On Earth Day 2013, Sandily

Happy Earth Day 2013!

When we were little, Earth Day was a big deal. We did projects, and papers, and dioramas about Earth Day. Maybe I’m making that up, but I remember loving Earth Day. I looked forward to it. I think I imagined that my future self (which would equate to present me) would be this great planter of trees every year on Earth Day. To date, I have planted zero trees.

I did, however, rake my entire garden last weekend and plan on planting some things this year, so I feel like that’s a baby step in the right direction. Some day, we may be eating vegetables that I grew. I’m thinking tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, basil, mint, and so on. In reality, it will most likely be a sad plot that starts out magnificent but ends up overgrown with weeds. But everyone does that at least once, right?

I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I have friends who know how to do this, so I imagine I can call on them to help assist me with planning, planting, and harvesting.

In the meantime, let’s focus on current ecological issues (of which there about ten billion). I was reading this article about building structures out of plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are great (not really – they’re terrible for the environment, but they’re ubiquitous), and they’ve been used in a ton of very ingenious ways such as providing light to homes and being used to help grow gardens inside.

However, reading about building structures out of plastic, all I could think about were the drawbacks. What about weather? What about security? How is the building going to hold up and be a strong structure going forward?

When I was in South Africa, one of the biggest problems in the townships (informal settlements) was the fact that the houses were built out of essentially reclaimed materials. The houses (some more shack than house) were built out of wood, sheet metal, plastic, anything and everything. The floors were often dirt, or dirt covered in carpeting. It’s hard to keep a place like that clean, but more than that, it’s hard to protect that sort of structure from the elements.

When a fire breaks out in a township, it’s often inside one of the homes. However, it’s nearly impossible to contain the fire based on a number of factors, including the lack of accessibility to running water, proximity to the other homes, and the materials from which the houses are constructed. When one house burns, it’s likely that the others around it are going to burn too, causing unnecessary damage and threatening human life.

The building project I visited was creating a house out of sandbags. These sandbags are laid down in a concrete foundation and eventually plastered or covered in concrete, creating a structure that is nearly impermeable, providing a safer structure that can withstand the elements.

This sandbag house is such a wonderful idea because it makes use of the ubiquitous sand that’s found in and around the Cape Flats where many of these townships are located. It’s cheap to buy the concrete mix and the bags for the sand, and with some community involvement and a little planning, a building can be built relatively quickly and very cheaply. Even better? It’s not flammable like the other houses, offering protection in case of a rapidly spreading fire.

Below is the article that I wrote while I was there, that was published in the Cape Chameleon, the publication of the Projects Abroad journalism project. I think it’s important to highlight sustainable building because it can help draw attention to solutions for problems that badly need solving.

Houses of Sand

THE FUTURE OF ECO-BUILDING

Issue No.52010

Words: Katherine Barry

A pile of charred wood is all that’s left of the shacks. The sand where they sat is littered with burned belongings: a blackened Bible, an office chair, clothes no longer usable. The metal sheets that had once been walls have been salvaged, taken for use in new shacks, the obviously burnt edges blending in amongst the rust.

The first fire broke out three weeks before in the same shack that would be the ignition point of the second fire, which would tear through the informal settlement of Village Heights in Cape Town, depriving 15 families of their homes.

Fires in informal settlements – like Village Heights – represent one of the biggest dangers of living in such a community. Even with attempts to build with space on all sides, fires such as the one that destroyed those 15 shacks can spread quickly since the materials used to construct the homes are highly flammable and unregulated.

‘It was better under apartheid,’ says Bernadine, the community leader who has created and maintained the Village Heights library, and who is the recipient of the first Projects Abroad sandbag house in South Africa. ‘At least then we all had our own homes and jobs. Now we have nothing.’

Government response

According to residents, after the first fire the government offered four wooden posts, five pieces of metal and some grounding plastic as a replacement. However, the metal went to the construction of a roof and the residents were left to use plastic to create walls. During the second fire, a woman was badly burned when the plastic melted onto her skin.

Proper housing is something that many people living in South Africa lack, for a multitude of reasons, including long waiting times after application for government housing. ‘I’ve been on a waiting list for twenty-one years,’ says one woman who lost her home in the fire. ‘My daughter is 20 now.’ She went on to detail her experience, saying that she makes regular visits to go check on the status of her application, only to be told that she is indeed still on the list, but that no further information can be released about the status of the application.

While debates rage about governmental involvement and personal contribution for houses, the issue remains that people lack proper living quarters. Residents of the informal settlements around Cape Town and throughout South Africa are forced to create homes using materials that they can find, salvage, or buy, resulting in homes that often lack even basic features such as a floor. Security measures are an afterthought as well, allowing for criminal activity to flourish in the crowded neighbourhoods. Where to go from here?

Sand is nearly ubiquitous in Cape Town and the surrounding areas. It also might present a feasible solution to the problem of the shack homes in the ever-expanding informal settlements. Filling bags with sand and then stacking them within a frame can create a solid structure that is built both efficiently and quickly.

Beginning with materials, construction with sandbags can be a cheap alternative to traditional building methods. Since all that is needed to build a sandbag structure are bags, sand, cement and wooden and metal framing, the cost drops significantly due to the lack of construction equipment needed. No cranes, no stacks of bricks and no heavy vehicles entering or leaving the construction site.

20% of the materials need to be allocated for the construction of the frame of the sandbag building, but there is a certain amount of flexibility as to what those might be – including the use of wood or tin. Bricks can be used as well, but in order to maintain the eco-friendly atmosphere, they should only be implemented if they are within reach to avoid the entrance of trucks and other machinery in to the site.

Benefits of sand building

This cost-effective creation is incredibly ecofriendly. Since most of the building can be done with materials found on-site, the need for waste is nearly eliminated. This waste elimination plays a large factor in the ecofriendly nature of the sandbag buildings.

Builders who choose to use sandbag building as an alternative to conventional construction methods also stand to gain carbon credits for their choices. Carbon credit programmes offer financial incentives for companies to build in keeping with the ‘green’ trends and for waste elimination and recycling of materials.

This waste elimination and recycling process, presents an opportunity for those who are economically disadvantaged. By being able to build effectively and also save money, they can increase community bonds and safety.

Structural soundness

Besides being fireproof, the sand structures also present an element of soundproofing not found in the corrugated iron structures, which currently make up most of the homes in the townships and informal settlements in the Cape Town area.

They are also not easy to deconstruct or demolish, in essence creating a lasting home that won’t be victim to natural disasters such as flooding or tornadoes. The solidity of the sand as it is packed and stacked neatly to create walls allows for an element of indoor climate control that supersedes that provided by the corrugated structures as well. The sand essentially insulates the home, keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Spreading the word

The surmountable caveat to sand building is that it is not well known as a possible method for creating homes. The newly homeless fire victims had never heard of sandbag building when asked about it, yet were curious as to how it might work. They eagerly agreed that the community would want to be involved in such a building plan, given the right materials.

Based on the readily available materials and the community mentality that many of the neighbourhoods have, it seems that if sandbag structures could catch on, they might make a wonderful improvement for communities who are underfunded and under protected.

Projects Abroad began constructing their first sandbag house at the site of the Village Heights Library in August of 2010. While normally the construction of such a building (one room) would take less than a month, due to staggered volunteer arrivals, the project has continued for more than three months. Nevertheless, the house is beginning to take shape.

Bernadine hopes to show off the building project as a model of sustainable building. As of the beginning of December, the structure was complete and the roof had been added and finalisation of the exterior decoration was beginning. The hope is that the building will remain a long-standing testament to the possibility of creation from local materials and community involvement.

The project supervisor – Deen Singh – remains optimistic that the sandbag building will be used for the betterment of the community. He explained that everything must be done to help the children. The building has been designated for use in a crèche, or a childcare centre, one that will hopefully create a safe haven for children from all over Village Heights. Currently there are five volunteers working on the building. Rick, a German volunteer, feels that the building he is helping to construct will last, showing immediate change in the place that he came to volunteer. ‘It’s nice to leave something behind,’ he said.

Perhaps this sandbag building can be a model of change for a community that is desperate for change, but lacking the resources with which to create it.

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On Mike, Because He’s 23.

“Guess who said it,” he yells. He’s reading from his little book of quotations. He’s previously told me that if he ever dies, the book contains everything I’ll need to know about his life. And my life. And life, in general. “‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…'”

I’m frantically running around the house trying to find clothes and put on makeup – it’s 10:20 pm on a Friday night and I swore to the boys that I’d be ready to leave by then. (Surprise, surprise: I’m not.)

“Mandela!” I yell back. I pause, suddenly unsure, but still pretty sure. “Or Gandhi. Or Mother Theresa!”

“Mandela!” he yells back. His friend laughs. He’s been watching my frantic getting ready with amusement – he has an older sister, too. I love having this time to banter with my brother. Sometimes, I forget how lucky I am to live with him – even though we’re both super busy with jobs and/or school and life, I still get to see him. I imagine that I’ll be really sad when someday, it’s not the same anymore. I take it for granted and I know that.

My first Cubs game! 2010

My brother and I could not be more different human beings: he’s the calm, reserved one. I’m the take-charge, emotional one. He lets things go; I don’t.  I live in a fast-paced world with no time for slowing down; he spends time meditating and reflecting. He cleans the house. I make sure the administrative details (bills, ew!) are handled. In truth, we complement each other very well. We both learn from the other and take care of each other. We’re both surprisingly protective – if someone were to hurt my brother, I would hope they understood the hell that I would unleash on them.

South Africa, 2010

We’re 22 months apart. I don’t remember how I felt about getting a brother, but I do remember how much fun we used to have playing together as kids. (And fighting, of course. I’m a little bit tougher than I look because I grew up fighting Mike.) We used to dig holes in the garden, trying to make a swimming pool (frustrating process, let me tell you). We would play baseball against the wall of the house. I used to dress him up and make him play dolls with me.

My most regrettable failure as a big sister was the day he sat on a nail. We were eating lunch outside on the back patio (pb&j and Cheetos), and I didn’t want him to sit at the picnic table with me (because I am a terrible person), so I told him to go sit on a pile of boards. Well, as it turns out, some of those boards had nails sticking out of them. And he sat on one. (I’m currently alternating between typing and covering my face in shame. Even now, I feel awful.)

Mike’s my partner in crime. We used to sneak out of our rooms during nap time and slide down the stairs on my mom’s exercise mat. We used to sneak into the neighborhood pool for night swimming. We used to play this game where we’d flip each other off at the dinner table when our parents weren’t looking. The first one to get caught lost. (I don’t lose.)

When we were in high school, my friends and I thought we were so cool because we had a freshman. Mike was our freshman. (We weren’t cool; we know that.) We used to call Mike “fruitypants” – ugh, long story, but it’s something a guy I once dated used to yell out of the windows of a moving car just because – and it stuck. To this day, whenever he runs into our old Creative Writing/English teacher, the teacher always calls him “Fruitypants.” Mike looooves that. But somehow, it stuck. Sometimes, we still call each other “Fruit” out of habit.

Mike is one of my best friends. I’m so grateful that he’s my little brother. He’s one of the wisest people I know. He’s got such a big heart, and he’s so smart. He’s thoughtful and kind and funny. Everyone who meets him loves him. He was always looking out for me in South Africa.

In our family, we always tease each other about being “the worst guy.” Mike started it; my mom and I picked it up. It’s usually used in a teasing way, out of exasperation. “Oh, you’re the worst guy!” my mom will say, and there will be a lilt of laughter in her voice. It’s the kind of warm expression that radiates love and family.

I love them. They’re the best worst guys ever.

Happy birthday, Mike! It’s your Michael Jordan year and it’s going to be so good!

On Paying Taxes, Resignedly

In theory, I love the idea of taxes. I’m the only one of my friends who regularly votes for tax increases. That whole egalitarian ideal of paying for the provision of necessary services really pleases me on a human level. It’s such a hopeful concept. It does take a village…

But of course, theory never translates into real life quite the way anyone would imagine. Human nature tends to corrupt even the processes created with the purest intentions. This democratic society in which we live is a prime example of greed, waste, and corruption.

[Side note: There are moments in life when the gratitude for corruption is undeniable. In South Africa, we had managed to lose a few hub caps on our rental car – to say nothing of the rim that I dented….oops. But since they never found out about the rim, that’s irrelevant. Upon returning the cars, we bribed the rental car lady to take us to a super shady garage where they sold hub caps. I had to bargain with them – still got ripped off, but I was desperate and they knew it – in order to replace the hub caps. In that moment, I realized how awful I was for participating in the perpetuation of a corrupt society, but I was almost giddy with relief that we’d managed to avoid a serious foreign rental car debacle. Thank you, cash.]

I love the idea of paying for better roads, better hospitals, better schools. I have deep appreciation for certain (emphasis on certain, like the Dutch) European models. I love the idea of living somewhere where my contributions can be seen around me in positive and beautiful ways.

What I don’t like? Paying into a social security system that will never be able to provide for me. Paying taxes but not seeing spending allocated to serve the needs of the mentally ill, veterans, and other people who need those services most. Excessive defense spending. And so on. But we can only hope that the people we’ve elected have our best interests at heart (hardly likely) and work to change processes from within.

I’m always pleased to get my tax refund. For the past few years, my income has been such that I have received a very welcome check from the government after I file my taxes.

This year, I sat down to do them and was astonished to see how much I owe. Yes, you read that right. Owe. I was floating on a cloud of newly accrued savings bliss, and now I am floating on a storm cloud of hatred for forms and lines.

I’m just being grumpy. I love adulthood. I love freedom and responsibility. I love taking charge of things. I love all of that, but I so hate stuff like library fines (finally got them again after over a year without them), parking tickets, and newly, taxes.

I guess this is one of the instances where it doesn’t bother you until it happens to you. (I’ve been known to say things like, “I don’t understand why they don’t want tax increases! What about the good of the people?” But now I may some day be quoted as saying, “Grumble grumble grumble….taxes.”)

I will pay with grace. It is a privilege to participate in government, even if my participation is involuntary. Use my money wisely, government, that’s all I’m asking.

[Second – and last, I swear – side note: This is a super cool use of government and citizen willingness to cooperate for good – Englewood, Colorado has this concrete utility. It’s voluntary to participate, but you pay into it and then if your sidewalk or curb needs repaired, they’ll fix it for free! You would have had to get it fixed or face trouble anyway, so this is the ultimate solution. You pay into something at a pretty low rate and then when you need help, they’ll evaluate your damage and fit you into their schedule. I called the utility to ask them about it before we moved, and I had the best conversation with the guy who worked there. He was so friendly and so willing to answer all of my weird concrete questions. Caveat: once you’ve gotten assistance from the concrete utility, your participation in the program is no longer voluntary. But that makes total sense, so I bet they don’t get many complaints about it.]

On Rape and Rising, Hopefully

[There are potential triggers in this post re: rape. Please do not proceed if this may make you uncomfortable.]

“Rape” is a four-letter word.

I’ve written before about my journey to the realization about the devastation of rape (I knew, but I didn’t know, you know?). Now that I’m fully aware of not only the physical effects but the emotional and psychological devastation caused by rape, I’m burning with rage about it.

My friends and I have spent a lot of time discussing the gray areas surrounding the concept of sexual assault and rape. It’s a harrowing topic, because the more it’s discussed, the more it doesn’t make sense anymore. There’s the “maybe” and the “I don’t know” and the “intent,” but at the end of the day, regardless of where any act stands on the spectrum, it’s a harmful, traumatic experience, period.

It was one of my friends, during a recent discussion about rape amazed me with his passion, who reminded me why it’s not a fruitless endeavor to fight for change. His anger, his emphasis, the sincerity in his voice – it brought me out of the removed apathy that so many of us don when we’re hesitant. It brought me into the present; it ignited a part of my soul.

They say that rape is about power, and I guess that to a certain extent it is. But it’s more than that, too. It’s about having your power taken from you. Rape, gray area rape or legitimate rape or date rape or sexual assault or whatever else you can think to call it, takes away your power. It makes you feel weak inside. It makes you skittish and scared; it makes you hurt all over; it makes you burn with shame, even though you know that it’s not your fault.

It’s under-reported. I can empathize with those women (or men) who for any number of reasons, cannot report it, and suffer in silence. I think of the Kobe Bryant trial. I don’t care whether or not it was rape – look at what happened to the victim. She was shamed, called horrible names, doubted, had her life spread before the eyes of the world and then slowly dismantled to be examined. So often, it comes down to “he said, she said” and nothing can be proven.

(I should note here that one of my biggest pet peeves is when people assume that women are “crying rape” for attention. I don’t think anyone should ever misreport anything, and it’s disgraceful to do it – but at the same time, every time someone reports something, people are so quick to make critical judgments and I think that says a ridiculous amount of negative things about humanity.)

The statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped within her lifetime is terrifying. One billion women. One billion. (I’m imaging Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil saying “one million dollars” right now….)

Think about that number. Really think about that. What does that say? What does that say about men? What does that say about our tolerance for violence? What does that say about our inclination to make women bear the brunt of the responsibility for actions committed against them?

The world is not a safe place. It never has been. But that’s not an excuse for us to stop working toward something better. I hate the idea that women are weak. I hate it. But I understand it.

During college, I took a Transgender English class – liberal arts, I know – and we read a story about a college professor who transitioned from male to female. I hated the book at the time – she wrote about embracing femininity in a way I found to be so shallow, materialistic, and stereotypical. She wrote about the vulnerability that she felt when she felt the wind between her thighs when she was wearing a skirt.

I disregarded the notion entirely. But I have gained new insight. I do understand the vulnerability. I am glad that I never realized my own vulnerability while I was living in Chicago or staying in Cape Town. I’m glad that I was bull-headed and street-smart enough to be safe.

No amount of “right decisions” can protect you. No amount of preparedness can keep you from harm. There is no such thing as safety. It’s all merely an illusion. That’s what we’ve come to as a society. Our gated communities and fancy security guards are nothing. Trust is irrelevant, an outdated idea shirked in favor of deceit and false self-truths.

Enough is enough. Listen to Eve Ensler (Vagina Monologues!) say some powerful stuff about the movement called “One Billion Rising.” People are breaking their silence. They’re letting go of the discomfort that they feel when discussing something as taboo as rape and sexually motivated violence. They’re realizing that something needs to change. People need to be held accountable for their actions. People need to fundamentally respect other people.

Rape is a preventable crime. It’s not preventable in the ways that have been suggested in the past, such as “dress more conservatively.” I forget who originally made the counter-point to this, but it’s so incredibly valid: what does that say about men? That they’re little more than wild beasts who will be unable to control themselves at the sight of flesh? That argument in itself is disgraceful to men and to women.

What I wear or do not wear cannot be construed as an invitation for rape or violence. What I do or say or act like cannot be construed as an invitation for rape of violence. There is no valid excuse. None at all.

We need to teach our young men that “no means no.” We need to teach them that power can be gained through other avenues that are more rewarding than acts of violence aimed at belittling and degrading other people. We need to emphasize respect – actions have consequences. Even if you can’t see the harm that’s been done, it’s there. We need to dispel the myth that sex is something to be taken, something to be claimed.

We need to remind all women that their voices and experiences matter. We as a global society need to value our women, rather than marginalizing them and quieting their voices. We need to remind women to be strong – we need to assure them that we’ll support them, heal them, and lift them up.

No one can be an island. We’re not in this fight alone. Globalization necessitates cooperation and conviction. We must work together to stop this perpetuation of violence, of hatred, of fear. Sexual violence against women (and men, too) has long been used as the ultimate bargaining tool, a source of shame and ultimate destruction. We must stop it. We must make it so that our people are free from the terror of vulnerability.

The world is willing to work for change – it’s time for us to realize that the capacity for human compassion and love is ever-present. This is a beautiful thing. Love is the essence of humanity – it keeps us strong and humble. Love is something we need to work on teaching our children. With a strong foundation, they will be less likely to take from others what they cannot find in themselves.

On Longing for Home

There are days when I wake up and my heart hurts. The sadness settles down around me, and the longing pangs begin. And they don’t go away – they are a dull ache of wanting that can’t be soothed by anything. I get online, and stare at pictures of the places that I came to love fiercely, and I pray that I never let the memories slip away.

I know they eventually will. The way to Long St. is obfuscated already. The way to Muizenberg Beach, however, will stay fused to the very core of my soul until the day that I die. And even then, I imagine it will refuse to let go.

South Africa is not my current home. It is not my birth place. It is not where I’ve spent a majority of my time. But parts of my heart linger there: on the scent of a fresh morning, on the sounds of crashing waves, in the metal of the chain that holds the gate together, in the sand. There are some things that you can never take away. There are some experiences, that no matter how brief, will leave you changed irrevocably.

The three months we spent in South Africa were comprised of sublime experiences: the disparity, the music, the nightlife, the sadness, the love. Yes, I was ready to leave when we left, but I swear, if I could somehow let you feel what I felt in the most magical moments, you’d understand.

Cape Town, South Africa

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

On Abortion, Thoughtfully

(The opinions expressed below are mine alone; don’t get all grumpy at me – I’m just having a jumble of thoughts.)

“How can you be pro-choice if you were adopted?”

I get that question a lot.

I usually choose to answer it delicately (“delicately” is an interesting word choice, I know, given that I’m not prone to grace). I usually say that to me, pro-choice is not necessarily pro-abortion but rather, exactly as it says: pro-choice.

I believe that the choice is the most important part of the argument. Once you’ve stripped away the arguments about when life begins, what God intended, and so on, you’re left with one thing: a woman’s body.

Since I happen to be the owner of a female body (I quite like the model I’m in), I have expert, first-hand knowledge of what being a woman is. I do not, however, have knowledge of pregnancy or knowledge of having to make the choice: adoption, abortion, or raise the kid.

I believe that people who don’t have that knowledge should sit down and do some serious listening. They should listen to women who’ve had abortions; they should listen to mothers; they should listen to people who’ve given children up for adoption, as well as people who’ve adopted children; they should listen to women – women who aren’t yet pregnant, who might become pregnant, who’ve been pregnant, and otherwise. Each woman will tell you a different story.

On the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade, I think we’re all in need of some listening. Not just listening, but understanding. We need to understand that we cannot force our own personal beliefs on others, just because we believe that we’re correct in our thinking. We need to understand that the law has stood for 40 years for a reason. And we have to understand that abortion is not new. Abortion existed before you, and it will exist long after your body has returned to the earth.

I don’t think I could ever have an abortion. Were I to get pregnant (“fall pregnant,” as they say in South Africa), I’m old enough now that I could handle it (mostly). I’d also have the support system I needed: my mom is going to make an excellent grandmother some day and my brother is so great with kids. It should be noted here that none of my friends want kids, so I’m going to be that nervous, awkward, unkempt wallflower mom at the Mommy and Me class. (I went to one, once, in Illinois with the little guy I was babysitting – basically my favorite baby ever. He was very uncooperative and kept getting up and wandering and I kept getting judgmental looks from all the other “mothers.” Phew. Was so glad when the final song was over and we could book it out of the library.)

It’s not just a question of age, though. It’s more than that. There are other factors, including economic and social ones. I think that economic independence is a huge factor in whether or not a parent will decide to raise a child. In fact, now that I’m on the fence about having children of my own, I think that my decision will ultimately come down to whether or not I’ll be able to afford them.

(They’re hell on the pocketbook, in case you weren’t aware. They also make you statistically less happy, but contribute to a more meaningful life. Ugh, I’ll save weighing this decision until my biological clock is screaming at me to procreate. For now, it’s all conjecture. Besides, little kids are the cutest things. Until they get weird and hormonal and teenager-y.)

I’m going to throw this thought out there:

I believe that if we make abortion illegal, we will not be stopping abortions at all, but rather driving terrified pregnant women into a very dangerous underground. I don’t think that most people would describe themselves as “all for abortion,” even the most pro-life among us. I think that most people believe that an early abortion is best, if abortion is the choice.

I think that by attempting to seriously limit access to abortions (and birth control, too), an upsurge of which we’ve seen on the political stage in recent years, we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice. Huge.

It’s easy to protect life during gestation, but it’s a lot harder to do that once the child is born. I think that people who are so vehemently pro-choice ought to do some looking into how they can help the children of this earth who have been born into situations that they cannot control, but situations that no child should ever be in. It’s one thing to support the birth of a fetus, but it’s another to support a child until he or she turns 18. I think we as a society should start looking into how we can help the children that are already on this planet.

It’s hard, because for me this discussion always takes so many turns. Abortion as birth control? Not okay. Abortion as a life-saving measure? Totally okay. What about welfare for mothers who can’t afford the babies they’re going to be forced to have? What about the strain on the system – that most pro-lifers don’t even want to pay for? We’re not creating a better society by limiting access to reproductive services, up to and including abortion.

My ending argument is this: if a child that is not wanted is born into a family, is life going to be any better for them? Are they going to end up neglected, unloved, and potentially abused? Will they have access to education and friends and the things that they need? Will they have clothes on their backs and food on the table?

I was adopted. I was (am) loved. But that doesn’t mean that life is perfect or easy. Nothing is simple. There are complications from being adopted that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. There are complications that my birth mother has and will live with, and the same goes for my parents. Being adopted is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t make everything magically better. The same goes for having and raising a child. It doesn’t end at birth – that’s when it truly begins. (Oh man, I meant for that to sound ominous and heavy. That’s totally not me claiming that life begins at birth. Don’t think that.)

One of the most beautiful things about living in the United States is our freedoms. Freedom of expression, of speech, of religion: freedom to make the choices that will carry you through life. I love that we have the choice about what to do with a pregnancy, and I respect that so many women (and men) fought so hard to make sure that we would always have that choice.

 

 

On Education, Gratefully

My word for 2012 has been “gratitude.” I have tried to be more mindful of the wonderful blessings in my life and express gratitude in all areas of my life. First things first: I have improved dramatically at writing and remembering to send Thank-You notes. I think that may be the only real deliverable; the rest of my gratitude practice has been solely in my own mind and heart.

As I’ve been crawling, inching, barely progressing on the series Breaking Bad, I’ve been reflecting on my own life, my own decision-making rationale, my gifts and support systems. Of course, the onslaught of gratitude and related emotions has been a refreshing reminder of how beautifully hopeful and heartbreaking life can be.

But the greatest gift I’ve ever been given was my education. From the age of three, I was enrolled in private, Catholic schools. While I realize that Catholic schools are a hot-mess of crazy (this is true), I also realize how valuable the emphasis on education is. I remember begging my parents – pleading my case every single year – to let me go to public schools. They didn’t.

I went to a Christian Brothers high school, but my real luck came from the Jesuit university I attended. The Jesuits are noted for their commitment to the education of the whole person. If there’s one thing I took away from my college experience, it was “solidarity.” While Loyola may not be known for their commitment to the betterment of Rogers Park (I think it’s a no-win situation, as far as land ownership goes, but on the plus side, the Loyola stop is in pretty good condition. and there used to be a Dunkin Donuts!), they’ve always emphasized service-learning and commitment to communities of all kinds, more than just their own student body.

My professors there were not all devout Christians, but they were all devout scholars and educators (give or take a few). One of my favorite professors was a women’s studies professor who taught some of my feminist theory classes. She was a devout Catholic, but freely admitted that as a woman, she had problems with some of the catechism. I so adored her commitment to her faith but her willingness to question it and call attention to its hypocrisies and flaws. It allowed me to see the Catholic faith in a new light, and for that, I will be forever grateful.

While attending Loyola, I lived in one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, which is already a wonderful blend of everywhere. But that’s not the point, even though I will carry pieces of Rogers Park in my heart forever. The point is that my educational experiences have left me a more rounded, grounded, rational human being. I’ve traveled to Europe for a forensic trip because I was lucky enough to have the most badass forensic teacher (we had one of the only forensic science classes in the country at the time) ever. Loyola prepared me to open my heart and mind to the conditions in the townships in South Africa.

All of this education has left me curious, well-informed (mostly), and most importantly, someone who cares about the well-being of all human beings (solidarity, solidarity, solidarity, and so on).

Regardless of your religious views (trust me, I have plenty of opinions and don’t ever get me started about the current Pope), this article should give you hope for the future and hope that educations such as mine will continue to cultivate a love of learning in young minds everywhere:

By Carl Bunderson

Denver, Colo., Oct 16, 2012 / 03:03 am (CNA).- Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School based in Denver, Colo., has nearly doubled its enrollment in just one year by introducing a classical curriculum.

“This is something people want, and they’ve wanted it for a long time, and now it’s available,” principal Rosemary Anderson told CNA Oct. 10.

Our Lady of Lourdes is a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school. The parish’s pastor, Monsignor Peter Quang Nguyen, had helped turn around a number of schools in the Archdiocese of Denver which had been in danger of closing. He was assigned to Lourdes five years ago.

When Msgr. Quang hired Anderson to be principal in 2010, the school was in “quite a bit of debt” and had only 104 students enrolled. That figure is 180 today.

The school’s capacity is 235 and Anderson believes that by the next school year, “we’ll have to start wait-listing kids.”

“The biggest problem when I came on was that everyone thought the school was going under. The attitude has changed…Now people know this place will be there, and their kids are getting a phenomenal education, and parents don’t have to worry that it will close in a few years.”

“I’m very grateful for Monsignor Quang’s support. None of this would have happened if he wasn’t completely on board,” she added. “We were right in this together.”

Anderson noted that classical education is meant to help students learn how to think, rather than merely teaching them “subjects.” The program at Lourdes school was inspired by 20th century author Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” and the work of Laura Berquist, who was involved in the founding of Thomas Aquinas College – a Catholic university in southern Calif. which uses the classical model.

“She’s a huge influence,” Anderson said, “she founded a homeschooling curriculum called ‘Mother of Divine Grace’ and is brilliant in the ways of classical education.”

The foundation of classical education is a set of three methods of learning subjects, called the trivium, which is made up of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Lourdes school will focus on the grammar and logic phases, and will introduce the eighth graders to rhetoric.

The trivium “happens pretty naturally” using the classical curriculum, and ideas of grammar and logic and integrated into the subjects taught to students: “it flows naturally from the way teachers are teaching,” Anderson expressed.

This year saw the hiring of five new teachers, in a faculty of 15 total. And out of those five, four have either had a classical education or taught in a classical school,  Anderson reported. “I brought in people who know what the vision is…they’re confident in how to teach” classically.

Anderson noted that the school drew in numerous students who had previously been schooled at home. Several homeschooling parents enrolled their children as this type of education wasn’t available before. “Now they know there’s something that will sync up with what they’ve taught” their children.

Several non-Catholic families have also come to Lourdes just for the classical education, Anderson said. She expects that group to grow as well, “because it’s a great education.”

Parents at the school are very invested in the classical model, which she “welcomes completely.” She pointed to the Catholic teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children, and that “we’re just here to help them.”

Anderson was encouraged to differentiate her school, and with the “support and knowledge”of Bishop James D. Conley – former apostolic administrator of the archdiocese – chose to follow this approach to education as a way of imparting to students the art of learning.

“The classical approach is Catholic, through and through,” said Anderson. While “other schools are doing great things,” “no other Catholic schools in the diocese are doing this yet.”

The school’s re-organization will be a three-year process. The first year, which is occurring presently, involves a re-vamp of the English department and the introduction of Latin classes.

Latin was introduced in place of Spanish because of its importance as the basis of all Romance languages. Students “logically process things better when they know Latin,” said Anderson. She pointed to high school freshmen who “test into honors French, without having had any French before, just by knowing the root language.”

Latin is important for the grammar stage of the trivium because its nouns decline, or change their ending according to function they are performing in a sentence. This helps students to better understand how languages work, and it is coupled with the memorization of poetry.

The second year of the school’s rehabilitation will consist of a renewal of science and social studies.

“We’re not necessarily changing the material we’re teaching, but how it’s given to the kids, which is a step away from dependency on textbooks,” said Anderson.

Students will be reading more primary sources for history, and in English classes, reading historical novels to tie-in with their history classes.

“All the classes are very intertwined. What they’re reading in English should correspond to what they’re learning in history, and in history should be able to carry over to the virtues they’re learning about in religion, so it’s all very integrated.”

Morgan McGinn is in her second year at the school, and teaches second grade. She discussed how the move to classical education has changed her teaching style.

“I have to read and discover knowledge on my own before I can share it with my kids…It’s definitely changed my teaching; I can’t just look at a book anymore and read the lesson, and be prepared for the next day.”

“I’ve had to almost flip everything I know about education upside-down to teach classically,” she said.

Her students are now “required to think more,” rather than having “the information they need to know fed to them.”

The holistic approach of classical education, meant to build up the whole person, translates to an emphasis on the fine arts. “We already had a great performing arts and speech department here…so that was already very integrated,” said Anderson.

The school’s music and performing arts teacher, Patricia Seeber, is a veteran of the school, having taught there for 13 years.

“The feel where we’re at spiritually with the kids, that we’re making that the most important part of the day, has shifted for the better,” she said.

“It just feels like they’re really responding to it in a great way.”

In keeping with the introduction of Latin into the curriculum, Seeber has added Latin hymns among the songs prayed at the school’s bi-weekly Masses.

“We raised the bar I think a step or two higher than a lot of schools do, and the kids really rise to the occasion.”

Lourdes’ classical education is meant to help the students realize their full potential “spiritually, intellectually and socially,” and help draw them to God through the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The parish’s maintenance director, Bryan Heier, reflected on Anderson’s leadership at the school, saying “with enrollment as high as it is so quickly, she’s doing something right.”

On the Weather and the China, Pragmatically

Winter is coming.

(God, can you tell that I’m impatient for new Game of Thrones? I’m about to dive into the books, so wish me luck. I’m usually a book-before-television kind of girl, but when they’re as complicated as this story, it’s usually a good idea to be able to visualize characters and general plot trajectories.)

But seriously, winter is coming. The cat is eager to snuggle against me, stealing my warmth and reminding me that I’m only good as a food provider and occasional attention-giver. The windows have been closed, but if you aren’t quick enough to grab a towel when you step out of the shower, the air feels crisp and cold through the windows. The plus side to all this unease about winter is that there will be snow for potential snowboarding (I still haven’t figured out about that this year) and that I will be able to drink hot tea without feeling silly. During the winter, I order tea by the case and drink it all day.

The thought of hot baths is a welcome one, but it’s also interspersed with images of standing on the busy street next to my house trying to scrape off my car in between spurts of traffic. It’s interspersed with ice chipping and sliding and being late because I forget that you have to warm up your car before you can command it to warm you. I’m excited, I swear. I love hot cider (with rum!) and crunching leaves and snowboarding, but I hate being cold. Unfortunately, those things are a package deal.

Colorado is one of those magical places where it can be like 40 degrees in the morning and then 85 in the afternoon, so there are at least two months a year where I’m just plain uncomfortable. I’m cold or I’m too hot, overdressed because I was concerned about being too cold. It’s terrible. And while the answer is layers, layers, layers!, I still haven’t found tearaway pants that don’t make me look like I’m about to play basketball or a stripper. (That’s a joke – I don’t want to own tearaway pants.)

(Hilarious [to me] story about my brother: When he was in 8th grade, he was at the high school to play basketball, and in front of the entire girls’ team, he ripped off his snap-away warm up pants only to realize that he hadn’t put on shorts.)

Yesterday was one of those days. I knew that it was going to warm up, but I was cold. So I wore jeans and a t-shirt and managed to nearly melt into the pavement a short time later. I hung out with a friend that I’ve not seen in a long time, and after grabbing lunch on Saturday, we headed to the local farmer’s market on Sunday and then off to the flea market.

I had never been to Denver’s flea market before yesterday. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I found that it was a lot like the Maxwell Street market in Chicago and the Muizenberg market in Cape Town: lots of pure junk and then some awesome stuff. My friend was looking for furniture for her house – she has lots of space and a small budget. And of course, Pinterest has made us all believe that we are DIY-masters. (We’re not.)

I wasn’t looking for anything specific, but since I love shiny things, I knew I’d want to buy something. As we wound through the aisles – just like Muizenberg – clothes, and tires, and clothes, and auto parts, and clothes, etc. – I spotted them. Dishes, laying in a pile on a blanket.

Salem China Company English Village Flea Market

I knew I wanted them. I have loved the blue/white china patterns since I was a little girl (thank you, Grandma, for always having blue dishes – I think your taste in plates led to a subconscious love of blue that I will carry with me forever. You’re not wrong to love the color combination).

I failed miserably at bargaining – something I’m usually really proud of. Africa taught me a lot of things, and one of them is the art of negotiation. The approach, the feigned disinterest after initial interest, the offer, the rejection, the walking-away, the wait!, the agreement, the deal. Yesterday went like this:  $50, they’re worth a lot more. Will you take $40? No. I’ll be back. $45? No. Fine, I’ll take them. Do you have a box?

My friend, on the other hand, had someone much more willing to negotiate and ended up with a record player/cabinet thing (I’m sure it has a name) for well under the initial asking price.

Both of us walked away satisfied. I got home and Googled the dishes. They’re antiques, made by a china company that stopped making stuff in the early 60s. They’re worth a lot more than $50 – replacement pieces start at $5 each and go up to $25 for a teacup and saucer and much higher for the plates, so I’m thinking that even though there was a breakdown in bargaining, I made out all right.

All in all, I got more than 25 pieces: 6 dinner plates, 6 teacups and 7 saucers, 6 fruit bowls (dessert bowls?), a serving platter, and a large(ish) bowl. Somehow that counted out to 29 last night as I was washing them, but now it doesn’t seem to add up. 27? Whatever. I’m pleased as punch about the whole set, even if I’m now going to have to start taking my tea and coffee in delicate cups instead of massive mugs. (When did I start “taking” tea?)

Now, I’m on the hunt for mismatched bowls. Instead of trying to find a cohesive set of dishes, I’m just going to find ones I like and end up with an eclectic array. We have more plates than we know what to do with and like 2 bowls. So Goodwill and Target, I’m coming for you!

Release notes:

Totally cried about this new Google Chrome commercial called “Jess Time.” Growing up is really painful sometimes, and I love how the Google people manage to capture so much human emotion in their ad spots.  The Love Story one gets me every time. 

On Volunteering, Excitedly

Exhaustion to end the week, but the exhaustion is the best kind.

Mike and I have volunteered to be counselors at an adoption camp this weekend. We started today, and will go until Sunday. Mike will be working with middle and high schoolers, and I’ve been assigned to Pre-K. (I can’t even tell you how excited I am! Pre-K is the best time. They’re still so cute and baby-ish, but you can see their future grown-up selves starting to shine through.)

The camp is an African Caribbean Heritage Camp – it’s been held in Denver for 14 years now. Most of the counselors are of African or Caribbean descent, but since Mike and I were both adopted, we fit the counselor profile as well. This year’s theme is: The Colors of Us: Celebrating Transracial Adoption.

We meet the kids tomorrow morning, and Mike will be up early to go on a day-long white water rafting trip. (White-water? Not so much. We had terrible snow this winter, and it’s already August, so I feel like it’ll be more like a float trip with some bumps along the way that will stand in for rapids.)

While the counselors are keeping the kids entertained, the parents are attending different sessions and workshops all centering on adoption, race, and culture. One of the sessions held on Saturday will be discussing white privilege through the lens of transracial adoption. The high school kids will be attending the session with their parents and the counselors, and I think that’s an awesome opportunity for discussion and reflection. I’ll be curious to hear what Mike has to say about it.

Mike and I haven’t gotten to do anything like this since we were in South Africa, and I know that we’re both really looking forward to this weekend.

Cute stories, quickly, before I fall asleep on my keyboard:

My mom’s little neighbor, who’s still working through adoption in her mind, asked me how old I was when I was “traded in” the other day.  Hah, I had such a good laugh about that. Traded in, like they just wanted a newer model or something.

AND…..

Guess what I got at Costco today? (Besides a Polish sausage covered in spicy mustard.) Both seasons of Party Down for $11.99. Life is beautiful (and so is Adam Scott).

Going to be a hectic – but very fun – weekend!

On the Zoo, Over-Heatedly

My mom’s five-year old neighbor is one of the most adorable human beings I’ve ever met. (Last summer, while playing Capture the Flag, she came to let me out of jail – an overturned boat in our shared backyard – and she informed me that “that’s what best friends do.” My heart cracked and overflowed.)

For the last six months or so, she’s been reminding me that I promised her that we’d go to the zoo and have a picnic in City Park and that she’d get to meet Carlos. “I’ve never met a cat before; I’ve never met Carlos,” she tells me.

So on Sunday, my mom, my neighbor, and I piled into the car – she wanted me to sit next to her in the backseat, so I did – and headed to the zoo armed with a picnic lunch. It was too hot, so we didn’t last very long at the zoo. We were able to get about 100 feet into the new elephant exhibit, and we didn’t get to see any penguins.

I’m heartbroken – penguins are my absolute favorite things. Here are penguin pictures from Boulder’s Beach in South Africa:

(Can you tell I’m missing South Africa? Always.)

Anyway, the zoo.

We saw lots of sleeping animals – lions, tigers, kangaroos – it seemed like everyone just wanted to be left alone to sleep in the heat. We rode the zoo train. We had ice cream, and our little friend desperately wanted popcorn, so we had some of that too.

After we left the zoo, we went to my house so she could meet Carlos. I was nervous – Carlos is skittish at best around new people, and he’s never been around a 5-year old.

Carlos loved her. At one point, she kissed him right on the nose. He didn’t flinch. We fed him some wet food (is there a better way to get a cat to sit still?), and she got to scratch his back while he ate.

Then we had a picnic in the park, under the big arches.

We had turkey sandwiches, cucumbers, carrots, leftover popcorn from the zoo, and gummy bears. Then we chased each other around with squirt guns and played frisbee until we were exhausted and ready for sleep.

All in all? A great day. I hope that it was everything she imagined it would be.