and the news media have used the phrase "war-weary" to describe American skepticism. While I imagine the people who inhabit the war zones are much more wearier than are we, it's a fair way to characterize the mainstream response I've seen so far. We're vaguely distrustful of our leadership's slow grind toward military action, but there seems to be a certain weariness to arguing against it as well. There's both a sense that Obama could still easily proceed with the "limited" strikes he's looking for with our without congressional or multilateral approval, and that our path comes down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.  

Guess what? I'm calling shenanigans on the "no good options" line of reasoning. First, we have options. Medea Benjamin has a couple- including addressing the refugee crisis that the Syrian civil war has created. Matt Yglesias at Slate suggests working with the United Nations. That will probably lead to stalemate between the Western and the Sino-Soviet votes, and maybe the U.N. still doesn't have the kind of teeth necessary to take on an assignment like punishing Assad for chemical weapon use. That's a common and somewhat valid criticism of the U.N., but if we keep refusing to work with them and going it alone, we'll never develop the kind of mature multilateral institution that can meet challenges like this. Even if we can't count on the U.N. for a police action, we can still activate its potential for creating networks of facilitators at different levels both within Syria and without, to begin a constructive dialogue and search for nonviolent solutions. That last one comes from Johan Galtung, the father of my discipline and one of the world's foremost minds in the prevention of violence.

Though some of these options are perhaps overly simplified, I can't understand why they're not being explored and fleshed out, or even exposed to a wider audience. No, support for refugees or working toward a mediated solution won't immediately stop the killing in Syria, but then again, neither will U.S. intervention, whether it's cruise missiles or boots on the ground. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that intervention would actually multiply the violence against civilians, since government forces become more desperate when an armed rebellion receives support from a foreign power. More Syrians will die before a solution is reached, and that's truly heartbreaking and tragic, but as soon as we step in with our own armed forces, the pace will only pick up.

So if we're not likely to end the violence by doing more violence, and strikes against the government will lead to even more widespread suffering, why not at least search for a path which doesn't damage our legitimacy as an international actor? Why not be the sort of world leaders we describe ourselves as in inaugural addresses and stump speeches, and help usher in the advent of collaborative, non-violent solutions to violent conflicts?

Because al-Qaeda, obviously. Because Iran. Because if we don't back up Obama's "red line" comments about chemical weapon use (for whatever that's worth,) we'll be seen as weak. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani will doubt our commitment to projecting power into the Middle East. And if the wrong (read: Islamist) rebels win, al-Qaeda will gain a foothold in a country currently ruled by a fiercely secular government. Perhaps that might not be great for U.S. interests.

And that's why, on Syria, non-US government actors are ultimately going to be much more productive in stopping the violence, punishing the state's atrocities, and finding a sustainable political solution to the crisis. It's time to create some space for that to happen. So, guys, maybe don't fire any missiles just yet, huh? Instead, let's work on creating space for dialogue, mediation, and legitimate action. Who's with me?


We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them- Albert Einstein

Friday, August 23, 2013

In Case Anyone's Forgotten that the Amazon is in Peril

It's been a year to the day since I left Ecuador. I came back to the States in awe of everything I had seen, learned, and experienced while living in Quito. Above all, I was greatly impressed by the general sense that innovative solutions to massive challenges were still within reach. One of those solutions was the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, a plan to keep a large amount of Ecuador's oil underground forever, and thus protect the delicate ecosystem sitting on top of it.

And last weekend, I got the devastating news that it had failed.

Yasuní National Park... drill, baby, drill.
Image credit: EarthFirst News. 

The Yasuní initiative was nothing if not ambitious, I had heard last summer from former minister of energy Alberto Acosta, who spearheaded the program. The situation was essentially this: advancing economically through oil exports has been the default move of oil-rich countries like Ecuador since approximately forever. But oil extraction has a high price, including environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, the often forcible displacement of anyone living nearby, and the danger of local economies being made dependent on oil jobs that will dry up when the crude does. Alternatively, the country could invest in biotechnology and research into the medicinal potential of its vast Amazonian biodiversity. That path, while leading to a much more sustainable future, takes time and money. How, then, to support the economy in the meantime?

Enter a novel concept called "co-responsibility," the global community's shared obligation to fight climate change. Developed countries, having already gotten rich from their vast and environmentally toxic industrial revolutions, have no right to expect a developing country like Ecuador not to exploit its own mineral and hydrocarbon wealth. "Make it worth our while," is essentially what Ecuador and the United Nations Development Program had said to the world. "Pay us half of the money we'd make from that oil, giving us capital to invest for the future, and we'll keep it underground indefinitely." The money would only be withdrawn from the UNDP trust if the program was ultimately a success.

Of course Yasuní was a long shot. It was a completely new way of looking at things. And sure, there were probably some governments who viewed the plan as an extortionist ultimatum- "give us money or we drill," but it was still a massive break from the old development model- one which could truly benefit the whole world. That was exactly what made it so fascinating, and its failure so heartbreaking. The plan was beautiful and simple, clearly too beautiful and simple for this world.

The immediate consequences may not be all that deeply felt. President Rafael Correa has given his assurance, for whatever it's worth, that only about 1% of the protected territory will be affected. That number strikes me as just a little far-fetched, though. The Guardian, reporting on Yasuní, noted concern from researchers that infrastructure including access roads would vastly expand the impacted territory. And that's only if everything goes according to plan (which, of course, it rarely does.) Petroleum companies have a troubled history of operating in the Amazon-- a quick search for Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador will give you plenty of detail . Human suffering and environmental costs have been dire, which is all the more upsetting for a country whose constitution was the first to grant legal rights to nature. Maybe they'll do better this time, but the environmentalist community is left holding its breath for now.

"The world has failed us..." Correa places the blame squarely
on the shoulders of the international community.
Image credit: TrustMovies

Far more troubling than the short-term effects, however, are the long-term implications. Yasuní-ITT was the only major project that had envisioned a future beyond our and relentless exploitation of hydrocarbons. A serious proposal to avoid digging for oil was, frankly, groundbreaking. Overambitious or not, it sent the message that, hey, maybe we don't have to extract every natural resource just because it's there. But now it appears that even if we don't have to, we will.

I can almost hear Correa saying "But we did have to, I had no choice." And yes, the president noted that he has a responsibility to Ecuador's poor to make smart economic decisions. But again, those words ring a little hollow since there's no guarantee that the poor will share equitably in the gains made by exporting the oil.. To the contrary, it's often poor and rural citizens who suffer most from resource extraction. Regrettably, "poor" in the Andes still correlates pretty strongly with "indigenous," though poverty can mean different things across cultures. In any case, Correa has made his presidential career out of disparaging and sidelining his critics, especially environmentalists and the indigenous who oppose his development policies. There's no reason to think his behavior will be any different this time. Lacking political protection, indigenous communities living above oil deposits have a hard choice to make: become employees of the company, leave their land, or stay and fight.

Ecuador has a long and robust tradition of nonviolent civil resistance to oppressive or damaging government policies, and such protests have never led to large-scale violence or conflict. In fact, protests over Correa's move are already underway in Quito, and have remained peaceful for the time being. But what if the government presses ahead in the face of such criticism? Direct intervention is well within the realm of possibility. Communities affected by mining and drilling operations in the Ecuadorian Amazon have often attempted to physically block or dismantle mining camps and roads, and continue to do so in some corners of the country where mining operations are ongoing. Unlike the protests in the capital, though, such direct action will not necessarily be peaceful. Because oil companies and the government operate in such a close partnership, police or other state security forces are often called in to deal with the incidents, resulting at best in arrests, at worst in preventable violence. It's a disturbing vein in a worldwide trend toward the criminalization and forcible dispersal of nonviolent protesters, illustrated in great detail by recent events in Egypt.

"Ecuador does not love life," reads this protester's sign.
Image credit: Dolores Ochoa/AP via the Guardian

If Correa refuses to reverse course and oil exploitation begins in earnest, we can still hope that all parties will show restraint and engage one another in dialogue with the shared goal of doing as little damage to the Amazon as possible. But, just like the Yasuní-ITT initative itself, that's a bit of a long shot. For now, it's as if we've seen through a doorway to a different version of the future, only to have it unceremoniously slammed shut.


...they say we're too yellow-bellied, we say we're the new superpower...

Friday, June 7, 2013

Frager's Hardware: 1920-???

In the capstone research practicum for my master's program, we talked a lot about institution building- the creation of processes, political spaces, and common understandings that facilitate democracy- establishing "rules of the game" and giving people a conduit through which to communicate their needs and interests without violence. Societies in transition, we argued, could not thrive without institutions.

Well, the other night, I watched a DC institution burn to the ground.

My roommate and I were having a beer on the back patio when the sirens started. Neither of us thought much of it, but as they blared on longer and longer and seemed to stay unusually close by, we began to get curious. Moments later, roomie handed me his phone, and exclaimed "Frager's is on fire!"

Indeed, the tweeted picture on the screen showed Frager's hardware store with smoke pouring from its rooftop. The sheer number of sirens in the area made it clear that this wasn't some burnt bagel or a spark in a trash can. Frager's was burning down.

As a reasonably intelligent human being, my first instinct was obviously to try and get as close to the blaze as possible. Whatever, I needed to get to the grocery store anyway and at roughly four blocks from my apartment, the disaster zone was basically on my way.

Even though I was already close by, being on the bike made getting there easier than it probably should have been. The police sentries outside the Capitol seem to be the only law enforcement officers in DC who have figured out how to keep cyclists out of places they don't want them. Everyone else either doesn't notice us, can't effectively block us off, or doesn't consider us a threat, any of which I'm fine with. I swung wide around a halfhearted emergency cordon, zipped down an alleyway, dodged a couple of fire trucks, and joined a crowd of my Hill neighbors outside a CVS. I had wondered if the worst would be over by the time I got there, since I always manage to be a latecomer to this kind of thing. I was almost hoping it would be over, and that everything would fine.

Can't see the building? Yeah, neither could we. 
To give you an idea of the enormity of the situation, I should explain. Frager's, a three-building operation with  distinct hardware, paint, and equipment rental stores, has been a piece of living Capitol Hill history, serving the community for the better part of a century. During that time, they've stayed family-owned and operated, with as friendly and knowledgeable a staff as you're likely to find anywhere. In an era when most retail employees aren't paid enough to care about customers' needs or their store's image, Frager's hired local summer help, remembered the names of their visitors (and their visitors' dogs,) and could help you navigate a truly dizzying array of products to find exactly what you needed. When I wanted to reinforce a door frame in my first apartment in a misguided attempt to install a pull-up bar, Frager's cut down a 2x4 and helped me select mounting screws. When countless rides up and down Massachusetts Avenue inevitably shook loose some nut, bolt, or washer from my bike, a Frager's employee would disappear into a room full of tiny plastic boxes, and come back with exactly the piece(s) I needed. As one guy I don't know on Twitter put it, "Everyone on Capitol Hill has something in their home from Frager's." It's nothing short of an icon, a symbol of shared identity. So I can say with certainty that all of us in the crowd were hoping for the place to be saved.

As the moments wore on, though, it only seemed to get worse. At one point, flames started jumping up from the roof:

When the wind would shift, you could catch a glimpse of one of the ladder crews through the smoke:
I have no idea how I made this into a .gif.
At one point, I spied Ward 6 council member (Capitol Hill's representative on the DC legislature) Tommy Wells as he walked behind a fire truck near the building with a gas mask in hand:
I'm no photographer, but it IS him.

And proceeded calmly up the sidewalk to confer with other leaders and news media probably only 50 feet from the fire.
Middle ground, white shirt. 
Soon enough, it became clear that the fire department, despite their valiant efforts, were fighting a losing battle, and that all they could really do was try to keep the damage from spreading to the rest of the block. By that time, I had been standing with my fellow gawkers for close to an hour, in awe at the loss of everyone's favorite hardware, lumber, paint, lighting, kitchen, automotive, and cotton candy maker rental shop. It felt odd to stand in a crowd of people, watching each other as we watched it all go down. As we watched something we had all come to know and love die a fiery death. I saw no tears, crocodile or otherwise. Children played and people casually joked about unrelated things. Still, the sense of  sadness lingering over the assembled mass seemed to press down harder and harder the closer the sun sank toward the horizon.

Having absorbed enough collective shock and anguish for one evening, I resolved to take the metaphorical lemons and make some literal lemonade.

After hopping back onto Winona the Kona and going to Harris Teeter for a citrus juicer that I really would rather have bought at Frager's (sigh,) I met a Long Time Resident who said he had been inside when the fire broke out. All the staff and customers got out safely, he said, but it took "a real long time" for the firefighters to get on the scene. Had I bought any salt on my errand, I would  have taken his words with some of it (BAM!) because time tends to stretch and bend in a situation like that, so it's tough to tell how long the fire trucks actually took to show up. I'm sure it seemed like an eternity, though.

Reportedly, it was about 10:00 PM before the last ember died, some three to four hours after the the fire began. CM Wells called the event "devastating," and cast the store as a "family member" that the entire community would stand behind and support. Institutions, after all, are about people and ideas, not buildings or physical spaces. And in one of the frequent displays of just why Capitol Hill is such an amazing place to live, two charities that have very effectively focused community support during past tragedies past have come together to take donations and plan fundraisers, calling themselves "Friends of Frager's."

I think we're all going to be amazed by the efforts mounted to save this institution in the coming weeks. Frager's is gone, but not what it represents. So farewell for now, Frager's, we'll be seeing you again soon.

I guess I'd better go hit that donation link.


I don't know where you're going, but do you got room for one more troubled soul?

Friday, April 19, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part III: Religion, Peacebuilding, and You (Me.)

My last couple of posts discussed my ongoing difficulties squaring off with religion, faith, and spirituality in my own life. The current crisis stems from a song I heard a couple of weeks ago that contained some subtle Christian overtones, and I've been using the blog to work through my relationship with these dynamics. Today, we reach the exciting(?) conclusion, where I connect these themes both to my background and my potential future.

A subtle but nonetheless highly salient component of a Maine upbringing is a strong sense of individuality and a corresponding reluctance to push others toward adherence to my own belief system. Casey says that it's because "we're good people," and he may be right. That which makes me uncomfortable with GOP legislation of morality or religious proselytizing also repels me from making judgments about the ways in which others live their lives, but that seems like such a big part of being faithful/religious in the Strange Land.  Here in DC, when I ask someone how they're doing, I'm about as likely to hear "Blessed" as anything else. And I've been repeatedly told that not spreading my faith to others is akin to not having a faith at all. I refuse to accept that, but the fact that so many folks seem to feel that way gives me lot of angst about the role of religion or faith in our daily lives. 

That angst isn't so much a problem in and of itself, but for a peacebuilder, it complicates things. War and violent conflict almost never occur across national borders for reasons of territory or disputes between heads of state anymore. Conflicts are primarily internal and fought over identity, socioeconomic inequity, or political exclusion. Religion and faith, so essential to identity in many cultures and contexts, can be both a key motivator of violence and a strong draw to reconciliation. It all depends on the ways in which the tenets and  symbols of a faith are activated. To wit, my first professor at the School of International Service, Dr. Abdul Aziz Said, was a strong supporter of the power of religion and faith to motivate forgiveness and reconciliation. He often quoted a colleague/mentor of his from the days of SIS' founding, who was wont to explain "I don't believe in God, I see god in everything I do." Both Aziz and his grad assistant, Sheherazade, worked with this personalized notion of holiness and an inner deity to motivate forgiveness and reconciliation in transitioning societies. By the same token, if you neglect to include religious leaders or groups in post-conflict peacebuilding, at best you'll alienate a wide segment of the population, at worst you've made yourself an adversary or "spoiler" who's going to work against your goals. 

Openness to the inclusion of religious elements comes as close to a hard-and-fast rule as anything else in the peacebuilding/development world, and I don't have any problem with that on an intellectual level. Religiously based support for love and justice can be essential to promoting lasting peace. In practice, though, I'm concerned that my discomfort with some PDR or "public displays of religion," will make my life difficult. When it finally comes time to address religious groups as part of a capacity-building exercise or policy workshop, what if I can't properly identify with the faithful? Will I come across as resistant or unreliable because of my trouble integrating spirituality into my life? The harder I try to understand faith, though, the harder some of the faithful seem to try to alienate me and those who think like me.

As the arguments coming from these self-appointed standard-bearers of tradition and societal soundness get eviscerated time and time again, it seems they're turning to more abstract language and ever-greater intellectual leaps. Now, the Archbishop of Paris has spewed a bunch of nonsense about impending violence if France goes ahead with legalizing same-sex marriage:  
Does this procession look photoshopped to anyone else?
Cardinal Andre Vingt-trois taking a break from authoring
inscrutable positions on the state's role in people's personal lives
to take part in the Stations of the Cross.
I wonder if Jesus' cross was that nice and polished.

"This is the way a violent society develops," he told the spring meeting of the French bishops' conference. "Society has lost its capacity of integration and especially its ability to blend differences in a common project."


I'm not entirely sure how a state that's trying to give a broader swath of people equal treatment under the law is doing anything other than showing its capacity for integration and the blending of differences, and the Cardinal doesn't appear to explain his logical gymnastics. But I'm quite sure that he's ignoring structural violence, which can be just as damaging as overt violence, though tougher to see. A major concept in peace and conflict resolution, structural violence refers to the structures and dynamics within a society that allow people to be marginalized or made second-class citizens. In many cases, structural violence actually legitimates overt violence, e.g. our acceptance that a certain degree of youth violence is going to occur among our poorer, darker-skinned, and more urban fellow Americans. If development or conflict resolution interventions are ignorant of these structures or give too much deference to localized, traditional understandings of societal norms and social relations (often based in religion,) they end up doing little more than reinforcing social oppression. And I ain't about that. Drawing on both religious and localized perspectives in conflict resolution is super important, but I'd have a (justifiably) hard time, I think, with the idea that it could end up damaging social inclusion or buttressing oppression.  

Of course, it's unlikely that I'll be in that situation any time soon, so I suppose I have time to iron out my relationship with faith, spirituality, religion, whatever you'd like to call it. Still, if there are even small ways that I can make myself more like the peacebuilder I someday hope to be, continually asking myself these questions will hopefully help me do that. Even if it means I have to bore everyone with an interminable series of idle thoughts I had when singing an OK song by a reasonably skilled contemporary rock/pop/Christian artist. 

I probably should just have my iPod on at all times and stop listening to the radio.

Friday, April 5, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part II: Music, Movies, and Faith on Two Wheels

Welcome back. Earlier this week, I talked about about how it affects me to have a song stuck in my head and then find out it's got religious/Christian themes in it. My inner reactions, though slightly varied, tend to coalesce around No Sir, I don't like it. Today, I'll explain a bit about why I think that might be.

I've encountered situations like this many times over the years. I would find bands like The Rocker Summer, Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, or even Paramore, grow to sort of like them, and then realize that their music was often faith-driven. I suppose it makes sense that this kind of music would be attractive. After all, it's impossible to completely divorce overall sonic quality of a given song from its lyrical content, and "CCM" often contains compelling themes like persistence despite adversity, the search for deeper meaning, struggling with a sense of alienation, and maintaining a positive outlook when things inevitably start looking bleak. Depending on how I feel at the time, those could be very useful devices.

So I can't really say for sure why discovering the band or artist's Christianity frustrates me so much! I suspect it's because I have struggled with my own faith/religion/spirituality for roughly the last 15 years, ever since I began to perceive that part of myself as distinct from the culture I was raised in and around. When, at 12 years old, I suggested that my family start going to church again, it wasn't out of any deep thirst for religion or faith. The truth is, it came from watching "Home Alone" with my family for the gazillionth time.

It was the scene where Kevin McAllister's elderly neighbor, Old Man Marley, who has been presented as creepy and possibly homicidal for the entire movie, is discovered (!) to be kind, wise, a good member of the community, and excellent at relating to children. He's basically Santa's more introverted brother who just looks gruff (due to taking his style cues from Civil War generals) and feels lonely and isolated after a falling-out with his own family some time ago.

"You can be too old for a lot of things-- you're never too old to be afraid."

Old Man Marley reassures Kevin on several fronts- fear is not something he needs to grow out of, his furnace probably isn't trying to eat him, and that they're sitting in a place where both of them (and by extension we) will always be welcome. Kevin, precocious prankster that he is, brings a childlike simplicity to Marley's internal conflict over whether to reach out to his estranged son. That all felt so powerful to me in that moment. In the popular mind, the scene tends to take a backseat to images of Kevin lip-syncing to a mobster movie while firecrackers go off like a Tommy gun, or Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern being continually jacked in the face by a paint can or whatever. Obviously that's a lot of fun, but I think the messages sent in the church scene are ultimately of much more value. 12-year-old me wanted to feel that sense of positiveness and warmth, so the following week we started attending the West Auburn Congregational Church/ United Church of Christ, which I remain a member of today.

For me, it was never really about God, who remained more a symbol or cultural reference point than anything truly active in my life. Much like a song getting stuck in my head, church was about capturing a feeling I had, then and there. Have I gone to a single non-Christmas, marriage, or baptism-related service in the last five years? No. Do I miss it? Rarely. But hearing that type of song or being reminded of those symbols and images brings my own internal conflict over spirituality rapidly to the fore, making me wonder if I ought to find religiosity for real.

It's not as though I haven't tried. Multiple times throughout my adult life, I've made a sincere effort to put religious faith into my heart. Of course, I never actually went back to church, since I considered it to be essentially separate from faith, and it somehow didn't seem right without my family and the people I knew. Maybe that was the missing piece, who knows. Either way, it hasn't worked, and approaching the end of my third decade I still oscillate between agnostic and "secular humanist." Frankly, even secular humanism bothers me, because those guys seem so adamant about the ridiculousness of being religious- they dismiss spirits and souls as constructed, almost immature inventions of humanity. By contrast, though those things do not play a huge role in my life, I do not doubt their importance or value to other human beings, whether constructed or not. We all need some form of mysticism or ritual to help us make sense of the world.

For me, singing songs helps, but I never feel more connected, clear-headed, or capable than when I'm riding a bike. Sure, it's fun to move fast(er,) feel the wind pushing back against me, and play fast and loose with the occasional stop sign, but there's more to it than that. My worries and issues seem to blow away on the wind, my reflexes sharpen, and I begin to feel my consciousness expand beyond my immediate physical body as I become part of a hybrid organic/mechanical form and feel the contours of the city as my wheels connect with the road. It's an incredibly liberating experience, and I don't suppose it's coincidence that an activity which makes me feel so connected to the world is often afforded a somewhat environmentalist bent. This is already sounding incredibly pretentious, so instead of continuing I'll just pose a question. If someone gets a similar feeling from a relationship with a god or similar entity as I do from cycling, who am I to decry that? But that question cuts both ways, and I have trouble with any system of beliefs in which so many of the faithful seem to be trying to force it on others. The idea of being religious feels so tied up in wanting other people to adhere to the same doctrines and mores as I do, and that's just so completely at odds with the kind of person I am.

Next time, I'll explore how that attitude relates (maybe) to my past, and its possible implications for my future. Stick around!


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part I: I heard a song. Here's what I think about that.

Yesterday, I was bombarded by a rare moment of insight into the way my weird mind works. Obviously, seeing a flash of the inner workings of one's psyche is profoundly disturbing, and my only way to process it was to write a blog post. This series of ruminations turned into a wide-ranging (and ongoing) exposition of my relationship with music, religion, and my chosen career path. Due to sheer length, it'll be in at least two parts, probably three. I hope you get as much from reading it as I did from writing it!

I'm not sure whether "That Awkward Moment" is still a thing or not, but if it were, tonight I would have tweeted "That awkward moment when you realize the song you've been singing to yourself all day and really like has been from a Christian music artist the whole time."

One of the first things you're likely to learn about me is that I sing to myself pretty much always. I like to think that it sounds good. Chances are, I'm wrong on that- although I was in a cappella groups for something like 6 years, listening to one person sing to an audience of one (himself) using a one-foot voice is seldom entertaining. Despite that knowledge, I persist, because it's a good way to carry myself through menial tasks, and most people probably don't notice at any rate.

Some days though, I hum/sing a song for many hours and later learn that the artist belongs to that sort-of-nebulous genre called "Contemporary Christian Music", then feel weird about it. Yesterday was one of those days. The offending song was "Down" by Mat Kearney, which probably came up on my Pandora last week or something. I should emphasize that I can rarely identify the point at which a song got stuck in my head, and almost never recall hearing it recently. If you listen to the song, there's very little reason to be sympathetic to my ignorance of its Christian overtones:

The chorus goes thusly: Can you hear when we call?/ Be there when we fall?/ We're standing, our backs against the wall/ Top of our lungs, Hallelujah/ Where pain and love bleed into one/ Baby when all you see is darkness (it's coming down now)/ We all need forgiveness (it's coming down now.) It tells the story of several people facing varying degrees of adversity, their search for support and their struggle to maintain hope.

So yeah, I probably should have noticed. But that's the (possibly) strange thing about the way I relate to music: it's not usually about the lyrics of a song. Sure, the words can be interesting and engaging, and bands like Mumford and Sons, Say Anything, Motion City Soundtrack, the Decemberists, or Stepdad write lyrics that I want to read, understand, and unpack. But when I'm just listening to or singing a song, the lyrics aren't usually important because of any inherent quality, just for being lyrics. They derive more meaning from their effect of adding a melody and punctuating the overall "soundscape." That completed piece of sound evokes a state of mind or a set of emotions that I can use to frame, interpret, and respond to the things going on around me, or even to my own thoughts and ideas. There's a chicken-and-egg debate in there somewhere: whether the music interprets my thoughts/feelings or I select music based on the thoughts/feelings I already have. Not going to get into it. The important thing is that the framing device created need not have anything to do with what the song is about- I wasn't feeling particularly hard-up or hopeless when going over and over "Down" both in my head and under my breath. The full sound somehow just seemed right for where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt, even if only I could hear it.

And then I looked up the lyrics and realized that it was just a little more God-themed than I would have liked. For some reason, that just sort of...bugs me.

In the next post, I'll attempt to explain why that is. So, um, stay tuned.


Friday, March 29, 2013

How Not to Reduce Regional Tensions

North Korea is a tough place for peacebuilders. Not so much in the sense that it's tough for peacebuilders to live there though it most assuredly is that. More that the isolation and insularity of the country makes it difficult to even discuss things like civil society capacity building, or public confidence in nonviolent dispute resolution. Institutions such as courts that can provide checks on central government power have very little traction, as do all the other concepts that a basic search of scholarly or organizational literature on peacebuilding and democracy will.

There is often little that can be done to promote peace and social justice in a given country from the outside, and international practitioners are pretty much unable to enter North Korea for the purpose of empowering the populace to build these things from the inside. Even the United States Institute of Peace, one of the thought leaders covering the Korean Peninsula situation from the West, has not been able to advance peacebuilding efforts much beyond state-level negotiations. Building a communication network of state officials and "Track 1.5" personnel in the region is an admirable goal given the circumstances, but truly effective peacebuilding needs to integrate "top-down" and "bottom up" approaches. That way, central government policies can make sense at the local level and small communities are able to communicate their needs/interests to state leaders. At the moment, though, that doesn't appear to be a strong possibility in the DPR of K. 

Imagine my shock complete lack of surprise, then, when I read the headline of this Reuters article yesterday. 

Not long after the election, I used this very blog to prattle on for 80 pages or so detailing my thoughts about the outcome, and expressed some reservations about the Obama White House's foreign policy agenda. Having noticed that the Obama/Romney foreign policy debate was essentially a neo-realist race to the bottom, where the first instinct is to treat those that agitate us as security threats rather than opportunities for dialogue, I wasn't exactly optimistic about U.S. foreign policy going forward. Continuing on the same path seemed more or less a foregone conclusion. Indeed, we've decided to fly some bombers over Seoul in response to Kim Jong-Un's increasingly fiery rhetoric concerning the South and their United States puppet masters (that's us.)

Now, I fully understand the need to show support for our allies. And in a sense, I also understand the "show of force" language that our military is speaking. I recently heard a bit about life in South Korea from Laura in Laurasia. Her take was basically that Kim is a young man, which puts him at a tremendous disadvantage in the Korean culture of seniority, so it's important for him to demonstrate his willingness to lash out militarily at perceived enemies in order to appear as a strong leader.

It's conceivable, within the realist mindset, that a demonstration of U.S. military might and technological superiority would make sense to such an adversary and convince them to back down. I myself don't trust the line of thinking or the notion that "force is the only language they understand," but it has a lot of currency in the public mind, so there we are. In this case, I really think the U.S. response is playing directly into the hands of North Korea's more bellicose elements. Their rhetoric in this most recent flare-up in tensions has been focused on the idea that the U.S. and South Korea are "aggressors" in the region and the North needs/has a right to defend itself. I guess I don't see how flying a bunch of stealth bombers around within easy striking distance of Pyongyang will do anything but convince NK's military leadership that their paranoia is justified. "Too easily words of war become acts of war," as Maester Luwin from Game of Thrones cautioned Robb Stark in the first book/season, and I'm afraid that this Game of Oneupmanship on the Peninsula is headed in the same direction.

Sure enough, Kim Jong-Un has ordered a higher state of missile readiness in response to our exercises, apparently in order to "settle accounts with the U.S." . Of course, we've taken "settle accounts" to mean something sinister, but I can't help wondering whether it was actually meant more literally as "evening the score" of the tit-for-tat threat making  This sounds a lot like a situation that came up in my Culture and Conflict class a couple of years back. When interacting with certain "high-context" cultures where face and honor are important, trying to bully/shame them into changing their behavior isn't likely to work. If we'd just let Kim and his generals have the last word for the moment, they'd be able to save some face and might not have to keep ramping up the rhetoric/military preparedness out of a need to respond to our latest verbal salvo.

That's probably a little too simple a view, and either way I don't suppose the State Department and military are operating on the same schools of thought as a School of International Service professor.  But maybe, just maybe, changing course on this might show the path to a time where some real peacebuilding is finally able to happen. I know, it's a long shot. But it sure would be nice.


I'd like to tell you all my bad ideas...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Getting a new perspective

You probably don't know this because you haven't heard from me since December or so, but this year I resolved to basically quit whining about how my job isn't all that relevant to my degree program (past or present,) and start taking steps to correct my attitude by seeking out opportunities to get some more satisfaction out of my current position. Well, I'm pleased to report that this endeavor has been a (qualified) success. And I don't just mean that I've bought a couple blazers to wear to the office in an effort to "dress for the job I want," though that has certainly been a good time, too.

A few weeks ago, my organization sent out a series of surveys measuring employees' interest in participating in short-term (six months or so) placements in other divisions. It just so happens that a spot opened up in an office I'd spent some time with in the past, covering front-desk duties while the usual person was at a doctor appointment or what have you. Considering that I speak probably 50% of my work Spanish while at this office, I accepted almost immediately. Today was my first day in the new spot, and even accounting for the "new office smell," I have no doubt that I made a great decision.

My duties here remind me a lot of my time as a legal assistant/office manager at a law firm, dealing much less with case work and more with people. My first instinct, since I had already basically done that job in the past, was to wonder whether I would be moving backwards, in a way. But really thinking it through, I realized it couldn't possibly be a bad thing to demonstrate my flexibility and adaptable skill set both to my own organization and on the ol' resume. What's more, I'm generally much happier when interacting with and relating to people, helping them to solve problems and find the right questions to seek the answers they want. Sitting at a desk and waiting for somebody to bring me a folder so I can scan some things and mail them out, being a functionary and having little to no agency has its merits, I'm sure, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that that kind of work just does not jive with my personality. Certainly, the first-day luster of the new office will wear off sooner or later, but for now I'm just glad to have been given the chance to try something new.

Meanwhile, the practicum team is plugging along with our project exploring the intersection, or "nexus," as we're terming it, between peacebuilding and democracy building. We've come up with some really interesting stuff so far, one of the central themes of our project will be a "think-piece" for our client. It's going to center upon theoretical support for a concept of trust that underpins both peace and democracy. Basically, it drives adherence to democratic principles and allows people to be creative in building  mechanisms for the nonviolent resolution of disputes. Moreover, if people trust that democratic channels for peaceful conflict management will work, they're less likely to abandon nonviolence the moment that negotiation doesn't immediately get them what they want. That feeling is often absent in new democracies or societies transitioning out of conflict, which makes them more likely to backslide into renewed violence or a system that lacks equity and social justice. All of this is ultimately aimed at movement toward positive peace characterized by social justice and a lack of structural violence. That's a lofty goal, and one that some would say is unattainable, so why fight a battle that you're probably never going to win? Well, a wise man once told me (as often as he was able) that it's better to try and fail than to do nothing and be a success at it. Good mantra for life? Probably. The VERY CORE of a career in peacebuilding? Almost definitely.

Honestly, though, it's a little tough to focus on my capstone research project when I keep hearing all this stuff about American University's campus-wide smoking ban. It was announced this year that AU would prohibit smoking anywhere on campus in an effort to improve overall university health. I can't decide how I feel about this. Sure, I think cigarettes are a little gross except in some very specific circumstances. And what little economics training I do have makes me lean toward disapproval of smoking because it provides negative externalities that are not covered in the price of a pack of butts. How many times has someone (probably not maliciously) blown a cloud of smoke at you while you're passing them on the street? That irritation you experience is what they call a negative externality, one that smokers don't pay for the privilege of causing you. The same goes for the expense to public health when people are treated for heart and lung disease on the system's dime after years or decades of smoking. Tax you pay on cigarettes at the register, I'm fairly certain, doesn't cover that. Which is why you can't trust the system.

Still, I tend to come down on the side of education over legislation- getting people to understand why it's a better idea to do your smokin' off campus (to the extent that's possible, it is a college after all.) The college democrats' link has a much better exploration of the "freedom of choice vs. the public good" topic than I care to delve into, but that tendency is also causing me some angst over the idea of banning giant sodas. The over 16-ounce soda ban for certain types of establishments in NYC, a signature initiative of Mayor Bloomberg, was struck down in court this week by a judge who looks like he could stand to lay off giant sugary beverages for a few weeks himself, if this picture is any indication.
The Honorable Judge Milton Tingling, who needs to fire his PR rep
or whoever took this picture while kneeling at his feet. 
Apparently he blocked the ban because it represented an overreach by the city in its ability to make choices for consumers. Also, he characterized it as "arbitrary and capricious" because it exempted certain places, like 7-Eleven, from selling large-format sodas, and didn't include stuff like milkshakes. So movie theaters and pizza joints are psyched now, because you can still get your 30-oz soda before watching the Hobbit for the 4th time or shoving a bunch of greasy pepperoni down your gullet. I wouldn't recommend the former, because once that soda's in your belly it's going to be really tempting to go make a pit stop by the 3rd or 4th "dwarves fight some guys" scene that's both completely unnecessary and absent from the book. And honestly, who wants to do that?

But saying the law doesn't make sense just because places like 7-Eleven can still sell large sodas, to my mind, completely misses the point because those sodas are, more than likely, going to be in bottles that you can re-close and so you haven't got to drink it all at once, unlike the giant cups in movie theaters or pizza places that encourage you to swallow all that sweet, sweet fattenin' fuel before you leave. The decision would have read much more strongly if it had only been about preventing the city from grabbing too much power and limiting freedom of choice in beverage consumption, and not this silly thing about how a law is ineffectual just because it contains exemptions and caveats. At the same time, I wonder if a better course of action for Bloomberg would be to try and up the tax rates on sugary beverages and frame it as a way to protect freedom of choice while letting the cost of a soda reflect its correllated drain on the public health system. Though come to think of it, we tried that in DC a couple years back and it didn't work out so well, leading some to call for... you guessed it. A District-wide, NYC-style soda ban, which might have more success.(!)

And around, and around we go.

I'm just so glad that we've ended childhood hunger, agreed on a means to combat the human-led devastation of our planet, and stamped out bigotry, homophobia, and religious intolerance so that we can finally get back to  the basic freedom to put liquid sugar into our bodies. Of course, that's basically what I'll be doing when I take down a bunch of warm blueberry soup after the WABA/House of Sweden Vasa Ride this Sunday. Should be a delicious end to a 60-mile ride to kick of "Spring training" or, as I like to call, it, "Riding in the Springtime."