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On Keeping Up With Friends

Moments ago, I hung up the phone after a long chat with an old friend. By “hung up”, of course, I mean pressed “End” on my iPhone. I’ve known this friend for years. I’ve traveled overseas with her. We even lived together for a time in Illinois. She was an awesome roommate, if you were wondering.

This long chat has itself been a long time coming. Our last in-person meeting was almost accidental – her vehicle broke down near Denver in early 2011 and we spent most of a day hanging out while it was repaired – and I’d missed other opportunities to see her upon my semi-regular returns to Illinois. A few days ago, though, it occurred to me that, for the entirety of 2012, all 366 days, I hadn’t heard the sound of her voice. That was a stunning realization. It’s one thing to be incapable of sharing a meal with someone very close to you, but it’s another thing entirely to be incapable of picking up the phone and hearing “home” vocalized for you.

We talked about that lack of vocal contact during 2012, and agreed that we were both complicit to varying degrees. But what was behind it? Why was it so hard to check in – even a quick “HOWDY! OK BYE!”

She experienced the same phenomenon with some of her family and friends last year. 2012 was not a perfect year for either of us. There was stress, sure, but it seemed to be the special kind that drives you to bring it up when someone on the other end of a line said, “So, how are things with you?”

The idea that we formulated was that perhaps the lack of contact is an unwillingness to burden others, especially when no unburdening happens on your own end. It’s an anti-catharsis: You hang up the phone and think “Damn, that got really dark. Now I feel bad for having unloaded like that.”

I put on my popular psychology hat and suggested that perhaps it was our compassionate humanist natures that prevented us from making the calls-in-question. “It’s OK. We want to be nice to people so we’ll leave them alone. We’re helping by not hurting!” This prompted some laughter, of course. I don’t think that negation in the case of friendships is healthy or useful.

So we ended our call with a vow to be more connected to family and friends in the coming year. Since I’ve been slow to choose Resolutions for 2013, I think I may have found an easy one. Time to make some calls…

*The caption of this picture doesn’t really suit the reality of the photo’s backstory. It was taken at the end of our second day of skiing at Winter Park. And by “our”, I mean “her”. I’d cracked a few ribs on the first day, so I sat it out. She did shred the gnar alone. My bad. Even though I look pretty boss in this photo, I was in a great deal of pain, which actually makes me even more boss. 

My State Department Lectures in Italy: Immigration and Faith Identity in Catholic Italy

I have a newfound appreciation for how easy it is to promote and “do” interfaith and social justice work in America. Our lengthy and diverse experience with immigration, our relatively equal access to civic rights, and the penetration and thickness of social networks (online and offline) have created the perfect storm for bringing people together around shared values. This is not the case in Italy, where I am nearing the end of an incredibly busy week of presentations, lectures, and meetings with civic and religious leaders, students, NGO representatives, and a variety of other activists (and proto-activists). Each audience has been vastly different, so I’ve really gotten a 360-degree view of the situation here.

Italy has only had to “deal with” extensive immigration in the past two decades. Sudden waves of immigrants (many from North Africa and the Levant) have made themselves a huge part of the Italian population. By some counts, there are between three and five million immigrants in the country. Many of them are Muslims from various countries. They don’t look like “proper” Italians, and they certainly aren’t filling the churches on Sunday. Italy’s history as a Catholic nation-state is a weight that I feel every time I walk past an impressive cathedral – of which there are many.

My lectures and workshops have centered around a few key issues:

  • Immigrants and their path to citizenship – Italian law doesn’t allow children born here to immigrant parents to gain citizenship-by-birth, and the regular procedures for attaining citizenship are terribly convoluted and difficult, not to mention expensive.
  • Interreligious (or inter-confessionale, as it’s said in Italian) dialogue and understanding. Consider that until recently, most Italians were Catholic. There haven’t been many large-scale attempts at bringing diverse communities together.
  • The use of social networks and the social web to promote and explain the above two points – Facebook, Twitter, and their kin are used more for personal interest here than as professional organizing and publishing tools.

I’ve gotten into some deep conversations with groups here. I’m talking sweeping cultural and political change stuff. This is a place where open discrimination against a population that comprises something north of 10% of GDP is still widely accepted. The immigrants and children of immigrants (2Gs – second generation) that I’ve met with are Italian through and through, if not Catholic. They speak Italian and follow AC Milan. But they can’t vote for those who would represent their communities.

This isn’t to say that Italy is a bad place, or that the government(s) refuses to fix things. The Democratic Party, and perhaps some other regional parties, actively work to engage these issues head-on. Furthermore, Italy is still taking its first steps in the immigration debate. They haven’t had to deal with these issues until now.

For all the problems that immigrants face here, and the irreducibly important issues that my conversations with second generation Italians center around, one thing remains constant: The people who I’ve met are all very optimistic about change in the near future. They are active, educated, and committed to bringing about a new era in the history of Italy. It’s quite exciting to partner with them as we look for useful solutions and novel approaches to these issues. Watch their space.

The things I carried

I’ve got nothing in my pockets right now save for a pen. It’s one of those nice recycled cardboard ones that they give out at environmentally-conscious conferences and presentations.

This is important. Allow me to explain.

I present a refrain from my high school years: “Hey Tim! What’s in your pockets today?”

Imagine, if you will, a young man, searching for an identity (cultivating more than one, depending on the audience) and realizing that humor can be a great leveler in social situations. Now imagine this young man finding a real penchant for what might be called “prop comedy”, albeit in a slightly modified sense. This young man was me.

I kept a bunch of silly shit in my pockets. I wore cargo pants (this was the late 90s, early 2000s, so it’s forgivable) and multi-pocket coats, so there were plenty of spaces to hide little bits and bobs. My trinkets were, by and large, mundane objects. A random sampling: ice pack, swizzle sticks, matches coated entirely in wax, temporary tattoos, chin guards (hair nets for beards), and sugar packets. Oh god, the sugar packets…

I never had less than fifteen on me at any given time. This was partly because I liked to eat them in front of people and, if the crowd was ripe for it, snort a line or two – don’t forget, at no point in this writing have I indicated that I was making brilliant decisions at this time in my life. They were also fun gag “gifts” to hand to people with great gravitas as if it was a matter of national security – and then walk away.

As I mentioned, it wasn’t that I was carrying gold nuggets, dehydrated lobster shells, and fake eyeballs. These were simple things, although matches coated entirely with wax aren’t exactly normal. What made people gawk and giggle was their non sequitur status; the very randomness with which I cultivated my collection made it something interesting. We might call it eclectic assortment attraction.

So I would travel with my plastic forks and folded-up maps of places that I’d never visited with me to parties, to school, and elsewhere, dragging them out when the situation called for a bit of the old “Tim routine”.

In time, I found that I didn’t actually need to carry all of that stuff all at once. I could, with a very small collection, make comments on objects that weren’t even on my person: “You think it’s crazy that I have a bouncy ball filled with thumbtacks? You should see the musical cake toy and three foot strip of fake cat fur that I had last week.”

The substitutions continued until I realized that I could tell whole stories about objects and their interactions with people in the complete absence of those objects. The substitution was complete – I was telling stories about that which could not be seen but which was either believed or…not believed. It mattered not.

By the time I headed to college of course, I had to change up my game. No longer would carrying around a ridiculous menagerie suffice. I had to reinvent.

I had to find a new way to make people smile.

I had to find something else to carry with me.

More dispatches from my family back in Illinois. Although this one seems, on the surface, slightly more mundane than the tornados that hit them last year, I think it’s still worth reading:

Such as it is on a farm…  Your father and I were out folding up a tarp from the garden this morning and noticed one of the hens hadn’t gotten inside the coop last night. We went over to let the rest out, opened the door and they were all dead – all 17 of them. A weasel had probably gotten in through a just-large-enough hole in the chicken wire on the door. It had to have climbed up the outside wooden door to a hole in that and then down between the wire door and the wooden one. What a sickening feeling – I know some of you have experienced this grisly scene, too. They were very beautiful birds.

We had ordered 15 chicks from Farm & Fleet and will pick them up the 23rd. So it starts all over again. We aren’t sure the one remaining hen (we should name her Providence) will want to go in the coop tonight. I don’t blame her one bit.

Sorry to share this sad news on a nice spring day.

And so, my family got more chickens. They’ll grow up and make more eggs for them to sell to the local fresh market. Life goes on. I can’t wait to get back to the farm.

My next step – Reverb10

Reverb10 has thus far been a deeply rewarding strategic planning session. Really, looking back on the past two weeks, it seems that a lot of the reflection that’s going on out there is still very forward-looking. Good stuff. It’s all very manifesto-y. Wait a minute. I must make this happen now. New startup alert!

Why malaria? Why interfaith?

Changing an old conversation – Within the international development discourse, religion is sometimes seen as a retardant to growth and progress. A clear illustration might be the Catholic Church’s (my church) refusal to normalize safe-sex education in sub-Saharan Africa. Secular-minded individuals and development professionals point to other examples of houses of worship in the developing world placing pastoral care above healthcare. But this isn’t always the case.

A Faiths Act volunteer was conducting a site assessment of a church in rural Mozambique and asked the pastor about their quite robust health clinic next to the church. “When did you start providing healthcare to your congregants?” he was asked. Translating into the local language, the pastor was confused. He asked for clarification. After a few more attempts, it was realized that he and his faith community drew no distinction between the health of the worshippers’ souls and the health of their bodies. He was being asked to pick a start date to what was, as he stated it, “The way we’ve always done things here.”

The reality – In the context of sub-Saharan Africa, churches and mosques are often the most robust and visible organizations in rural communities. Their proximate knowledge of local situations is invaluable, and their high standing provides a natural health education and healthcare distribution platform. The health systems in some African states are spread woefully thin, and often lack the reach necessary to help the poorest communities far from the cities. Faith communities can provide a parallel or at least complementary role in providing healthcare. In some cases, churches and mosques provide 60% of the given healthcare in an area. We are no strangers to the long list of western NGOs that operate on a faith basis. These groups mirror and often support the work of faith communities on the ground in the developing world.

United Nations Millennium Development Goals – The MDGs are a set of eight unaminously-agreed-upon goals that the UN activated as targets in the year 2000. The primary goal is to alleviate and eradicate extreme poverty, and to lift hundreds of millions of people up to a higher quality of life by the year 2015, with a mid-point review at the end of 2010. Empowering women, educating children, protecting the environment, and feeding the hungry are all part of the MDG package. One of the goals is the reduction of new infections of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, diseases that disproportionately affect the poor.

Malaria – Malaria has been with humankind since…we were humans, most likely. It’s taken countless lives, and has been the target of eradication by central governments since the time of Julius Caesar. Malaria is carried by a small mosquito that feeds at night, regurgitating parasites into the blood streams of humans. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was created specifically to address problems of malaria in the American south, where the disease was endemic until the 1950s. The Tanzanian island of Zanzibar has almost completely eradicated malaria as well. These examples of eradication success can be replicated.

Attempts have been made to beat back the disease before. There was a huge push between the 1950s and 1970s in the developing world. Great strides were made, but an eventual lack of political will and prevailing post-Independence conditions (specifically in sub-Saharan Africa) reversed those gains. Infection rates climbed again. The world is now, for the first time, in a position technologically and politically to make a new great push against malaria, and to make it a disease that millions of people used to die from.

Current affairs – Bill Gates, Ashton Kutcher, Tony Blair. Three names with three distinct personalities and histories. All of these folks, and countless others, have gotten involved in what is a new groundswell of support for malaria eradication. As we approach the end of 2010, we will compare progress on the MDGs with the targets that the UN set in 2000. Unfortunately, we are going to fall woefully short on a number of the MDGs, not least of all the one dealing with infectious disease. HIV/AIDS rates have fallen dramatically, but are still dangerously high. Tuberculosis is a huge problem. Malaria kills around one million people every year and sickens half a billion. So we must ask – out of all the MDGs, and out of the major infectious diseases, “Why malaria?”

The low-hanging fruit – Malaria is preventable and treatable. Those facts make it an easy target. Interventions are simple, too. Insecticide-treated bed nets are cheap, last 5 years, and kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes dead. Human-friendly indoor pesticides stick to walls and kill mosquitoes that rest during the day. Outdoor spraying and the draining of standing water (where mosquitoes breed) cut down on the bugs as well. Medicines to treat the disease are cheap – many African governments subsidize the costs – but distribution can be a problem in far-flung parts of the countryside. Furthermore, correct diagnosis is difficult without proper equipment or training. That being said, researchers come closer and closer to a malaria vaccine every day. Bill Gates has recently pledged $10 billion USD towards such a vaccine. Someday, robust national vaccination programs will protect the children that constitute a bulk of preventable deaths from malaria.

The disease is tied very closely to the other MDGs because it is so prevalent. Sick children can’t attend class and sick adults can’t work. Sub-Saharan Africa hemorrhages an estimated $12 billion USD each year in GDP through this loss of productivity, further compounding problems of poverty. Many parents have to choose between treating the infected in their family or eating. People suffering from malaria clog (for lack of a better word) hospital beds that could be used to treat people with more serious illnesses like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Educating women about the disease and how to protect their families increases their standing in the community and allows them to make important decisions in families. Malaria touches almost all of the other MDGs. Were it to be eliminated, the other goals would be that much more easier to achieve.

Why interfaith – We’ve already seen the large role that faith communities in the developing world play in providing healthcare when other systems falter. Furthermore, we see that faith-based organizations in the West operate with massive budgets and great influence both at home and abroad. All belief systems have a Compassion Imperative somewhere in the holy texts and habitual practice. Activating religious people to join a global movement to eradicate deaths from malaria is one thing – our program is a bit more ambitious.

Mosquitoes carrying malaria don’t care who they feed upon. For them, the blood of a Christian is just as sweet as that of a Muslim or an atheist or a Sikh. Mosquitoes are equal opportunity offenders. If faith communities and faith-based organizations here at home were to collaborate on finding solutions for their co-religionists in the developing world, the effect would be that much greater. More importantly, building bridges between faith communities in the developing world allows them to better serve their congregants. Two heads are better than one, goes the old adage. Faiths Act is about ordinary people of faith coming together to do something extraordinary. Faith communities can demonstrate their power as a force for good in the world today. We can eradicate deaths from malaria.

Let faiths act together.

How I drink wine

By the gallon.

Har har.

Wine is a splendid beast

I’ve been a fan of it for years, but for the longest time the most I could say was that my drink was either definitely white or definitely red. I bought wine because the label looked cool or because I had seen it in a magazine, and always because the bottle was less than $12.

Like many folks new to the game, my impression of “wine people” was that they held long-stemmed glasses quite gingerly and delicately sniffed with the same noses with which they looked down on the peasantry. We can all crack jokes about high-class tasters: “I detect odors of cherry, leather, and the bleeding forehead of a Dutchman recently accused of adultery by a drunken Welsh sailor in London. Exquisite!”

Tongue and nose

Once I became a wine person, though, and began consorting with other wine people, these stereotypes disappeared. Wine people are simply regular people who happen to have a great time with grapes. I drink wine carefully because I think that there is a lot to deal with in each glass. Smells, tastes, and textures all swirl together to create something that delights the brain.

I visited the St. Supery Winery in Napa Valley some months back with Mark Mann of Denvelopers fame. We were touring with Rick Bakas, who handles St. Supery’s social media bits. He poured out some merlot, gave it a sniff, and remarked:

“Notes of cherry, black pepper [another swirl], vanilla, and…rabbit poop.”

We all laughed out loud. He meant it as a joke, of course, but it highlights an important thing that I’ve learned about tasting wine: There are hundreds of little chemical compounds and shadows of the terroir that can impart interesting nuances in each bottle; we can interpret these tastes and smells quite differently from each other. All of those little pieces of a given wine can make it great, but it can also drive us away from a wine that other folks thing quite highly of.

Am I eccentric, or am I actually getting better at this?

I sometimes get strange looks when describing wines. One that sticks out in my memory was when I described a particular chardonnay as:

“A Scottish grandmother carrying a cart full of oranges, grapefruits, and nickels up a hill. On her back.”

I think the assembled guests believed me to suffer from a rare form of synesthesia. My description was honestly the first thing that leaped into my skull when I tasted the wine. I happen to think that really amazing wines should move beyond simple descriptors like “red fruit”, “leather”, and “spice”, to form real pictures in our heads, like “My oldest uncle sitting in a tall-backed chair in front of a roaring fireplace with a warm brandy in his hand.” Maybe I’m new-fashioned.

In the past three years, though, I really have found myself better able to parse out particular aromas and flavors in my wine. I think the first time that I smelled “licorice” in my glass was super-exciting for me. I’m training myself to detect what’s happening in my drink. And in doing so, I am coming to appreciate and enjoy wine even more. It’s like a fabulous little game.

Location, location, location

I’d like to think that part of my wine-tasting Renaissance is due to my relative proximity to northern California’s wine country. I won’t deny my desire to drive up there every weekend and taste the day away. Luckily, fiscal responsibility prevents such behavior. The cool thing about wine, though, is that you don’t have to be anywhere near where the grapes were produced to enjoy it. You don’t even have to be on the same continent!

I’ve found that all I need to enjoy wine is a clean palate, an open mind (and nose and mouth), and hopefully some good friends. In vino veritas…