February 19th, 2010

Because It’s Friday

I received this message on Facebook today.  It is not spam, and I have not made any edits except to redact identifying information.  Maybe those trendsetters who are dumping Facebook are on to something.

Hi Fellow BC ’02 Alumni

Happy belated holidays of 2010. Hope everything is going well for all of you and your loved ones this year. Hope everyone is staying warm this winter and maybe enjoying the winter Olympics. Here are a few things I think you should know:

1. We have GOT to say a prayer or 2 for the men’s Basketball team; they really need it.

2. Please let other Boston College ’02 alumni know about our group here on facebook so we can connect and keep in touch.

3. If anyone fell off the eagon on their new year’s resolution or is looking to do some good for Lent, don’t worry. Come visit my blog @ [address redacted]. It’s my own personal blog of all the healthy recipes I cook from Weight Watchers, South Beach Diet and Kraft Foods. It’s a collection of all the healthy recipes I cook and my personal thoughts of what I cook. Please tell all your friends about my blog because I could use all the publicity I can get.

4. Speaking of cooking, I have suggested to Father Bill Neenan @ BC that I (we) should have a Throwdown with Bobby Flay @ BC before a BC Home game. I Think the throwdown should be the Ultimate Tailgate Throwdown So I, Father Neenan and other good tailgate chefs can show Bobby Flay how a tailgate should be done. If anyone knows or has access to Bobby Flay, tell him that BC would love to have a throwdown with him. I’d also love to compete on Iron Chef America so if anyone knows somebody @ Food Network, tell them I’d love to compete on the show!

5. Go TEAM USA in Vancouver!!!

6. I’ll be coming up to Boston this coming weekend with my mom for family business and vacation. I’ll be arriving on Sunday and leaving Monday evening. I’d love to meet some of you if that’s possible. Please get back to me ASAP.

7. Here’s 2 videos that are too funny. I guarantee you will enjoy them!

Clip #1

Clip #2

That’s all I have to say for now so those are the things I thought I would share with you. Hope everything is well and I’d love to hear from you. GO BC!

All the best,
[name redacted], BC ’02

February 9th, 2010

It’s the Media, Stupid.

There’s been a lot of talk lately, what with Scott Brown’s election, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and the inability of the Democrats to pass health care reform, about the rampant incompetency of Congress and voters’ frustration about the legislative process. Larry Lessig, who’s leading the charge of the Change Congress movement, has come out strongly lately arguing that money in the political system is at the root of the corruption that’s compromising the policymaking process. Lessig has inspired me to dig deeper (I’m applying to MPP programs to study this issue), and as I’ve thought about the problem, the more I am convinced that the solution won’t necessarily be found in reforming campaign finance (or, in reforming campaign alone). As Lessig himself has pointed out, it’s very hard to point to specific votes that were clearly bought by campaign donations. And it’s not like congress people are getting rich, taking bribes to go buy BMWs or something (well, I suppose there are exceptions to that rule). In fact the sort of corruption that happens in the US system stems from something much more fundamental–the universal human lust for power and influence, and it’s perpetuated by profit-driven media.

I see profit-driven media influencing the policymaking process in two ways. First, the brutal scrutiny paid to candidates’ private lives and the inability to speak frankly (because everything a candidate says is liable to be turned into some sort of scandal) means that no one in their right mind would want to run for office. In this way, the process self-selects for people who necessarily value power and influence enough that they’re willing to compromise their privacy or integrity in order to achieve it—and to keep it.

Second, the profit-driven media are so obsessed with creating conflict (in order to grab more eyeballs and hence sell more ad space) that politicians know that the more vitriolic they are the more likely they’ll be to get in the news (and, hence, garner more influence and perpetuate their power). As President Obama pointed out during his lecture at the GOP retreat earlier this winter, this polarizing rhetoric paints both sides into a corner from which they’re not able to negotiate in good faith. Once you’ve called the President a Nazi, how can you then turn around and hash out health care reform with him?

This slash and burn tactic to grab headlines was highlighted recently at a speech/Q&A session I sat through with Michael Steele, the Chairman of the RNC. What struck me most was the unapologetic tone he struck when talking about the role of politics in the policymaking process. Maybe it’s because of the position he holds, but he seemed to take for granted that winning elections is the point of American democracy, that policy was just something that happened in odd years (and that it was all subject for use in an attack ad at some point). The takeaway was that what politicians care about is winning, and that doesn’t just mean elections, it also means winning the news cycle, which is utterly overrun with coverage of the horse race.

But what if we changed the rules of the game? What if “winning” meant making good faith efforts at proposing policy, working constructively with the other party, and operating on the assumption of intellectual honesty? Media outlets have the power to frame the debate this way, paying closer attention to the merits of policy proposals, forcing lawmakers to answer tough questions, and not giving weight to stories that distract us from this.

Since we’re all publishers now, there’s no excuse for us not to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Our challenge is to harness this newfound power to create a collective voice that has as much influence on our lawmakers as the big broadcast media outlets do. Our elected officials have to know that winning, losing and maintaining power starts with being answerable to us, that we will judge them based on their support for what’s in the best interest of the public.

There are still a lot of ifs. As profit-driven media outlets find that the Internet has destroyed its business model, can non-profit accountability journalism organizations fill the gap? And how do we train citizens to be responsible, critical consumers—and producers!—of this type of media on a scale that will rival established media outlets? If everything goes according to plan (my knuckles are raw from knocking wood) I’ll be in grad school next fall pursuing answers to these questions on a full-time basis.

January 11th, 2010

The Education of a Western Media Consumer

I have a problem. I’ve been trying to be a good Westerner and keep up with international news when it breaks, but I have a really hard time finding a set of good, diverse sources covering those issues. Let’s take the events a few weeks ago in the Philippines. I must have first heard about this story on NPR or read it in the New York Times. It piqued my interest and I wanted to know more, but I have zero context for the political situation in the Philippines so I went to Global Voices hoping one of their fantastic regional editors was providing a primer and found nothing about the massacre. There are a couple posts up now about blogger reaction to the events and coverage of remembrance events, but those went up weeks after the initial events. Don’t get me wrong, Global Voices does great work, they just don’t do the type of work I was looking for at the time, which was coverage of a breaking event from a non-western perspective that didn’t assume so much pre-existing knowledge that I couldn’t follow along. I really don’t want to have to depend on NPR and The New York Times for all my news. There are a couple things I can think of that might help:

*Google News searches: though there’s no editor here so this really doesn’t help with my context problem, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s crap and what’s not, which publication has a slant and what that slant is, etc.

*Wikipedia: I can’t remember where I saw this, but there was talk after some event in 2009 that Wikipedia was the best source for information on it (was it some shooting or something? I can’t remember). That’s actually a very intriguing idea, especially because of the external links Wikipedia provides, but in the most recent instance when I was looking for news–information about the health of the Nigerian president–Wikipedia’s Nigeria page had no info.
I’m sure there are existing sources/sites that are completely obvious that I’m missing. I look forward to my friends who are entrenched in this stuff schooling me!

December 13th, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

“Really, I trained my mind to be flexible,” Deo said.  “Some of the stuff I learned was, be willing to know that even when you think you know for sure, always leave room for uncertainty.  And someone who always agrees with you is not necessarily your friend.  You can always learn something good in a hard time, if you survive it.  And there is really no mathematical formula you can follow to achieve what you want.  Just trial and error.”

This book reminded me a lot of Zeitoun: unchallenging prose that leads the disarmed reader into nightmares that need very few clauses to impart meaning. One time, I was reading on my couch and decided I needed a drink of water. On the way back to the couch, within a span of maybe five seconds, I took a sip of clean, cold water, flipped a light switch to make the room brighter and turned the knob on the thermostat to make the room a couple degrees warmer. We’ve all had these moments before–when something inane like that jars you into 3 seconds of realization before we go on with our lives. This time I was completely disoriented. I had such a disconnection from Deo’s story that had lodged in my head of fleeing the Rwandan genocide, and the comfort in which I was reading it.

The way I feel about books has a lot to do with what’s happening in my life when I read them. At mass a couple weeks ago, the priest said that often when we have broken hearts, our acute sense of pain–the rawness of having exposed emotional nerves–leaves us open to feeling the pain of others in ways we wouldn’t if we were feeling whole. My own exposed nerves had me feeling Deo’s story in ways I probably wouldn’t have if I’d read this book in, say, 2006. In some weird way, it makes me grateful for the hurt, it reminds me what human feels like, which is so hard to touch when we have cold water and warm beds available whenever we want them. It’s strange to think that that pain can at the same time make you feel so alone and yet more connected to other people than ever before.

There’s nothing I could possibly experience in my lifetime that will ever even begin to put me in a position to understand what Deo, and millions of others like him, is feeling and I can sense that same awkwardness in Tracy Kidder’s telling. (There were times when I wished he’d quit trying to tell us what he thought Deo must be thinking and just get on with it). But I only know that because I have something in my own experience to judge his story against.  It’s true what he says, “you can always learn something good in a hard time, if you survive it.”

November 29th, 2009

Everyday Miracles

Since it’s the holiday season, I suppose I should give public thanks to those little things that I find awe inspiring in my day-to-day existence.
One of the most inspiring has got to be the hot shower. It’s a measure of our prosperity that we take utterly for granted the practically limitless amount of hot water us westerners have at our disposal at all times. The act of standing under a steaming stream of water mere seconds after turning a knob has got to be the definition of luxury. Considering that about 1/6 of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean water, let alone those who don’t have indoor plumbing, let alone those who don’t have a hot water tank, well, you can imagine how few people can take a hot shower every day (being the pampered American that I am, I was too lazy to track down actual statistics to back up that assertion).

So here’s to showers. Hot ones. Ones that have played a large part in advancing public health and, more importantly, my mental and spiritual health. As winter approaches, and with it those frigid dark mornings, I’m very thankful for my 10 minutes of spa-like pleasure every day before I face my first-world life full of annoyances like waiting ten minutes for the bus to come, or gmail being down, or the homeless man living in my basement. While I’m sure there are other little luxuries that I’m taking for granted while I’m busy figuring out how to change the TV channel without my remote, I can’t be bothered to take the time away from my $6 Sunday New York Times to think of what they might be. If they should occur to me (maybe when I’m dropping some change in the Salvation Army tin?), I’ll be sure to post them on my blog immediately.

November 15th, 2009

Why We Need Transparency–and Media that Does its Job–in the Policymaking Process

I just finished writing my statement of purpose for my grad school applications on the need for transparency paired with  robust, public-interest media in order to counteract corruption in the policymaking process.  Almost as soon as I’d hit save and finally, after weeks of agonizing revisions, put the piece to rest I opened the New York Times to find this article about lobbyists’ influence over the congressional statements on health care reform.  The most galling part of the article was not that congresspeople submitted statements for the congressional record that had been drafted by lobbyists.  The most galling part was that seemingly no one on Capitol Hill seemed to think there is anything wrong with it.  They’re even going on record!

In a written addendum in the Congressional Record, Mr. Hare said the bill would also create high-paying jobs. Timothy Schlittner, a spokesman for Mr. Hare, said: “That part of his statement was drafted for us by Roche pharmaceutical company. It is something he agrees with.”


[Congressman] Brady’s chief of staff, Stanley V. White, said he had received the draft statement from a lobbyist for Genentech’s parent company, Roche.

“We were approached by the lobbyist, who asked if we would be willing to enter a statement in the Congressional Record,” Mr. White said. “I asked him for a draft. I tweaked a couple of words. There’s not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry.”

Larry Lessig has made waves recently, arguing that transparency in itself isn’t necessarily good for democracy.  If citizens are exposed to the rampant corruption intrinsic in the system they may just give up hope and disengage from the process altogether.  There’ll be no shock value, as there clearly isn’t in Washington these days, judging by the reaction of the members of congress and their staffs.  I agree with Lessig, which is why I declare in my statement of purpose (is that like a mission statement?) that we need to match transparency with real journalism (not punditism) and media literacy training so that citizens have avenues to feed back into the process.

For now, I’ll just give props to the New York Times for actually doing some reporting that holds decision makers accountable.   Now if they just didn’t have that whole “profit” thing to worry about….

November 12th, 2009

Apropos my Last Post

NPR recently profiled a new book about mixed-race America.  Looks really interesting, and the stuff in the interview with the authors about the “what are you?” question obviously resonated.

November 1st, 2009


Stranger: Where are you from?

Me: Ummm, I live in Cambridge?

Stranger: No, I mean, originally.

Me: Well, I grew up in Michigan

[awkward pause]

Stranger: But where are your parents from?

Me: My dad’s from Chicago and my mom’s from upstate New York

[another awkward pause]

Stranger: yes, but what is your nationality

Me: Uhh, I’m American

At this point, depending on my mood, I’ll either break the news that my mom’s white and my dad’s black (which always disappoints the inquisitor, who’s expecting something much more interesting), or I’ll ask them where they think I’m from (I’ve heard everything from India to Sicily), or I’ll just let the awkward silence hang.

If only I had a dollar for every time I had this conversation. Or for every time an immigrant spoke Spanish to me conspiratorially when we were alone together in an elevator. Or when a white woman told me what a nice tan I had. Or when a black playmate wanted to run her fingers through my hair.

I was bi-racial before it was cool. Middle school was especially hard, with indifferent white kids and openly hostile blacks. Neither one of my parents’ families was accepting of their marriage, and so we grew up without really close ties to our extended family. I’ve only just recently begun to feel like I fit. And yet, despite not knowing how to articulate why, I’ve always felt deeply American. My roots here run deep, going back generations before the civil war. My family’s story has been personally and viscerally intertwined with just about every defining moment of this country’s history—slavery, the black migration north, the labor movement in industrial northern cities, World War II, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Vietnam.

The Obama candidacy, and the white populist backlash against it, has had a big impact on me. I remember telling my extremely skeptical brother and sister, in July 2007, that Barack Obama was going to be the next president. They thought I’d been living in Massachusetts for too long. I thought they’d been too crippled by their experience in the South. As per usual, I was right. But their warnings about the deeply entrenched racial animosity that’s alive and well were also justified. Recently, Pat Buchanan (one of my all-time favorite bigots) tried to articulate the sense of why working-class whites felt like they were losing “their” country, as if people like me have no claim to the idea of America. Andrew Sullivan’s response to Buchanan said it better than I could, as he describes his immigrant experience here:

It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me – and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of – and attraction to – its opposite. Even something as stereotypically white as American Catholicism, I discovered to my amazement, was also black from the very start. (Yes, those Maryland slaves. If you’ve never been to a Gospel Mass in an ancient black Catholic parish, try it some time.)

From the beginning, in its very marrow, this country was forged out of that racial and cultural interaction. It fought a brutalizing, bloody, defining civil war over that interaction. Any European student of Tocqueville swiftly opens his eyes at the three races that defined America in the classic text. Has Buchanan read Tocqueville? And that’s why it seems so odd to me that the election of the son of a white mother and a black father is seen as somehow a threat to American identity for some, when, in fact, Obama is the final iteration of the American identity – the oldest one and the deepest one. This newness is, in fact, ancient – or as ancient as America can be. The very names – Ann Dunham and Barack Obama. Is not their union in some ways a faint echo of the union that actually made this country what it is?

That’s what’s so offensive about Buchanan’s position. Not that he recognizes the loss of influence of some white Americans, but that he deems irrelevant the contributions and American-ness of people like me.

I was always hard-pressed to articulate my patriotism in a way that didn’t sound like I was channeling Sarah Palin. It’s definitely not cool to admit that you get teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or that you have a crush on Alexander Hamilton. But Sullivan’s characterization puts a finger on what I had yet to figure out—my identity is tied to this country’s history. I am here because of it, and my family has both benefited from its opportunity, thriving as a result, and been savagely oppressed by its demons.

When I travel to foreign countries, I always expect to be able to blend in. After all, everywhere I go in the US I’m mistaken for whatever ethnic fetish happens to strike someone’s fancy. But for some reason, before I even open my mouth, people tend to know I’m American. Maybe it’s just my American eyes and wide smile, but I tend to think it’s more than that, that I embody the character of this country, all of its good and bad, promise and shortcomings. And the last time someone told me I had a nice tan, I put on my American smile, looked them in the eye, and said thank you.

October 18th, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Zeitoun

I have approximately 50 books sitting on my shelves at home that I should be reading (because I buy books like I buy shoes) so it’s saying something that Zeitoun skipped the line.  It was worth it.

Zeitoun is Dave Eggers’ latest about a unique family from New Orleans and their Katrina experience.  Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant who settles in New Orleans in the mid-80s and builds his own painting and contracting business from the ground up.  He marries a Louisianan divorcee, Kathy, who has previously converted to Islam along with her Japanese best friend (only in New Orleans) and they have four kids together (in addition to Kathy’s son from her first marriage).

In late August of 2005, as Katrina is bee-lining for New Orleans, Kathy packs up her family and heads out of town.  Her husband (Zeitoun, as he’s known) decides to stay to watch over their house, business, and rental properties.

(Side note: it’s easy to second guess this decision now, especially for people not accustomed to living in hurricane zones, but evacuating is a really expensive, time-consuming pain in the ass, and when you have assets at stake, the urge is to stick around.  Besides, most of these storms end up passing without too much damage, and the cry-wolf aspect played a big role in keeping ppl around for Katrina).

The book tells the story of how he ends up embroiled in a Kafka-esque nightmare that highlights everything that was wrong with the W. Bush era, and which was so poignantly exposed during the Katrina response.  I won’t ruin it for you, but as you may have guessed, his Syrian background plays a role.

I’ve read a few books about the disaster that was the W era, and I find that most of them have a hard time distilling the vastness of the given debacle (torture, Katrina, WMD, etc.) into something that strikes us viscerally.  These authors have run up against the problem of trying to describe something mammoth that’s still looming—we’re just too close and the truth of it is just too obvious.

By taking one family’s experience and telling the story with an almost child-like simplicity, Eggers has gotten as close as I’ve read to translating the mammoth into something we can understand.  At first, I was really annoyed with the inanity of the tone of the book.  Eggers spends a lot of time discussing the daily ins and outs of the Zeitoun family.  There are several syrupy anecdotes from Zeitoun’s childhood in coastal Syria (the comparisons to the champion swimmer brother are especially gag-worthy).  But when the story turns to the storm and its aftermath, that tone that has so disarmed us serves to deliver us the news without bashing us over the head.  It’s almost chilling to have the facts delivered this way, simply and straight up, leaving us to see how out of line it is with the averageness of this family.

I have a strong affinity for New Orleans because my family lives there (I grew up in Michigan, but my parents lived there with my sister for a few years in the early ‘70s before moving north, and my brother, sister, niece and nephew live there now) and I spend most major holidays and a week in the summer there pretty much every year.

When Katrina hit, I mourned.  My nephew (who lives mostly with his father) lost his house and had to move to Houston for several months.  My sister, a reporter for a local TV station, evacuated to my apartment in Boston for a few days before returning to Louisiana to continue working and became the de facto New Orleans bureau chief (because she lived in the French Quarter on high ground, she was one of the only people at her station who had a place to go home to every night; the rest of them operated out of a sister studio in Mobile, AL, sleeping in a motel).  A few weeks after the storm, I caught her on the phone while she was at a strip club—the only people in town, she explained, were National Guardsmen and reporters, so the only places open were strip joints.

Since 2005, we’ve had more evacuation scares, and my sister has had another child, which makes the evacuation logistics even more fraught.  We basically hold our breath from June through November.  Four years later, New Orleans is much as I remember it, but for people who live there life isn’t yet completely back to normal.  It takes a really long time for the cable guy to come, for example.  Many people are still battling red tape in order to rebuild their homes.  Thousands are not coming back, and as much as I love the city I can’t really blame them.

Through Zeitoun, Eggers has managed to tell the story of the tribulations these normal Americans face(d).  At the same time, he holds accountable in a way no one has really been able to do before—without bluster or a heavy hand—the people who caused this human disaster.

September 27th, 2009

Slovenia, Part Two

Note: Again, as with part one, I’m a little late with posting this.

The weather finally changed, and it’s been absolutely idyllic as a result. Karst is beautiful, and reminds a lot of the area of Portugal we visited in July, but somehow more remote (maybe it’s the more significant language barrier). One funny footnote is that David has three times as many Facebook friends as people who live in this village. Sad for him.

Because of the rurality, the drive here was a little fraught. Let’s just say our teamwork broke down right around Nova Gorica and didn’t re-establish itself until we’d finally made it to the farm. This place, Kmetija Skerlj, is a different type of farm than Pri Plajerju. The owners are much more businesslike (the husband works all day tending to the honey and grapes, and is trained as a butcher; the wife and daughters seem to run the tourist part of things). The stench is definitely authentic, as are the bugs, and the shower is a bit hard to navigate. Other than that, the place is magical. If this is possible, it’s more remote than Marvao in Portugal. There are rolling vineyards and gardens as far as the eye can see. The buildings are all stone, brick and stucco. There are about three times as many churches as gas stations.

Kmetija Sklerj, the second farm of the trip

Kmetija Sklerj, the second farm of the trip

View of the Farm

View of the Farm

We were about 20 minutes away from Trieste so we decided to spend a day there. The city was unremarkable, I thought (looked like every other European city), but the port was pretty picturesque. We ventured out to bordering town, Muggia, which was much more charming, before heading back to Slovenia.

We took refuge in a Trieste cafe during this freak downpour

We took refuge in a Trieste cafe during this freak downpour; this guy wasn't so lucky, and was selling umbrellas ironically enough!

Trieste coastline

Trieste coastline

The food at the farm was better than the first. We had beef and pork, no surprise, but the side dishes were so so good and we got a garden fresh salad every night with the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. Every morning, we had grapes right off the vine. Once I figured out how to get around the seeds, I was downing them like candy. They bottle their own wine at this farm, and the sauvignon blanc and honey liqueur were amazing. Their reds were…undrinkable. I’ll just leave it at that.

One our last full day, we checked out the Skocjan caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site. They were pretty cool, but I didn’t realize they’d be such a tourist trap. You’re forced to take the guided tour for the first 30 minutes, then they let you find your way out at your own pace. They also don’t allow pictures, which is annoying (but I found a way to sneak a few). Once you’re back to daylight, there’s a half hour hike to get back to the parking lot. That part reminded me a lot of Ithaca.

Skocjan Caves

Skocjan Caves

The next day, we headed to Ljubljana for a night. It’s such a cool little city, with a river running through it and really unassuming medieval streets. There’s a really nice, big park on the outskirts of downtown, and it’s so small that everything is within walking distance. For dinner, we got a local suggestion and went to one of the best meals I’ve ever had (yes, it’s a theme) at a place called Valvas’or. The pretentiousness was a little over the top, but the food justified the attitude.



On the way back to our hotel, we discovered that Slovenia was playing Serbia in the semi-finals of the European basketball championships. There was a huge TV set up in the main plaza, and there were tons of people riveted to the game. We could hear them cheering late. (Unfortunately, Serbia beat Bosnia in overtime).

Our last stop was Vienna, where we met up with Curt and Ann who were passing through on their way to Oktoberfest. By that point, we were feeling lazy and Vienna looked too overwhelming to do justice in a day. So we checked into our hotel (the Hollmann Beletage, highly highly recommended) and drank beers from the BP station (only place selling booze on Sunday) in the hotel courtyard. At dinner, I finally had wiener schnitzel and got to sample some good Austrian gruner veltliner and Reisling.

The happy couple, over Weisbier (weisbier makes everything happier)

The happy couple, over Weisbier (weisbier makes everything happier)

As I type, I’m on Lufthansa 424 from Munich to Boston, with an irritated toddler behind me to reinstate me to reality. My summer of 1,000 adventures is officially over, now it’s time to return to the inbox of 1,000 unread messages.

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