Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Spring! (or, Why Cats are Bad)

Filed under: cats,Patrick,spring,weather — alison @ 07:52

Yesterday my father and I were enjoying the springs in our respective cities. Yes, at -6C it was coldish (normal for March 1 is -1C) but it was sunny and the birds were singing.

That my father was enjoying the spring weather is remarkable because he just arrived back from West Africa: you might think that the hot and muggy weather of Monrovia and Accra might set him up to interpret an Ottawa March 1 as winter. But no, the birds are singing: it’s spring!

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

messy (evolution of)

I remember when I was about four or five and my father was trying to get me to put my things away, I finally told him that I didn’t care. If he cared, he should put them away. He called me a princess. I was confused because in the books I read, princesses were always virtuous heroines but by his tone of voice my father didn’t seem to be praising me. I tried to get him to explain but he had lost patience by then.

When I was about ten or eleven I was sitting at the dining room table working on a craft and dropped something on the floor. I was about to lean over and pick it up, when I realised that I didn’t have to. I didn’t need it right away and it was perfectly fine sitting on the floor until I did need it. All I had to do was remember where it was. This epiphany was accompanied by a worried suspicion that I was going to regret my insight.

Anyone I have lived with has, with a single exception, complained about my messiness. With that single exception, none has cheerfully accepted my other contributions to the household as adequate compensation for needing to pick up after me.

When living with that single exception, who did not, after all, pick up after me, rather the opposite, the house was so filthy that when a pregnant friend we were chatting with on the sidewalk needed to pee, we lied and said the toilet didn’t work. I think that was when I faced the fact that there was something seriously wrong. We never discussed it.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, there’s a scene where a pathetic, dependent character breaks something and there’s glass on the floor. This is one more contribution to a discouraging sequence of events, not because she attached value to the broken thing but because “now she would have to remember.” As in, it doesn’t occur to her to sweep up the shards; instead she will need to spend the rest of her life trying not to cut her feet by not walking in that spot. I was shocked to discover that I was a type.

For a couple of years one of my annual objectives at work in my performance review was to clean up my desk. I never really got around to doing a complete job. My boss eventually gave up. For the past four years or so my bosses have been elsewhere — Winnipeg or Mississauga or Toronto — and have not seen my desk.

It’s not that I like being messy. I don’t even like ordinary cheerful clutter; I love a stark, open, spare space. One of the first things I did upon getting a regular job was to hire a cleaning lady. It’s more that it seems too complicated. I like doing laundry, and do it diligently even if it means hauling it to a laundromat, even if it takes all weekend. Laundry is self-limiting. There is not an infinite amount of stuff that could theoretically be put into a washing machine. Once it has been washed, it needs to be folded and put away. Very simple. Not only that, I know where laundered things go. Clothes have drawers and shelves and hangers; sheets and towels have closets; dog blankets go back on dog beds; soft furnishings go back where they came from. If I start to clean a house I never know when to stop: there’s always something I didn’t get to and feel guilty about, always a decision that I don’t know how to make.

Mark determined that part of my problem is that not everything has a place to go. I feel bad when stuff is lying around in heaps, but it’s not as though changing the situation is always a simple matter of putting it in its place. There often is no place for it, so more radical intervention is called for. When he moved in he put a lot more storage in. It helps. 

Still, the other day someone said that if I were an employee, she’d fire me; that if I were a roommate, I would be out on my ass in two days. She doesn’t even know me that well. It’s just that obvious.

My boss is in town for a day. I cleaned off my desk this morning in preparation, which mostly consisted of stashing papers and the binders into which they are some day to be filed, into drawers and bins where they will be invisible to the casual visitor. Still, I feel better.

Mark has been stomping around crossly for the past few weeks, issuing dark warnings that we both need to change if we value the relationship. I’m not sure I can change, exactly. But perhaps I can put “cleaning off the dining room table every Saturday” into the same doable category as “laundry.”

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Back in Liberia

Filed under: Africa,family,Notes from Liberia,Patrick,US politics,war — alison @ 07:10

After returning from Bangladesh and a too-short stay with family, my father is back in Liberia.

*** *** ***
Dear Family and Friends,

Back in Liberia. I spent this afternoon with the Minister for Education and his deputies. They all say they will be up most of tomorrow night watching the inauguration and the balls. All over the world – or at least in my small sampling – people are joyful about the new direction they see in America.

My previous time in Liberia (2004), there was a short break in the war that had lasted fourteen years. My assignment took me to villages where people were rebuilding homes, shops, bridges, wells, roads, and whatever other infrastructure competing armies, often made up of children, had taken into their heads to destroy. The villages were doing their best to reintegrate their ‘lost’ young people, many of whom had done terrible things. The returnees were doing what they could to be accepted back. There were three short, intense wars in 2005, but now there is a stable and reasonably competent government headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. There is hope again… sort of. USAID is helping rebuild teacher education. Our team of three is spending six weeks to evaluate this effort and suggest improvements.

We’ve been in Monrovia since Wednesday. The attached pictures may give you some of the flavour. We’re off tomorrow for two days to see schools and teacher training colleges in the countryside. We’ll come back to sharpen our survey instruments then head back out for more intensive interviews and observations for the next four weeks.

Lunch today was cassava leaf stew with fish, chicken, and shrimp… and rice.

Update on Beli: She’s bought a rickshaw and some rice. She rents out the rickshaw and will sell the rice in small packets. Her life as a businesswoman has begun.


Vivian's Fashion Butik Salon

Liberia 2

Liberia 3

Liberia 4

P on the beach

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Family and Friends (Eid al-Adha)

Filed under: Notes from Bangladesh — alison @ 07:47

A letter from my father in Bangladesh; perhaps his last, as his work there ends next week.

*** *** ***
Dear Family and Friends,

Friends and Family who do not like to look at pictures of freshly sacrificed bulls and goats bleeding their life out into gutters (You know who you are!), should not [scroll to the images at the end of this post]. The Eid al-Adha festival commemorates God’s gift of a ram in place of Ishmael, whom God had commanded Abraham to sacrifice. In Judaism and Christianity, the child in this story is Ishmael’s brother Isaac. (Wikipedia)

The sacrificial animals began to arrive two days ago. The cattle spent yesterday on display on the street. At my last count yesterday evening there were six bulls and five goats in the parking garage. This probably means that every flat with a head of household remaining in the city had an animal to sacrifice. Not counting the foreigner.

This morning around eight o’clock, the male householders went to mosque and by nine oclock they were all on their way back home. Servants and guards had trussed the animals during mosque. The men assembled in front of their houses near the trussed animals. Hujurs (Arabic teachers) circulated, checking what looked like order books. Then the killing began. The labourers would line up an animal and hold it steady, then a Hujur would step in and with eight or ten strokes slice through the neck. Then the chief cutters begn the work of deconstruction, sending buckets of meat and bones into the garage as they were filled.

An hour or so later we heard a stampede, as hundreds of poor people with thick plastic bags swarmed into the garage. There must have been a signal that our flats were ready to distribute the one third of the meat that goes to the poor. (Another third goes to relatives, and a third is reserved for the master and his family.) Our guards lined the poor people up, then began letting them out out, each receiving a chunk of meat as they passed through the gate. Smaller swarms have been moving up and down the street all afternoon, but now seem to be heading home. There is little evidence of the carnage, except that the street has been washed. We can expect that about one third of the cattle slaughtered during the year will have been slaughtered today.

Sort of like Christmas and Halloween. Now everybody’s eating.

Affectionately, P.

Friday, December 7th, 2007

Sidr / Onward (pictures)

Filed under: Notes from Bangladesh — alison @ 12:17

These are the pictures Patrick took on the tour into the countryside he mentioned in the last letter I posted here.

*** *** ***
Dear Family and Friends,

A few pictures from a quick trip through some of the Sidr-affected areas. Not much to say. None of these are untypical. If you see a picture of a damaged school, multiply this by thousands. Houses flattened — multiply by tens of thousands. The boat in the forest was a considerable distance from the sea. There were clothes high in the trees, illustrating why some people survived by hanging on in the tops of trees. Whole business strips destroyed, washed into ponds and canals. I enjoyed seeing the man taking tea and waiting for normalcy to return to the bits of his home he had managed to retrieve to build a perimeter to live in. Beli’s sister and family have been patching their house back together. They will be able to make major repairs using some contributions we brought from family. There is a picture of Beli in the gate of an ancient and beautiful mosque — built in a day, according to legend. A mammoth tree fell across a wall of the mosque, but no damage at all to the mosque itself.

Good and bad developments. The good: The school-based teacher development strategy I have been proposing and promoting has taken hold with the bureaucracy and we are moving ahead with implementation. The bad: They want to do it right away and I more or less have to be involved, meaning that the two-month winter holiday I have been looking forward to has been reduced to one month.

The ‘cold’ season is kicking in with fresh vegetables being hawked on every street and market. It’s a good season for eating. Beli has started two hours a day with a tutor and is reading everything in sight. People are starting to think about their new clothes for the upcoming Eid and life is feeling festive. Even as two former prime ministers are in jail and at least a third of the last parliament is either in jail or facing prosecution.


Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Sidr / Onward

Filed under: Notes from Bangladesh — alison @ 23:12

Another letter from my father in Bangladesh.

*** *** ***
Dear Family and Friends,

Happy Thanksgiving! Apologies to those who feel the reference is out of date (Canadians) or a cute local reference (most of the rest of the world).

Vivian has asked me to send out an announcement that I am fine following Sidr, the recent Bangladesh cyclone. I live in a concrete and steel building in the capital city, well out of the path of major destruction. I was wakened by the clattering and roar of the wind and stepped out on the balcony for a couple of minutes. Then stepped back inside to wait for the light to fail. In the morning the ladies were out sweeping the street as they do every morning. There was just more to sweep. We got electricity back a day and a half later.

Last weekend I did get out of the city on school visits and saw about of a third of the rice crop lying down from the storm. This was in areas not badly affected. Poor people will be paying more for rice and eating less. As a rich person, by local standards, I have a 50-kilo bag of rice in my larder. (Is it appropriate to be thankful for being rich rather than poor when living in one of the world’s poorest countries?)

The papers are full of human-interest stories and statistics. All are horrific. I think nearly everyone in North America has heard that there are ten thousand dead, despite what is generally accepted as good planning, storm shelters, and warning systems. Some communities have been totally wiped out. In others, most families have lost members — often those responsible for feeding the family. Eight thousand schools have been flattened. Houses were damaged or destroyed. Broken fishing boats lie on their sides in the forests. Most shrimp operations are devastated, leaving their owners in terrible debt.

Many relief organizations are helping out but the scale of the disaster is difficult to deal with. Potable water is often not available in areas of high salinity. Rice dropped from helicopters can’t be cooked because there are no working stoves. But there are also stories of people starting to rebuild. And, like in New Orleans, there will be more than one industry doing well with new construction. Today, on the front page of the newspaper I read, was an ad announcing a donation of 1 taka (not very much) for the relief of Sidr victims with every bag of cement sold, but nothing about a discount.

As I was leaving the bank this afternoon, a group of college students came up and told me that they were collecting money for Sidr victims. I could tell them, “So am I.” Several of my family members, on hearing that one of Beli’s sisters had lost a side of her house and all of her fruit trees, pledged contributions. The husband is a good and thoughtful man and a tailor, whose customers will not have money for tailoring for some time to come. We’ll be taking our contribution to them tomorrow in Jessore (for those of you with maps) so they can start to make urgent repairs.

Saturday we are planning to return to Dhaka through the Khulna, Bagerhat, Pirojpur, Jahlkhati, and Barisal (for those of you with really detailed maps). These are some of the hardest-hit districts. I don’t know what I’m expecting to see. It should provide context for what we’ve been reading about and seeing on television.

*** *** ***
Vivian said I should send some disaster pictures. See attached photos of Patrick Just After The Fall
Patrick Just After the Fall

… and One Day Later.
Patrick One Day Later

It was about 6:30 a.m. and I was entering the final third of my stately 7-kilometre jog around the Dhanmondi Lakes. Suddenly a toe caught a ravenous slab and hurled me onto the concrete path. Just as suddenly, I was surrounded by a crowd of middle-income Bangladeshis, whose doctors have told them to walk every day to treat their diabetes and high blood pressure. (I have never seen a foreigner out there, though I’ve heard there is one.) I was helped to a bench, offered handkerchiefs, and provided with advice. One offended onlooker announced to the others in Bangla that Bura (the old man) shouldn’t be running. I was slowly becoming the victim of a campaign to get me to the emergency department of a brand-new hospital nearby when a wonderful man identified himself to the crowd as a doctor (he may have been one), examined me, announced that despite all the blood it was only abrasion, and helped me into a rickshaw. I was pretty spectacular for several days, but this is now history.

The second day after the accident my driver told my national counterpart, with whom I spend hours each day, that I had been injured. Muhammad Ali looked in horror at the bandages and contusions and asked me why I hadn’t told him.

I’ll try to have some pictures of how the real disaster is recovering in a few days.



Addendum: I am travelling along a somewhat bumpy road southeast of Khulna. I can’t see the screen because of the sun.

I feel odd about being a disaster tourist, but I’m sticking with Ogden Nash’s advice that not doing things you could have done is worse than doing things you shouldn’t have done. Onward.

This is beautiful country and it is clear that nature has the upper hand here, and will cover up the losses.

Right now we are about to stop and see an ancient mosque, rising in the jungle.

More later.

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