Jeff’s Place

This year I will be working at Jeff’s Place, a children’s bereavement center in Framingham, MA. I got the gig through New Sector Alliance, an organization that matches young professionals with nonprofits that may not have the resources or klout to attract young talent. New Sector runs a few weeks of training, focusing on strategies around teamwork, strategic problem solving, and the social sector broadly, and then we spend the rest of the year at our host sites, with training days mixed in every few weeks.

So I’ve been at Jeff’s Place for a few weeks now, and it’s already been somewhat of a rollercoaster. I’ve been hired to do communications — PR, Marketing, and (shhh… fundraising, though I can’t call it that, as we’re funded through Americorps). Jeff’s Place was founded by Jenny Schreiber, a powerhouse of a social worker who has, with a dedicated team of volunteers, built this organization to serve more than 100 families in the metrowest area. Jeff’s Places’ funding is therefore almost entirely dependent on Jenny’s network, which, while immense, ultimately does have a limit. We currently have a wait-list to accept new families into our services, and due to resource constraints, we can’t meet the demand.

So my job is to make friends with local institutions and individuals to broaden our funding network. It’s an interesting challenge which presents the fundamental question — why would businesses or individuals want to partner with (read: donate to) Jeff’s Place?

For the families involved, Jeff’s Place seems to be a game-changer. As someone who has directly dealt with significant loss, the resulting feeling of being different from the rest of the crowd, the aloneness, is truly overbearing. I personally had to radically change my expectations of myself, as if the jenga blocks hadn’t just been toppled but rather consumed by a wood chipper and spat out into a vat of oil and flame. Loss is intense, and people react to it in myriad strange and unpredictable ways.

Jeff’s Place gets this. The first two days of training at Jeff’s were some of the most intense hours of reflection of my life, barring the incident itself. It essentially consisted of dissecting every aspect of death and bereavement, every permutation of loss and the journey thereafter. Jenny and Melissa, the program director, are truly experts in the field and understand better than anyone I’ve ever talked to that you don’t get over it, you learn to live with it.

And community can help. I never found this in my recovery, this ‘community’ that ‘got it’, and while I remember that I was pointedly not interested in finding it at the time, preferring to do my grieving alone, I was also 19 at the time, and Jeff’s Place is for children ages 3-18. Jenny and Melissa have seen their peer-based support groups work wonders, helping to normalize the abnormal and make not-okay OK.

So here’s where it all stands: I think Jeff’s Place is doing important work, and I will figure out precisely why other people should feel the same way, and hopefully that will translate into meaningful partnerships so that the institution can continue to grow. I feel privileged to be able to call this cause my own, as it was already my own, but now I have a way to make a small but larger difference for others who might find these services to be useful.

If anyone reading this knows of any organizations, business, or individuals who would be interested in donating, hosting fundraisers, or otherwise helping Jeff’s Place to grow, please contact me!

Thank you for reading.

Sealed

I can hardly believe that I can write this post today. After almost a year of idea-vetting and indecision, I’ve finally begun to work with a developer friend to create an app. We’re calling it Sealed, and it’s an app for time-delayed photo and video messaging. We think it will be a fun and thoughtful way for people to share moments, especially for occasions such as holidays and birthdays. It can also be used as a personal time capsule, which was my initial motivation for the idea many months ago.

We’re on track to have a beta release in the next 2-3 weeks. If you’re reading this, you’re invited to be one of our beta testers. Your feedback will be invaluable and deeply appreciated.

Help us make Sealed the best it can be. We’re looking forward to the journey ahead.

Sealed_circle_real

Post-Grad

Much has transpired since I last wrote, but for the moment, I’d rather not do the semester-in-review blow-by-blow. For now, I’ll focus on the present.

Right now it’s raining, though the groundhog who lives under our shed doesn’t seem to mind. Most of Boston is probably much more frustrated, as it’s the fourth of July and the fireworks have been rescheduled for the first time in 20 years. I would be more bothered if I had ambitious plans, but this has been a family-oriented summer thus far and our only grand plan was to get Chinese food from Spice Pepper Garden down the street.

I went for a run today. It wasn’t great, as I had too-recently had cereal for breakfast and all I could hear was the sloshing of my insides. I never know what to think about when I run, or what to focus on. Oftentimes it’s, “IGNORE THE PAIN, IGNORE THE PAIN”, which immediately gets me thinking about elephants. I always keep my eyes open for animals. In the last three weeks that I have reclaimed my long-lost hobby of consistent running, I think I’ve sighted literally every animal in the northeastern food chain: lots o’ birds, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, a few snakes, deer errday, an anxious coyote, and a pig, though the pig had a family of humans attached to it so I guess it’s the one that doesn’t belong, though it is, in fact, an animal.

I titled this post “Post-Grad” because I assumed that’s what I’d write about, do the whole semester-in-review blow-by-blow. But apparently I’ve had other things on my mind, such as groundhogs and rabbits and the ever elusive condition of presentness. I’m reading a book about Kabbalah, and I just finished Carnegie’s HTWFAIP. The greatest book of the summer so far has been The World According to Garp, which I read savoringly, as it is just such a marvel of creativity. New goal in life: write something worthy of showing to Helen.

My job as a RISE fellow for New Sector Alliance starts in September, and until then I’m doing family and friends, going to entrepreneurship events in the city, and working on an app with a buddy. And running consistently, which feels great.

Happy 4th!

Life is Looking Up

I didn’t write all last semester. Take that as a good thing. Frankly, for now, I’m doing well. Life is looking up.

I got back from Argentina in late July. I chilled at home for a month. Post-abroad was a strange period of time, not because home-life was somehow unfamiliar, but because I had reached the end of a sentence and was about to begin a new one. My plans had always concluded with, “… and then I’ll go abroad, and then I’ll figure out what I’m doing after that, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

Well, I’ve since crossed the bridge, or at least I’m halfway across it, though it feels like I’m about to cross a different bridge entirely. I think that second semester, senior year, may feel different from all other semesters, because, well, it’s the last one. This is the end! Of course it’s bittersweet. I’ve already been thinking (and saying, to the vexation of my friends), “I bet this, right now, is among the last five times that we will ____ (walk a certain route, attend a type of event, talk to a certain person). I’ve been counting down since day one. I’m probably counting down to end of my life, too. What’s the point of this, where does it get me? Nowhere, but I’m not sure if I can change the way I think.

Anyways, this last semester was generally great. Great classes, great housemates, great routines. Through new activities, I met many new and interesting people. My relationship is stable and fulfilling. Many days happened with a perfect balance of structure and spontaneity. There is an endearing transience to college, or at least that’s one way of looking at it. I could expound about each of my classes and projects and all of the intellectual innovations that happened to come my way, but I’ll just choose one because it encapsulates many things.

I took a class called Money and Social Change, with a visiting professor Joy Anderson, who is a real pioneer in the social sector and somewhat of a hard-assed business lady, extremely competent and demanding, if somewhat convinced of her points of view. The class was centered around learning about strategic philanthropy. Courtesy of the Learning by Giving Foundation, which sponsors roughly thirty other classes like this across the country, we, as a class, had $10K to give to local nonprofits in chunks of no less than $2,500. The challenge was to decide where that money should go. There are over 250 nonprofits in the local Middletown area: treatment facilities for the mentally ill, preschools, ambulances, libraries, international aid groups, etc. How does money create social change? At which leverage point is money most powerful?

As a theoretical counterpart to the grant-making process, Professor Anderson challenged each of us to develop our individual “Theories of Change“. Theory of Change (TOC) is a widely used theoretical framework that essentially asks, what is the change that you want to see in the world, and what is the concrete road map to get there? Dozens of theories of change could be formulated to address every social issue. For example, if you are trying to solve for homelessness in a city, you could postulate that providing backpacks filled with supplies directly to homeless folk, or at strategic points (shelters, etc) would have a certain effect on the homelessness rate. But another theory of change to “solve for” homelessness could focus on a different leverage point in the system, perhaps targeting income inequality among certain geographical/racial/gender groups, and identifying local, regional, or national public policy as the point to be acted upon in order to create that change.

There is often a broad divide between the micro and macro theorists, and strong arguments can be made for both sides. Soup kitchens are arguably just as important as structural, economic or governmental reform. However, some theories of change are more effective in certain ways than others. What is important is to be able to adopt each mindset and see the pros and cons with some degree of neutrality.

I built my theory of change off of the research that I did in Argentina. The end goal of my theory of change is to “increase the wealth of areas”. The mechanism by which I believe this can be accomplished is by increasing the amount of entrepreneurship (of certain types) in areas. The way that I propose to increase the amount of entrepreneurship in areas is through strategic education programs and media-based campaigns, those being necessarily broad terms: education programs could be “deep and narrow” — an after school entrepreneurship program for high school students— or “wide and shallow” — public policy that reforms public school curricula to encourage “entrepreneurial traits” and activity. Media campaigns could be “localized”, targeting specific groups of people through news articles, literature, or community programming, or they could be “massive”, using billboards, celebrity endorsements, or other pre-existing structures to disseminate a message to a very broad audience. Essentially, I am proposing that some areas of the world produce more and less entrepreneurship, and the reason for this is largely cultural. Therefore, if we want to increase the production of entrepreneurs, we need to strategically culture shift for innovation. This would need to be conducted with the utmost cultural sensitivity, and would therefore be founded upon a research agenda that identifies precisely what would and would not be acceptable and powerful in that specific area.

This theory of change business represents a real step forward in terms of my academic and professional focus. The second semester of senior year is about to begin. I get the awkward, “so, have you started thinking about next year?” almost daily at this point. Luckily, and due to all of the development encapsulated above, I have fairly solidly formed an idea of what I’m looking to do… in life. Immediately out of college, I would like to choose an area of the world (Boston, NYC, or San Francisco), join a startup team (Tech, Social, Social-Tech, etc) and become a valuable member of that team and the city’s larger startup community as a whole. From there, well I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

Alternatively, I’ll have a killer idea, assemble a killer team, get millions in seed funding and make a killing … yeah… while I’m earnestly working towards that goal every day, that plan is as unreliable as it gets, so I’m not banking on it. For now, it’s join a team, enter a community, meet people and get lucky.

I’m feeling OK about life after college. I have no doubt that I could be a useful member of a startup team, and I trust that I will continue to meet people and stick my feet in enough doors that one of them stays open. The next order of business, therefore, is this coming semester.

I am taking four classes, including Technology and Culture, Graphic Design (extremely excited for this!), and probably most excitingly, after months of preparation, I am co-leading a student forum which I have titled Out of Theory, Into Practice: Entrepreneurship Studies 101. Along with Katya Sapozhnina, a sophomore who founded the Wesleyan Entrepreneurship Society, I will be leading a course that starts with some relevant foundational theory and moves forward with an increasingly practical focus. Each week has a theme: “Market Economies in Capitalism”, “The Role of Networks”, “On the Origin of Ideas”, “What is Entrepreneurship?”, “Who are Entrepreneurs?”, “Cultural Trends of Entrepreneurship”, “The Ecology of Entrepreneurship”, “Lean Entrepreneurship”, “Social Entrepreneurship 1 & 2”, “Tech Entrepreneurship”, “Funding”… and so on.

The actualization of this course is deeply significant for me, because, as many of you know, I have encountered some very real personal and familial challenges through the course of my time in college. Around the time that I first “discovered” entrepreneurship, first semester, sophomore year, I jotted down two ideas on a sticky note: 1) a club for entrepreneurship at Wesleyan, (which Katya went ahead and founded, unbeknownst to me, while I was abroad in Buenos Aires) and 2) a student forum which would attempt to fill the gaping hole in Wesleyan’s course offering that neglects, well, everything “practical”: entrepreneurship, marketing, management, etc. However, the following semester, rugs were pulled out from under me and different trajectories took shape. I am therefore proud to be accomplishing something that is in line with my original trajectory, even if it’s several years later. To some extent, the realization of this goal is absolutely somewhat symbolic of my own re-alignment, healing, and resilience.

And this brings me to my final point, which is that today, January 13th, marks the two-year mark of my father’s death. I didn’t plan this coincidence, funnily enough. I just happened to have a free day and the right energy to write. But right about now, 11:45pm, two years ago, I had just gotten home from my dad’s place after living through some of the most surreal hours of my life. Extremely vivid memories, followed by months of blankness, followed by a lot of sadness that is with me today, though it’s different now. I will not begin to address how we, my immediate family, are doing, as reducing it to, “we’re doing OK,” is not useful nor accurate, and accommodates more to your comfort than to our actual state of being. Suffice to say that we’re sticking together and grateful for everyone who is helpful or understanding. Eternal thank-you’s for that.

But frankly, for now, I’m doing well. Life is looking up.

Buenos Aires

It has taken me a while to come around and feel ready to write this thing. Not because I’ve been struggling to re-enter life at home due to some sort of reverse culture shock— on the contrary, I jumped back into life at home as if nothing had ever happened. For the last three weeks I’ve hardly thought about the preceding five months at all except for when explaining to friends and family what exactly it was that I was doing for all that time, and then it feels strange and distant, as if I am describing what I did at summer camp when I was fourteen. In retrospect, the transition home was rather abrupt and unceremonious and perhaps that’s why I am feeling the need to write something commemorative, as if that five-month sentence is lacking a final punctuation.

I don’t know how to summarize my experiences in Buenos Aires. I think that the idea of summarizing such an experience is inherently somewhat self-defeating. To really understand what it was and how it is now important to me, it must not be summarized but co-experienced— explicated deeply, thematically, in full multimedia retina-display detail. While this is something I have generally preferred to do in person, it would be cheap to entirely forego any description. There’s no TL;DR for this one, sorry folks. Where to begin…

Entering to live in another culture feels like being fourteen again. You have enough basic skills to survive, but you are also just aware enough to realize that you don’t really get it yet. While this feeling may have been exacerbated by the Spanish language context, a lot of it has to do with understanding the country’s cultural and political history. In the case of Argentina, this was hugely important, as so much of current society, politics, and economics is a reaction to movements in the past.

I took a history class that was designed for gringos. It examined Argentine history independently but also in relation to the cultural history of the USA and select other countries. The professor was one of those real academics who have a bleeding romance with their subject. It would be a privilege to learn anything from him, regardless of the content. He succeeded in providing an organized context for us to learn the fundamentally necessary stuff: the effects of Spanish colonialism, the massive European immigration in the late 19th century, the antagonism between the city of Buenos Aires and the Provinces, the relationships between Argentina, Chile, the USA, and Europe, Argentina’s early prominence in the early 20th century and the importance of cattle, Argentina’s political/economic stances during the world wars, the rise of the political/economic/social movement that is Peronism (and the story of Eva Peron), the Junta Militar and ‘los desaparecidos’ in the 70’s and 80’s, Menem in the 90’s, and then the IMF default and devaluation of the peso in 2001 from which Argentina has not yet recovered— these topics are crucial to understanding contemporary Argentine culture.

For some reason or another, from Argentines and from people at home, I often received the question, “te gusta Argentina?” Do you like Argentina? I knew how I was supposed to answer the question, obviously, and responded by complementing the asado, the women, the wine, and the fútbol. But the question, “do you like _____(country)” begs a deeper answer. Do you approve of the way that the country is run? The liberties and services it provides for its citizens? Is the ‘country’ equivalent to the country’s government? Or is ‘Argentina’ a reference to the Argentine people? Can you ‘like’ the USA if you don’t ‘like’ the dominant party? Do I even ‘like’ the USA?

The answer I’ve developed to this question is that I very much liked my experience in Argentina, but I do not necessarily ‘like’ every aspect of the Argentinian history, governance, or culture. Frankly, I am quite critical of the country’s apparent historical values, trends, and current direction. Argentina is a bizarre hybrid in so many ways. The European influence on the city is obvious from it’s architecture and population (almost entirely white in Buenos Aires). Argentina has long fetishized French styling and therefore hired many great French designers and architects to construct a city that is somewhat in the style of Paris. But Buenos Aires is more like Paris’s gaudy, grungy younger sister, who would be stunningly beautiful if she were to take off her sequin-studded tiara, wear a bit less makeup, and stop embezzling so much money. Perhaps I’m just queasy around luxury, but Buenos Aires is candy coated with a veneer of sophistication that can hardly disguise the governmental corruption and the resulting economic suffering felt by huge swaths of the population. Instead of pioneering substantial political, economic, or cultural change, the government of Buenos Aires relies on clientelism, tit-for-tat negotiations in which the government runs massive handout programs to gain the voting support of the poorer classes but does nothing to change the flows of capital and class mobility.

The city of Buenos Aires is huge and sprawling and interestingly not segregated by ethnicity or race, but rather almost entirely by class. I lived in the epicenter of Buenos Aires’ old wealth, Retiro, next to Plaza San Martin, next to calle Florida, the city’s prime luxury shopping district. There were two or three massive, Parisian-styled palaces within two or three minutes of my homestay. During the day, ritzy Retiro was crawling with men in suits and women in fur coats and once-glamorous older-folk walking toy-sized dogs. But at night, Retiro was deserted and dangerous. Right next to Retiro is the city’s main train station, and behind the train station is Villa 31, one of the first and largest Villas in Buenos Aires. Villas are slums that escape most government regulation and are hotbeds of crime, drug and human trafficking, and poverty. About 200,000 people live in 20+ villas in the city of 13 million. Many Villa inhabitants live in dangerously constructed buildings or are homeless. Drug addiction, especially to Paco, is rampant. While the government of Buenos Aires does not support the expansion of the villas, they also do not put much pressure on them to pay taxes or change their ways; there is something of a tacit don’t-ask-don’t-tell, look-the-other-way policy in place. Why? My professor at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), who was admittedly a raving Marxist, explained that the government has historically had ties to many of the powerful ‘mafioso’ groups that have real authority in the villas. On the surface, this seems to be corruption at its finest. But on the other hand, a student in my class protested that these groups are often quite involved in the local community and establish schools, community centers, homeless shelters, and a distinct, prideful culture of their own in each Villa. If the government is supporting groups that support the people, regardless of their source of income, is the government wrong in doing so?

I could continue writing about my frustration with the hypocrisy and shallowness of various aspects of Buenos Aires’ culture, but this was not what particularly characterized my experience in Argentina. On the contrary, Argentina provided me with all that I needed to arrange for myself an incredible experience. I was hugely impressed and impacted by the genuinely good people that I lived with and otherwise met. I unquestionably benefited from the city’s education systems. Living abroad was ultimately the epitome of freedom within constraints, an exotic sandbox within which I played and experimented and learned from all that was around me. I flaneur’d, gloriously alone, every day. I spent many beautiful days exploring beautiful streets with people who became very close friends, most of whom were from the study abroad program, but were also from all over the USA, which was eye opening in itself. We enjoyed countless incredible meals and nights out immersed in Buenos Aires’ diverse and dynamic nightlife. We were young and sometimes irresponsible, and every day happened only once. It was a magical transience that compelled me to carpe the diem, to live alive, to shake my demons or address them so that I might re-open my eyes to the world around me.

And so I went to Argentina because I wished to live deliberately, to see if I might be able to discern the essential facts of life and of my life, to see if I could construct an existence in which I could really live. I did not chase every rabbit nor visit every nightclub nor seize every moment, but I followed precisely my own inner tendencies as closely as possible without being offensive to others, as is otherwise usually quite impossible. Life in society demands that we do things and go places. This was my experiment in designing a life that would demand only and exactly what I was desiring to do. “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms”. Thoreau said it perfectly, and in the moment and in retrospect, I was and am proud of my implementation. I enjoyed so thoroughly my time abroad that I’m not thinking about it now.

How does that make sense? If a recent experience was truly impressionable, shouldn’t it continue to leave its impression upon its subject? If I was so set upon fully experiencing my time abroad, and so ‘successful’ at doing so, shouldn’t I be constantly reminiscing about and reliving those sublime seconds?

I think that this apparent discontinuity is the reason why I am at war with nostalgia. While abroad, I often entered museums and cafes and nightclubs and found myself thinking, “this will be the only time that I ever exist at this point in space-time,” then eventually to exit and think during the taxi ride home, “well, that was that, yet another experience has become memory.” At home it feels just as tragic. I got lunch with my mother yesterday. I will never get lunch with my mother yesterday again. It’s obvious but still somehow troubling. It’s an apparently useless hyper-awareness of feeling the present endlessly recede into the past.

Is it problematic, or is it somehow useful? Do I remember those moments better, having taken myself out-of-the-moment to commemorate it? Can you ever really do anything to take a moment out of time? One can write about it, or record audio or video, or tweet about it and commiserate with everyone else who is also loosing time, and so I do those things to give my faulty memory as many triggers for future recollection as possible. But to what end? What is the takeaway? Where is the peace in that? Like all existentialism, this goes nowhere. Why can’t I just accept that and live in the goddamn moment?

I think these are normal preoccupancies— I’m just another in a ponderously long list of humans who have obsessed over the conditions of our existence. If you’ve got answers or more questions, leave them in the comments.

If I Were to Walk My Own Talk

  If I were to walk my own talk
I would become a vegetarian
Eating animals is cruel
And it's the single way that I contribute most to global warming
  So
Why don't I become a vegetarian?

  If I were to walk my own talk
I wouldn't love buying things
Because I love buying things
At least I'm supposed to
  So I do, and I do.
I know well that I feed the machine
That denies food to so many
  Aspiring consumers.
That thought sickens me.
With that in mind
How can I justify
Buying
So much
Shit?

  If I were to walk my own talk
I would have more gay friends
And African-American friends
And friends that aren't all white
Because all of my friends are white
  Not that it matters
  But it does, kind of.
Look, I'm a progressive,
Genuinely appalled by inequality
  etc.
Why do I exhibit the same
Homophilic tendencies
That I speak out against?

  If I were to walk my own talk
I would be an activist
An active activist.
As in, I would act
Not just talk
  I already talk a lot
The power of activism has been proven
And I'm sure as hell that I want things to change
So why am I not
An activist?

  If I were to walk my own talk
I wouldn't ever swear
  It's the language of marginalization
I wouldn't complain about schoolwork
  6.7% of the world has a college degree
I wouldn't wear leather
  It's fueling a sadistic industry
I wouldn't drive a car
  It's fueling a sadistic industry
I wouldn't be complacent
I wouldn't sit idly
I wouldn't take it for granted
I wouldn't get discouraged
I wouldn't get hung up by the immensity of it all
I wouldn't feel very, very small
  So small that I don't even matter
  A seven-billionth of the population
     What good can I do?
     What harm can I do?
     What can I do?

Maybe I'll become a vegetarian. 

On Blood and Altruism

Scene 1:

The other day, I was walking down Santa Fe towards my usual bus stop and I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned my head and came face-to-face with a man, probably 6’2″, muscular, who was literally covered in blood. I kid you not, there was blood all over his face and hands, with fresh red rivulets dripping from one of his eyelids and his impressively disfigured nose. His face was not even swollen, indicating that he had recently acquired his facial adornments. I nearly shat my pants.

He asked me for money.

“Por favor, ¿una moneda señor? Para el bebé, tiene hambre y no puedo encontrar trabajo.”

Deer in the headlights. I’m sorry, what? Is there a tacit, “or I’ll pulverize you” at the end of that humble plea? Is this some kind of asshole tactic to get money from people, or did you just kill somebody?

Not knowing exactly how crazy this guy was, I fished quickly for a coin in my pocket, handed it to him, and watched as he broke into a wide smile and thanked me profusely.

This is so confusing. So you’re not going to pulverize me or demand my wallet (or take my backpack with my laptop in it?).

I asked him why he had blood all over his face.

“Perdón, em— por qué … el sangre?”

He answered: “El boxeo.”

Boxing. 

I’m just going to believe that. Whatever you say, fella.

***

Scene 2:

The other day, I was on the 132 going from Córdoba to Rivadavia, listening to the cumbia blasting from my bus-neighbor’s headphones, when a homeless woman boarded the bus. She was an older lady, dark skinned with wild hair, dressed in an enormous quantity of oversized shirts and baggy olive-green pants. She wore no shoes. In her hands was a stack of paper- small ripped pieces of newspaper, arranged in a stack which she held carefully between both arms as one might hold a baby. She surveyed her audience and said nothing. She turned around and walked to the front of the bus, and started handing out the slips of paper.

One by one, she offered a ripped piece of newspaper each person on the bus, extending her arm gently and retreating quickly if someone waved to signal disinterest. She worked slowly through everyone at the front of the bus, then through the people standing in the center, and eventually arrived at my seat, the first of the seats in the back of the bus.

She offered me a slip of paper. She offered it to me slowly, cautiously, as if I might reach out and strike her arm away. We made eye contact. I took the slip of paper.

She kept on through the back of the bus, shuffling slowly through the crowd. She reached the last person, straightened up, put the remaining papers into one of her many pockets, and walked back towards the front of the bus.

One person in front was already holding a two-peso bill and waved it in her direction. She approached him, received the money, and dipped her head a little.

“Gracias, señor.”

Other hands were outstretched holding coins or bills. She went from person to person, dipping her head each time as she received their offering.

I looked around at my bus-neighbors. Almost all of them were holding or fishing for money for when the woman came their way (except for my bus-neighbor, who was still with his cumbia and whatever was outside the window).

I, too, retrieved a 2-peso bill from my wallet and sat waiting, watching, almost excited for my turn to give my money to this woman.

Well, she eventually did come my way, and I gave my pesos to her, as did almost everyone else on the bus. She thanked me and each other person, and then everyone at once— “Gracias a todos”— and then God— “y gracias al dios”— and then got off at the next bus stop. Her pockets were literally bulging.

***

I do have a few thoughts about what was going on here, but I’d love to hear your ideas as well, my dear readers, as I’m still somewhat perplexed by these two situations.

First off, bloody-man.

Lets first assume that he was actually boxing and then decided, immediately after being thoroughly defeated and not winning any money, that he needed to find a way to feed his baby.

Why didn’t he clean himself off first? He literally had not wiped his face or stopped the bleeding, and his nose was clearly in bad shape. Did he consciously understand that his menacing state would result in an easy few pesos?

I suppose that’s somewhat logical, although perhaps ineffective, as I imagine people would be likely to either run away or give the bare minimum to get him to go away.

It also seems like a quick way to get noticed by the police, although the police are much less of a presence in Buenos Aires than in most parts of the USA…

Alternatively, if this was an act or technique that this man regularly employed to ‘scare up’ some money, do you think it would be effective? If this were the case, I would have to conject that it would be effective because one would not undergo such regular pain and humiliation unless the payoff was significant.

Really though, he was big and bulky enough that the blood was unnecessary, so I strongly doubt that this guy had actually planned this as a technique, so…

Thoughts?

As for paper-slip-lady:

This situation I find very intriguing from both a psychological and sociological point of view. Why did the woman hand out the slips of paper, and why were people so willing to give to her? Both parties are worth consideration— the woman herself, and her audience, the crowd.

First off, I think that this woman knew exactly what she was doing. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I bet she carefully developed this technique after trying other cadging tactics and judging their relative success. Everything was done just right: her image— pitiful, but calm and respectful with some air of dignity; her interactions— which were deliberate and seemingly meaningful as communicated through eye contact and head-dipping, as if your contribution really made all the difference; and her timing— the entire process took no more than 3 or 4 minutes, within which time she effectively built a micro-connection with each person and left them with something.

Which leads us to question the crowd: why was everyone so willing to give to her?

I think that the woman effectively played upon several fundamental human (animal?) psych/sociological traits. The first being a selfish altruism and the second being a group effect. I am an expert on neither subject, so I’ll feed you my interpretation and those links and let me google it for you.

Selfish altruism has been widely studied and can be grounded in psychology and beneath that, evolutionary theory. Humans are social beasts and thus lived in groups during all of our development, and for most of that time we were hunting-and-gathering, thereby living in societies where sharing resources was crucial if we were to survive. Helping the group, therefore, was evolutionarily rewarded and hot-wired into us through psychological selection.

However, bringing this back to paper-slip-lady, what did the crowd (including myself) get from our selfish selflessness?

Well, a ripped piece of newspaper.

But of course, something mentally more. This part, I think, is different for each person based on their experiences and ethical tendencies, but almost surely exists in everyone. Perhaps it’s justifying one’s own circumstantial privilege.  For others it may be a sense of common humanity, as if s/he is helping a member of kin in need. I’m sure there are many more mental justifications, and I’d be interested to hear what they are specifically for you— why do you stop and give money to those who ask for it? What would persuade you to do so or to alternatively walk by in pointed silence. I do not think there is any shame in saying that it makes us feel good. That feeling is deeply engrained in our inner animal and has served us well in building connections, communities, and societies of efficiency and scale. Where do you draw the ethical lines here?

While I do think that paper-slip-lady has developed an innovative technique, I also think that she is still and forever at the mercy of the group effect, which is why her presentation is so important.

In that situation on colectivo 132, we, the audience-group of humans displayed a group effect shared with almost all other animals. When one rabbit detects danger, all rabbits hide in their holes. When one rabbit comes out to survey the scene, it may or may not get eaten. When two rabbits poke out their ears, they may or may not get eaten. But when three or seven rabbits emerge, all of the rabbits come out to play, because they know that the other rabbits know that the coast is clear.

So I bet that it works both ways for paper-slip-lady; that if she doesn’t nail the initial presentation, very few people contribute. On the other hand, we, the audience-group of humans could have then been guilty of the fourth reich, as we all bit that bait and were even excited to do so.

But what is this conversation really about? I think it would be very interesting to do a quantitative research study on panhandling tactics. Such a study may exist—I’m no scholar on the subject—but something about these situations is telling about human behavior and a data table might shed some light. 

What are your thoughts? It’s a favorite and classic debate: is selfless altruism possible? In humans? In animals?

And does it matter? In both situations, they got my pesos…

Guárdala.

I approached the theatre on Lavalle y Esmerelda with the intention of seeing Gatsby. I’d heard reviews both raving and hating and wanted to glimpse the glam myself. However upon scanning the billboard, I couldn’t find any listings.

“Ya se fue el Gran Gatsby?” I asked the man in line in front of me, friendly-looking, in maybe his early 50’s.

“Si, solo quedó por dos semanas,” he replied, holding something in his hand.

“Que rápido, quería verlo!” I said.

“Claro, no sé… Bueno, si no podés ver el Gatsby, querés ver Rapido y Furioso 6? Tengo este boleto que es, como, dos por uno— nos daría entrada por treinta pesos.”

I re-scanned the billboard, checking out the other options. I didn’t recognize anything else, and this guy was saving me money, so I decided to go with it. He paid, I paid him, and then I followed him into the theatre lobby where I found myself being presented to a group of people.

“Mira, esta es mi familia.” The man— Roberto— proceeded to introduce me to a woman who I think was his wife, and then to each of his four children, two younger, two older. The younger kids were a smiley bunch. The teenagers were also smiley but they wore those embarrassed smiles of ‘Dad’s doing it again’, a smile I remember quite well myself. I kissed cheeks and shook hands, bemused, as they asked me questions about who I am and why I exist and what part of Brasil I’m from. “Estadounidense, de Boston,” I replied. Apparently my accent sounds Brazilian. OK, I’ll take it, maybe I’d be good at Portuguese.

I learned that the rest of his family was going to see a different movie, a comedy, so Roberto and I would be seeing the Fast and the Furious 6 together, alone. Fine by me. This was all very random, I thought. Roberto interrupted my thoughts by shouting, “Foto! Foto! Un foto!” So I posed with his family while he took a picture of us grinning near a cutout of Iron Man. He told me that his daughter would share the photo with me on Facebook. She overheard, seethed. “Papá!” More exasperated smiling, and then it was time to enter the theatre.

We sat next to each other, squarely in the center row. It was a pretty full house, with the seats in front of us occupied by two couples who were far more interested in making out than watching the film. We shared a pack of tropical flavored mentos, and he offered me a piece of gum. I accepted. The movie started.

It was cheesy but awesome. Come on, it’s the Fast and the Furious SIX— at this point you know what you’re in for: impossible action scenes, hot chicks, unbreakable bones, absurd explosions, and the classic Vin Deisel one-liner melodrama. Perfect. Exactly what I paid for.

But there was something else familiar about this situation. There was a man next to me; laughing when I laughed, wincing when I winced, caught in the same predictable sequences of suspense and relief. He, taking up the entire arm rest, leaning forward during the car chases, letting out that roar of gladiatorial bloodlust as the bad guys are stopped in their tracks.

I know this feeling.

I didn’t realize I was crying until I tasted my tears. And then I realized, and realized, and felt that rigid rage build as my body went stiff and my fists shook fast and furious in time with the explosions onscreen. A car flying through the air narrowly misses Vin Deisel’s head and I hear that familiar cackle and realize that it was me, not him, and then realize, and realize, and feel my rigid body clench anew and tears spout like oil from when BP fucked up.

I know this feeling. I remember having felt it so many times. Rambo. Conan the Barbarian. Blade. True Lies. All the Terminators. Van Helsing. Hellboy. Marvel everything. Judgement Day. LOTR. Hidalgo. Hell, even the Three Stooges. Lost in Space. Watching fucking Raffi with my father. Cookie monster singing, “healthy food, tastes so good…”

I miss this feeling. It is so painfully familiar and bountiful in my memory, but now so uncommon. It’s not the same as being with friends, male or female, regardless of the activity. It’s not even a particularly social or interactive feeling, as most communication was conveyed through grunts and yells or perhaps the rare ‘whoop’. But it was part of the bond that I shared with my father, and it is gone and irreplaceable, and I miss it dearly.

The movie ended without Roberto realizing anything about my condition. I wrote down my name on a napkin so that his daughter might be able to facebook me that photo. We started walking out of the theatre, exchanged a few remarks about the movie, and got out to the street, where I stopped him—

“Una cosita” — “Si?” — “Bueno, sobre su familia. Es muy linda. Guárdala.”

Essentially, I told him to value and protect his family. I then told him in one quick sentence that my own father had passed, and (building off of a Vin Diesel one-liner from 10 minutes earlier) delivered that damn cliche that you never know what you have until it’s gone, which I’m not sure I always agree with, but it was a busy street and we were on our way. He gave me his card. I smiled. We shook hands and parted. I walked off and cried.

For the Love of … Whistling

If you know me, you’ve heard me whistle.

I know, it’s a petty prompt for a post, but in all seriousness, I am so grateful that I can whistle.

Being abroad so far has been a fantastic and broadening experience. My mom asked me while skyping the other day whether it’s been worth it, being here, and without hesitation I went rambling about all of the ways that I’ve grown and learned in the last months, which really comes down to my becoming slightly more acquainted with the world in all its bizarre diversity. I had a very drunk old man fall on my table two nights ago and knock my water glass and milanesa to shatter and splatter on the ground. I shared a mate with some random teenagers on Lavalle yesterday and ended up seeing (and understanding) Iron Man 3 en castellano with them (which was awesome, by the way). I walk a little taller here, not because I’ve grown, but because appearance is everything in this damn world. And so it goes.

It’s all been great, with the distinct exceptions of deeply missing two of my main loves: my people, and my music.

Of course I miss my people. Those who are usually sources of strength and comfort are… far away. That can be difficult and saddening. I miss you guys often.

But my music. Ah, my music.

If you know me, you’ve heard me whistle. Perhaps it’s because I began my musical education young that I feel the urge to express melodically; what is nature or nurture is difficult to discern. But whatever the source, I get something from being musical that I cannot replace with any other activity or mode of expression. Listening to music is in no way the same. In fact, I hardly listen to music at all. It’s like reading a cookbook and having no kitchen. Or shopping for running sneakers after having broken your legs. I don’t want to hear anyone else express, no matter how beautifully. Their songs block my own.

I can always hear my familiar melodies faintly in my head. They are so important to me, each of them having evolved and matured through the course of years and events. They formulate best through my fingers, thanks to the incredible privilege I’ve been bestowed, foremost by my mother for having prodded me to practice for all those years, but also by my makeup, my teachers, my guitar-smashing friends…

But these fingers have been denied their dancing lately, and are antsy, like, “WTF man?” I reply to them, “I know, right? Seriously, I’ve been looking!” For a country with a strong historical piano culture, there is remarkably little recourse for a non-music-student-traveller in search of a practice room, or a living room, or a hotel lobby, or a bar room— anything, anything with a dingy upright beer-spilt poorly tuned set of keys. Anything to get these melodies out of my head and into the air where they can re-enter through my ears and create that magical cycle of musical creation.

And so I whistle.

And just as a by-product of having whistled a lot (and having applied some conscious effort at ‘improving’ at whistling) I find that it … does the job. I can’t really sing, well. Humming is not as satisfying. And when it comes down to it, whistling produces a relatively pure tone, if high-pitched and shrill. But even then, I can comfortably whistle from about C1 — E3, which is enough range for a fantastic range of repertoire. Whistling thus allows for that blunt melodic expression that I feel the need to produce.

So in all seriousness, I’m grateful that I can whistle. I’m not sure if those around me share my gratitude, as you’ve certainly heard more of it than you’ve wanted at times. Here in Argentina, my host family has nicknamed me ‘El Silbador,’ although I think it’s used somewhat affectionately as my host-mother Carmen has exclaimed several times, “que buen silbatazo!”

Because I know some of you will recognize it, I’ll include here what is probably my most-sampled motif, which has been ever on repeat this last year. Ancient 1. It’s a simple, tragic tune, but never-ending, and full of hope.

And because I’m feeling bold, here is a recording on piano from before I left for Argentina, in which you will hear this motif and others. I don’t share this lightly, as this was produced in a sad moment. But it’s not a sad song; I whistle it in happy times too. Also please pardon the recording quality, which is horrendous. I should really get a microphone. #Someday. #WhenIHaveMoney.

Soul bearing is always a mixed experience. I hope I didn’t bore you with my musings. I did just write about whistling, which is not exactly a deep intellectual subject, though important to me, as I’ve just described. To make up for my own lack of interesting ideas, here and here are two innovative social enterprises that you should be aware of and support. :)

Be well!

Marxismo Ecológico: The “I Have a Midterm Tomorrow” Edition

I’m writing this post essentially as a review for my parcial (midterm exam) tomorrow afternoon… however I do find this stuff important and interesting and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my studies to find Marx’s opinions on the human-nature relationship both logical and… agreeable — not generally the word people would associate with the author of such world-infamous revolutionary dogmata. But my goal, by the end of this (hopefully concise) post is to convince you that Marx was not only an extremely progressive ‘environmentalist’, but furthermore founded his entire body of academic work on the necessity of repairing the human-nature relationship. Which (spoiler alert) he eventually says is impossible to do within the context of our current capitalist system, and thus suggests socialism or communism, and.. yeah. Revolution, yadda yadda etc.

So let’s start off tens of thousands of years ago, when the first human-ish populations were hunting and gathering and hadn’t quite figured out how to plant seeds in a row. At that point, humans did effect their ecosystems, but only proportionately similarly to any other animal specie of our size and reproductive prowess. All of that Native-American-Pocahontas lore of living with nature and respecting (her) natural flows? That, according to Marx, is the only sustainable state that humans have ever known. We had to respect nature’s flows, because even early humans’ primative ‘ecology’ enlightened them to realize that if you overuse a resource, it dries out, whether it be animal/plant/fish/bug/water. Even then, if early humans DID overuse a resource, they often would pack up camp and leave, allowing for nature to naturally replenish itself, causing (as far as we know) little long term harm.

Then we discovered how to plant seeds in a row. Agriculture, that crazy paradigm shift that allowed humans to generate food surplus which allowed for some humans to specialize and craft goods which could then be traded with other humans so that we could build massive, dirty campsites and generally distance ourselves from soil toils; this, the dissociation the human producer from the source of his production (nature) is problematized by Marx as the metabolic rift, (referencing the action of intaking and transforming (labor) resources and outputting goods as a type of metabolism). Since we are not directly connected to our own production from natural resources, Marx says we are alienated from nature; capitalism inserts labor between man and nature, which indicates, given the emergence of large-scale agriculture, long-distance trade, and general globalization, that this metabolic rift is only intensifying.

And the result of this metabolic rift is the ideology that modern capitalism was built upon: the Great Chain of Being; Natural Theology; the teleological notion that nature was created by God or a higher power for man to use and abuse (the bible actually says that we should act as a “shepherd” to nature, implying an element of caretaking, but that was conveniently overlooked by Christian colonialism). Ownership by divine providence, says Marx, is a philosophical idealism which has been used to justify and encourage the domination of nature by man. Hence, we have private property, anthropocentric arrogance, and the earth and her resources are commodified whilst man is elevated to a semi-devine, non-animal, non-God, ‘superior being’.

In contrast to this idealism is Marx’s materialism, which could be understood as ‘thinking scientifically.’ We are comprised of matter, and even though we can’t see them, atoms, and we are the product of millions of years of evolution by way of natural selection according to the laws of nature. According to this epistemology, man is clearly not anything divine or superior, and even though we’ve operated (..since hunter-gatherer days) on the false ideology that we’re not part of nature and are not subject to the same set of natural rules and regulations as the rest of our biotic community, we are just as much a production of our evolutionary pathway as is a flea.

Though, says materialist philosophy, we are different, in that we have actually changed the earth itself over time, and as we went about transforming the world, we transformed ourselves:

primates, who constituted the ancestors of human beings, descended from the trees, erect posture developed first (prior to the evolution of the human brain), freeing the hands for tool-making. In this way:

the hand became free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity and skill, and the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation. Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.

Our brain is perhaps the most remarkable result of this reflexive socio-natural relationship— as we developed cultural items, such as the ability to use tools or pass on knowledge or ultimately develop language, natural selection also acted to favor those who were most adept at participating in such culture, leading to our current cranial capacities which we’ve neatly abused to figure out the most creative freaking ways to destroy the earth that birthed us. Anyways,

So now we’re here today with our titanic chasm of a metabolic rift, and frankly it’s not even the religion idea that motivates our further worldly destruction but rather flat anthropocentrism, justified by the exalted pursuit of profit (which is still part of the idealist philosophy, as anthropocentrism is a teleology)— where does sustainability fit in? What happened to respecting the laws of nature, which are still-and-forever-will-be conditions of the human existence? How can we justify ownership of this land? Finally in line with his esteemed manifesto, Marx writes:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].

We’ve been shitty heads of the household. And I’m certain we will continue, if not worsen, our reign of terror.

Capitalism, writes Marx, “creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry…” — in other words, capitalism is a powerful engine which has led us to a point where we’ve got the brains and brawn to figure out a path towards a “higher synthesis”, which he suggests to be a system of “rational agriculture, which needs small independent farmers producing on their own…” and the regulation of associated producers. HOWEVER, since we’re humans, and we’ve got to have free will and self determination and especially-in-God-bless-AMURICA, this sort of regulation is immediately termed socialism or communism, which it very well could be, except it won’t, because these systems fail, or at least we’re convinced they do.

DOOM AND GLOOM, we’ll probably keep hacking and fracking until Iceland is an anachronism and Sweden is the only place with no garbage.

Until then, VIVA LA REVOLUCION

***

~~ Keep in mind, Marx was convinced of the omnipotence of reestablishing our metabolic link in ~1850’s, long before the Teddy Roosevelts and Rachel Carsons of modern environmentalism. Environmentalism wasn’t even around yet, heck, the idea of the “scientist” had just been coined in the ’30’s, and the concept of “ecology” in ’69… progressive ‘environmentalist’? I think so.

And I would call that damn concise. Have you ever read Marx????