S&R Honors: The Culture and Iain M. Banks

SRHonors_BanksI don’t remember which of Iain M. Banks’ novels I read first, whether it was Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons, but it no longer matters. I was hooked on his galactic space opera setting (the “Culture” novels) from the get-go, and I’ve read every Culture novel except his last. When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I hoped to read that last novel before he died. For that matter, I hoped to write this post honoring the Banks and his amazing imagination before the cancer claimed him. Alas, he died in early June.

There are a lot of people who look down on space opera as a genre. I’m not one of them. The best space opera plays macrocosm off against microcosm, and the actions of a the few (or the one) have great consequence in the greater universe of the setting. Banks’ Culture novels do this in spades.

There are artificial planets that were left behind for unknown reasons by long extinct races. There are Ringworlds and Dyson spheres, as well as wars so great in magnitude that such massive structures and their trillions of inhabitants are killed. There are digital hells created for the dead, when technology has advanced sufficiently that death has largely become a choice. And there are artificial intelligences that range in size from missiles to “General Services Vehicles” which are usually home to billions of intelligent biological lifeforms.

It’s not that the Culture novels provide technology that is indistinguishable from magic, because they don’t. Banks certainly plays with the laws of physics, but mostly just to make things smaller, stronger, faster, and so on. Nuclear reactors that are so small they can be surgically implanted in a human(oid) body. The ability to alter DNA and transition from male to female to dolphin to plant and back to male humanoid again.

And then there’s agents of “Special Circumstances.” These people essentially do the Culture’s dirty work, do it of their own free will, and do with at least one carefully backed-up copy of their brain pattern stored for safe keeping and re-incarnation if the agent is killed in the line of duty. They are the highly deniable hands, feet, and nanotech that permits the bulk of the Culture to exist largely free of large scale conflict.

While I have enjoyed all of the Culture books I’ve read, one of my favorites is Excession. It takes a philosophical idea – the “Out of Context problem” – and applies it to the Culture itself. How does a post-resource limited, high technology, anarcho-libertarian society survive when faced with something that is clearly from another universe entirely? Will the Culture do any better than the Aztecs did when the Spanish showed up? And if so, how and why?

And if you don’t love the hilariously, if occasionally ominously, named AI spaceships, I recommend you have your sense of humor examined.

Good bye, Iain M. Banks. There appears to be no mindstate backup for you on file….

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance

Teaching underclass kids which fork to use

CATEGORY: BusinessFinanceI recently came across a useful article over at Ragan’s PR Daily entitled “What to wear to work in the PR and marketing industry.” After reading through it, my first reaction was that it was mistitled – what it offers is good advice for what to wear to work in just about any industry. From where I sit now, there’s nothing terribly innovative about author Elissa Freeman’s advice, but it’s also true that there’s sometimes significant value in being reminded of the basics and having them presented in a tight, coherent fashion. We have so much noise in our society, so many messages screaming for our attention every waking minute, that it’s easy to lose focus on something as simple as dressing appropriately for a work culture.

The main points?

  • Feel comfortable in your clothes.
  • Dress to impress on the job hunt.
  • Accessorize carefully.
  • Fit the culture.
  • Follow the leader.
  • Dress your age.

My second reaction was (predictably enough, if you know me) a bit deeper. I have been keenly aware, for more than 30 years now, how a concept as seemingly fundamental as “dress appropriately” can be an unfathomable web of arcana for vast swaths of our society. The reason is that fashion and grooming – clothes, shoes, accessories, hair styles, facial hair (for the guys), even scents – are powerful cultural markers embedded in class codes that are virtually invisible to those of us born and raised into the underclasses.

It has always been so. If you study your history back far enough, you’ll discover that once upon a time it was actually illegal, in the great monarchies of Europe, for commoners to wear certain styles (even if they could afford them). The high fashions were reserved, at pike point, for the noble born.

These days anybody can walk into any store in town and march out with a bag full of whatever they can afford, meaning that I can dress like Bill Gates or Prince Harry if I have sufficient credit. But the financial means for a simple country boy like me to look like a Rockefeller and the cultural know-how to do so effectively – those are different things.

I grew up working class. In the South. The rural South. I was raised by grandparents who came from meager means and grew up through the Great Depression. I never went hungry, but we never had much in the way of luxury, either.

The real poverty that I endured growing up was cultural. Class is very real in America, and this is especially true in the South, which can be hateful and mannered in ways subtle enough to baffle a courtier in Louis XIV’s Versailles. There were rules. Rules having to do with style, with behavior, with clothes and cars and interior decorating and… really, with just about everything.

And I didn’t know the rules. Worse, I was in college – an elite, moneyed, conservative private Southern university – before I began to figure out that there even were rules. Looking back, I was sort of like Jethro Bodine walking around the big city, blissfully unaware that everybody was laughing at him, not with him.

The rules. I had figured out in high school, thanks to my competitive debate experience, that if you have a Southern accent – especially one as hillbilly as mine was – people think you’re stupid. And everybody thinking you’re stupid, that comes with a wicked price tag. So I taught myself to speak with a perfectly flat Midwestern accent. For years nobody guessed I was Southern. People I’d meet would guess Ohio or Pennsylvania, but never the South.

But… how to dress. I thought polyester was a perfectly acceptable fabric for a suit. I didn’t understand that certain kinds of patterns in your sport coat scream “used car salesman.” I had no understanding of color (other than I liked bright ones in garish combinations). What shoes do you wear with those pants? Huh? And… what’s an “accessory”? What’s wrong with wearing my Casio sports watch to an interview? Oh, I need to get a nice watch. I see. You mean like a Timex?

Looking back, I imagine people thought that I was being dressed each morning by a chimp. A not terribly stylish, even by ape standards, chimp.

I remember my father telling a story. He was somewhere on business and got ushered into a formal dinner that was at least a couple class steps above his station (not that he cared – Dad was incredibly self-composed and at ease in any social situation; whatever faults he had, they did not revolve around low self-esteem or high self-awareness). He sat down and was confronted with a veritable armory of – and here it is, the redneck’s nightmare – forks. Forks of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of them, it seemed. I know my father. Up until that moment his dining experiences had never involved anything as exotic even as a salad fork or a special spoon for soup.

“What did you do, Daddy?”

“I just started with the one on the left and worked my way in.” Which, remarkably, was precisely the right thing to do. Had it been me, everybody else at the table would have been navigating the phalanx of forks like Vanderbilts and I’d have been trying to eat the foie gras with my feet. (And I’d have had no idea what the hell it was, either.)

Dad had some kind of instinct about how to behave that I didn’t. Worse, nobody explained the rules to me because in my culture, nobody else knew them, either. They might know that your socks ought to match your shoes, but that was about it.

So I marched off into the world, a bumpkin with no clue how to act, how to dress, which fork to use. And since I didn’t know these things, it was clear to all the more cultured folks I met that I wasn’t one of them. They might be nice to me. They might have a beer with me. The girls might even date me if they wanted to get back at their parents. But… opportunities didn’t present themselves. They didn’t call when their fathers were hiring. When they graduated, the girls never considered, for a second, that I might be appropriate for them long term. (Yes, L-J, I’m looking at you.)

No matter how qualified I was for a job, it usually went to the kid from the right family, with the right connections, wearing the right clothes. These people can smell the thread count on your button down before you even walk in the room.

The “what to wear to work” article linked above is really helpful, but it has me thinking that we need more. Millions of poor and working class kids who have the brains to thrive in middle and upper class contexts lack the cultural skills, the basic awareness, even, of the rules, of the ways in which how they act and present themselves work to keep them down. That hair style might be the absolute pinnacle of fashion in your working class ‘hood, but it signals, as clearly as a blinking neon sign around your neck, that you’re not one of us. Yes, I have a job for you as an admin in the warehouse, but management? Bitch, please.

I wish there were community programs designed to teach high school kids the cultural skills they’ll need to climb America’s class ladder. The programs I have in mind would address areas like:

Diction: You can’t speak ghetto. You can’t speak cornfield. If you’re going to sound Southern, you need to sound coastal and not upland/hillbilly (that is, Scarlett O’Hara instead of Gomer Pyle). You can’t sound like you were an extra in Fargo. And you can’t sound Jersey Shore under any circumstances. Here in Denver we have a huge Mexican-American population, and there’s a distinct Latino accent. It’s nowhere near as tragic as how I grew up speaking, but it nonetheless is a class marker. Hiring managers hear that accent and instinctively situate the speaker in a particular context – the non-commissioned context – with all the limitations that attend it.

You can learn how to flatten and “normalize” your accent, and you can also learn how to avoid going ethnic, head side-to-side “oh no you didn’t” sister or “I’m a-fixin’ to whoop your ass” redneck in ways that make those raised in polite society want to run away from you. (I still have to fight down the urge to get my back up Nor’ Cackalackey style when somebody pisses me off, but it’s doable, and you get particularly motivated once you come to understand how those up the food chain view that sort of behavior.)

Dress: You don’t have to spend a fortune to look respectable, but you do need to know how to maximize what money you have. When do you wear black shoes vs. when do you wear brown? When do you wear blue patent leather? (Trick question. Never.) What socks go with what pants and shoes? Is this belt okay? Can I wear a black sport coat with khakis?

Getting just one of these questions wrong can cost you a job. No, seriously.

Grooming: 25 year-old male with a 1970s porn ‘stache applying for a managerial job. Next. Young woman with Camaro hair. Next. Your cologne, bought on sale at Walmart, arrives for the interview two minutes before you do. Next. Is that a mullet?! A gold tooth?! Somebody call security.

Professional/Career Counseling: I work in marketing. When I was a teenager if you’d asked me would I like to work in marketing, I’d have thought you were offering me a job as a bag boy. Worse, that might have seemed not bad.

If you’re an underclass kid, you know there are doctors and lawyers and accountants, but your understanding of what goes into becoming one is nonexistent because there are none in your family or among your circle of friends. The people in your cultural sphere are manual laborers. They work in stores and shops and maybe they do bookkeeping. If they’re in the medical world, they’re on the underside of the glass ceiling – lab techs, dental assistants, etc. Given what they know of the world, they often have no clue as to how they’d even aspire to being a real physician. A marketing researcher? They might be fabulous at math and stats, but they have never heard of the job title.

Meanwhile, across town, middle class and upper class kids know all these things. They have role models in their lives and that means a) they have ready access to knowledge about these professions, b) there is a cultural assumption that it’s doable, because people they know do it all the time, and c) they have the connections to shepherd them in the right direction.

What else? You know, I can’t prove it with hard research, but I suspect that names get in the way, too. This is most evident with African-American naming conventions, which frankly mystify the hell out of white people. I now understand that there are rules that dictate some of these odd-sounding names, and that once you know how those conventions work the names make a lot more sense.

But I’m imagining a job application process. Submit the same résumé to 100 hiring managers, only you change the names. On 50 of them the applicant is “Michelle Harris” and on the other 50 it’s “KaTrinka Harris.” What do you think happens?

And it isn’t just about black working class cultures. I grew up in a place where you run across a lot of guys named Wayne, Randy and Earl. These are very Southern working class names, and no matter how smart the guy is (I have good, intelligent friends with each of these names), an upper-class interviewer can’t help hearing the hillbilly.

So if your name is Randy Morgan Smith and you go by Randy, what if I suggest you think about changing over and going by Morgan?

I hate seeing people underperform their potential, and I especially hate it when the underperformance is a result of external social and economic forces that artificially limit opportunity. I want excellent education for everyone, I want a level playing field in hiring and promotion, and I understand that all too often, the factors keeping us from fully realizing our potential (as individuals and as a society) are buried in class considerations that we not only don’t address, we don’t even acknowledge. After all, here in America we’re all equal, right? Anybody can grow up to be president and if you got six dollars and mule you can be a billionaire and any suggestion whatsoever that any of this isn’t true makes you a socialist.

I’d like to see programs that help poor and working class kids with ambition bridge the class chasm. Not everyone wants to climb the ladder, of course, and that’s fine. Do what makes you happy. But if you settle further down the socio-economic scale, it needs to be the result of an informed decision and conscious choice, not because of external factors working to keep the rabble in their place.

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Why we write…or don’t…

Erato, Muse of Poetry (Image courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s a bitter day when one sees a talented artist give up his art. Sam Smith’s A Poet Says Goodbye to Poetry reveals a great deal about the state, not just of poetry, but about the state of art – especially literature.

The State of Things

The divisions between “high” and “low” art disappeared more decades ago than most people realize (for the hell of it we might say it happened in the year 1930 – not because of the economic collapse caused by Wall Street which precipitated the great depression, but because the Pulitzer committee gave the fiction prize that year to Oliver La Farge’s novel Laughing Boy for what were largely political reasons – the committee’s other options that year were William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel – any of which choices any educated person might think preferable). The rise of creative writing programs post World War II created, unintentionally, a self-contained world of writers writing for each other – as a result, educated audiences who might have read Hemingway and Hammett a generation before no longer exist in any appreciable numbers. Those who read Pynchon and Delillo (or even know who Pynchon or Delillo are) are separated from those who read Elmore Leonard or Patricia Cornwell in ways that reflect the economic politics of publishing.

What used to be seen as the “mid-list responsibility” of once family owned publishing houses like Scribners or Simon and Schuster – to publish or keep in print (I believe the term used once was “champion”) literary work, whether fiction or poetry – is, and has been for some time, over. Shareholders and corporate execs champion profits, not culture. Genre forms – mystery, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, western – are reliable sellers – and some talented writers who might pursue more personal, literary paths have chosen to adapt their artistic visions to genre fiction. Some of these have transcended their genres (Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy are examples). But the disappearance of the “mid-list” gave other, possibly equally talented authors no way to access the marketing muscle of major publishing houses.

As a result talented writers who might have pursued their visions independent of the creative writing school system (which, more than anything else, is like an “old boy/girl” club where “mentors” help “mentees” and the majority of students get shuffled through for their tuition) now turn to small, independent publishers who often find that even getting their authors reviewed – a staple of arts pages in newspapers only two decades ago but one of the first casualties of the collapse of the newspaper as a medium – requires them to approach the plethora of “book bloggers” on the InterWebs whose chief aims seem to be promoting their favorite authors – and whose overwhelming interests (I looked at nearly 600 book blogs this fall as I helped my publisher pursue reviews for my latest book) are for whatever the current reading fad is (as most of you know, right now it’s something called “Young Adult Paranormal”). It is a system rife with all the pitfalls and problems of the chaos we know as the Web.

Think for a moment – what have been the most successful books of the last five years? You know them – The Twilight, Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey series. I’ve emphasized that last word for a reason: for the same reasons that movie studios (once taken over by corporate interests) began grinding out sequels for any film with a flicker (however dim) of originality and appeal, mainstream publishers now seek franchises – they want writers willing to grind out hundreds, even thousands, of pages telling long, convoluted stories (usually rather badly in the opinion of this “pedantic bastard” as a high school friend once termed me in signing my yearbook) that follow Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale the way that kid making your blackened salmon at Applebee’s follows their picture book prep manual to get the “food” on your plate. The sad part, for this pedantic bastard, is that if I were allowed to approach any of the authors of the above-named series and asked them about Propp, I fear what I’d get would be blank stares followed by calls for their security details to remove me. And what might be worse, to me, would be talking with them and discovering that they were well aware of their use of Propp but wrote for no motive but money.

There’s a term George Orwell coined to describe this kind of writing – prole entertainment. If you don’t know this term, you should – be forewarned: it is not complimentary.

A Few Words About Culture and Change

Despite the efforts of culture critics such as Neil Postman to warn us of the danger of allowing ourselves to be seduced – either by a particular medium or by the power of technology itself to change our lives in unexpected ways, human culture continues to embrace the changes to our lives – and our art – wrought by new technologies and media as rapidly as they appear. (For the well informed, that word “wrought” has special meaning given its reference to Samuel F. B. Morse). We embraced the telegraph, the radio, film, then television, and most recently, the Internet: all brought with them not only new methods of communication but also necessarily changes in the way we think about and use (or think we can use) information.

This has clear implications for our appreciation of language – the medium (in a slightly different meaning of the word) for writers – especially poets – for whom a word, to invert a famous saw, might mean a thousand pictures. So for my friend Sam, and to those like him who have felt the need to abandon this medium we all love so dearly – language – I feel especially pained. He and I gave talks in the late 1980’s that warned teachers and professors all over the country that the medium we treasured – the written/printed word – would likely be subsumed by the power of other media delivered via newer technologies.

Never have I wished more that we’d been wrong than as I write this.

The Pragmatic Artist

As media and technology savvy as we’ve always been, both Sam and I have embraced new media wholeheartedly – fully aware that Merton’s Law dogged our every step. When Sam posted the link to his latest blog post on Facebook (natch), friends and colleagues – known in both the real and virtual worlds – weighed in with sympathy, encouragement and commiseration. In the comment thread on his post, I got into a dialogue (ah, Plato – show of hands as to those who’ve read him? Anyone? Bueller?) with the talented singer, composer and musician Wendie Colter concerning Sam’s decision to abandon poetry. I include below part of our discussion:

Wendie: Jim – artists make art for themselves first and foremost. But I maintain it can’t exist in a vacuum. It needs an energy exchange to live. Payment is one form of energy exchange, just like applause, reviews, acknowledgement from a community of peers, etc. If an artist doesn’t receive at least one of those things to her satisfaction, it is beyond discouraging. I haven’t met one artist (and I was raised by artists) that didn’t have the desire to make art for their living as a primary life goal.

Me: Wouldn’t argue any of that Wendie. But artists also make art for the future – it’s a strong motivation, to leave something behind, to be remembered – that’s the area I’ll be addressing in my response to Sam. As for that vacuum you mention, I understand what you mean, but I’m one who believes no artist has to live in a vacuum – and I believe there are options artists can take (Sam’s taken one, but he seems to think it must involve leaving one art form for another – I disagree with that decision qualifiedly) – and that those options, whether marketing, technological, or some mix of the two, offer artists the opportunity to promote – or present – their art in venues and in ways that might find them audiences.

Wendie’s argument – that artists have to find an audience and make a living – is both valid and powerful. And her career as a composer of music for television, film, and commercials bears out her commitment to finding a way to practice her art in a fashion that allows her to make a living practicing her art. Her response to my reply – that an artist’s leaving one medium to practice another is a bitter experience – is made clear below:

Wendie: Only thing I’d say to that is that to move away from one medium that you had your heart set on and your identity wrapped up in is sometimes necessary. Painful and heartbreaking, but necessary.

Sam, as his essay notes, has made that painful change from one medium to another, hoping that pictures will give him the artistic satisfaction he gets from words.

But at heart Sam is a writer – as his output for Scholars and Rogues shows. Whether he can ever equate what he achieves with his camera with what he has achieved with his pen as a poet (I’m speaking metaphorically) is something only Sam can decide.

Perhaps his artistic decision is acceptance of a reality that I haven’t been able to accept yet. Perhaps what Sam has done is make a pragmatic decision that, like Wendie’s, allows him to follow an artist’s path and find an audience who appreciates his talent in ways that he never felt he achieved through his career as a poet.

Perhaps the word will die – and with it the art of the word – literature – will die. So Sam’s poetry will have been a mistaken foray into a dead art form. This development is possible – though not probable.

So in case language survives, however, here are some ideas that might be worthy of his consideration.

Writers can embrace marketing and technology

As one privy to Sam’s decision before he announced it publicly, I suggested to him that he consider combining his photos with his poems. Such projects expand his potential audience to include both those who appreciate photography and those who appreciate poetry. This is called cross marketing – and is a proven way to reach multiple audiences.

Many writers use YouTube as a method of attracting new readers by offering interviews, readings, and talks about their work. Sam is one of the best readers I’ve ever seen – and he could introduce readers to his poetry – as well as give talks about his poetry – or poetry in general (his understanding of the genre is, as you’d expect, keen) that could help him build an audience. He could even create videos that combine his poetry with his photography – and attract readers to his work as well as combine his artistic interests.

Social networks allow writers and readers to find each other – there are the general networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but there are also specialized networks such as Goodreads that allow authors and readers to establish relationships – relationships that will help an author build audience.

Why we write…or don’t…

The story of literature, particularly poetry, is one of unpredictability. Poets have come into and gone out of fashion (John Donne), had their works bowdlerized in the name of “improvement” (William Shakespeare), and enjoyed great acclaim in their lifetimes only to become more famous for their lives than for their work (Lord Byron).

What I’m saying is, one never knows how one’s work will be received by future generations. That may seem pompous and idealistic, but as the poet said, “Who shoots at the midday sun….”

So I have encouraged Sam to work at finding publishers of his work – even if that means working with a small, independent publisher – who’ll care about his work – and him – and who’ll work with him to get his work out there so that it might be discovered – either in his lifetime or later. As I mentioned in my response to Wendie, and as I often remind my wife Lea, a gifted artist herself, artists create for the future as much as for now.

The hard part of being an artist is accepting that we won’t necessarily achieve the sort of acclaim we may think we deserve in our lifetimes.

Harder still, though, is to leave a body of work as fine as Sam’s poetry in a drawer without finding an outlet for it – especially in an age when finding such outlets is more possible than ever thanks to that very technology I spoke of earlier.

As much as I wish Sam well in his new artistic venture as a photographer, I hope he’ll consider finding publishing homes for his books of poetry. They are, to paraphrase a poet who labored in obscurity only to become after she was long dead a major American writer, his letters to the world.

They are fine letters – I hope he’ll offer them to be read.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

Frank and Liliose

One of my hardest adjustments to living in Rwanda has been that of having hired help around the house. Well, let’s say it’s been my hardest and easiest adjustment.

In Rwanda culture, a standard for most homes includes having a house girl or house boy help with weekly chores, and also for a guard to patrol the property at night. So, a portion of my monthly rent in Kigali goes toward the salaries of one house girl and a guard named Frank.

Frank keeps our house safe at night. From Sunday through Saturday, he sits at his guard post between sundown to sunup regulating our gate and keeping watch over the property. Frank wears a blue uniform with tall black boots and a baseball cap that my roommates occasionally borrow while intoxicated on the weekends (we recently bought him an extra hat as a gift for his good spirits). Frank keeps the gate locked every Continue reading

A pause

It has officially been two months since I exited the plane at Kigali’s International Airport. Life since then has been what I imagine life to be like if staring inside a tornado from a grounded bathtub – calm at the base with a whirlwind of disorganized familiarities spinning chaotically above. The best part about sitting in the bathtub, though, has been the view of observing each bit of life swirling around me. And unlike the tornado, I’ve been able to choose which pieces to bring back down to Earth and which to send sailing with the wind.

This post is a pause…a time of closing my eyes to the swirling gusts to absorb the joys and learn from the hardships. I have not loved all moments here – whether spinning or still, but I have enjoyed most. And, when I pause I also consider: isn’t this what makes up every stage of life – the chaotic and calm, the loving and not loving of moments?

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Six days on Rwanda's roads

I recently spent six days traveling the Northwest corner of Rwanda. My brain has not yet processed the amazing, frustrating, enlightening adventures of the week. And, that makes writing about it difficult.

After my Internet-less efforts to write a blog post produced nothing but scribbled nonsense in a notepad, I decided to embrace the chaos. Truthfully, the need to process Rwanda has been an integral part of my life in Rwanda. So, I have summarized my trip in the best way my disheveled brain knows how: to describe the random, beautiful chaos of my week by stating the random simple events and emotions that filled my days.

In the past six days I…

Learned how to shoot a bow and arrow.  Walked through a thunderstorm (Rwanda has more lightning strikes than any country).  Road passenger while a friend drove a Jeep Liberty down the front steps of a hotel (the steps looked like a ramp).  Met a medicine man.  Bargained one night in a presidential suite for $13 more than the cheapest hotel room in town.   Continue reading

Words of my Rwanda life

Goats Everywhere
Banana trees Cover the hills
Motorcycles Most popular mode of transportation
Bare black baby butts Seen frequently around neighborhoods
Hills Not a single part of Rwanda without them
Carrying on the head The large items locals can balance continues to baffle me
Dirt roads Main roads paved, side roads not
AK-47 rifles All security and neighborhood guards carry them
Tropical fruit Mango, passion fruit, pineapple…yum Continue reading

Shaila meets the gorillas

I made my way toward town under a bright, star-filled sky. It was 4:30a.m. Locals still meandered their way home from the bars, but I had my hiking boots on in preparation for a new day. I was off to see the gorillas.

An estimated 800 Mountain Gorillas currently live in the hills around the Rwanda, Uganda and Congo borders. The Rwandan government allows visitors to see these rare creatures, but only after allocating a limited number of permits each day. While tourism helps boost the country’s economy, the national parks remain protective. Just 20 years ago, this species faced near extinction, with fewer than 300 reported members of its kind.

Rwanda recently raised its trekking prices to $750 for foreigners. Many would consider this a hefty sum, and this poor traveling grad school student was no exception. Continue reading

Just another day in K-town

I wake up on an average Sunday in Kigali and go for a journey through town. It is an ordinary day to most, but everything seems new and exciting to my two-week-old Rwanda eyes.

I exit my front gate and begin the bumpy hike up my dirt road to town. It’s a short, five-minute walk, but also a steep one. I pant the entire time.

On the way, I pass a church. The doors are open, and vibrant sounds of rejoice echo into the streets. The passionate singing, bright dancing dresses and unreserved clapping makes me smile through the exhausting climb.

Everyone stares as I pass. They do not threaten, nor am I scared. They just wonder about this white woman walking through their African neighborhood. Continue reading

I broke the toilet

Literally. I broke my toilet. I had been in Africa for two days and already started tearing things apart.

This shattering of the ceramic toilet-top perfectly symbolizes my adjustment process to the city of Kigali: The top hides shit beneath its surface, but when ill-treated winds up in pieces on the floor. This is also my life.

If someone asked me to sum up my first week in Kigali in three words, I could do so easily:

  1. Starving.
  2. Destitute.
  3. Helpless.

It wasn’t the city’s fault. It wasn’t mine either. This situation evolved from a sort of cyclical effect that whirled within the crossing-over process of my American culture into that of Rwanda’s. That cyclical effect went something like this: Continue reading

Adele, a driver and me

I opened my eyes and stared up at the tee-peed mosquito net that surrounded me. It was 7:30a.m., and I was in Africa.

My flight from Istanbul, Turkey landed fewer than eight hours earlier. Darkness filled the city of Kigali at that time, so I drew back the curtains of my room and peeked into the new day. A peaceful landscape of red roofs and rolling hills stared back at me. Good morning, Rwanda.

I had deplaned on the runway of a visibly sleeping city the night before and walked toward the building that read “Kigali International Airport.” No lights or lanes guided me. Few airport staff members even looked my way as I meandered alone toward the “ARRIVALS” door. Only a small number of passengers exited the already half-filled plane, as the aircraft still had another late-night stop to make in Kampala, Uganda.
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Life in a Turkish bath

A few months ago, I wrote a post called “Out of Our Comfort Zones” while traveling through Costa Rica. My travel companions and I engaged in every adventurous activity we could find from zip lining to repelling to swinging 300 feet in the air on a rope through the jungle.

Today, I spent 69 Turkish Lira ($37.99) for an old topless woman to bathe me with some bubbly Turkish soap. I was out of my comfort zone in a whole new way. And, it was wonderful.

We had heard from multiple other Istanbul travelers that it would be a mistake to miss visiting a Turkish bath, or Hamam. This method of cleansing and relaxation involves a body scrub and bubble wash, which remove dead skin from the body, clean out the skin’s pores and help a bather’s skin breathe while also regulating blood circulation. Continue reading

What makes Istanbul beautiful

Anyone who has walked around the upper platform of Istanbul’s Galata Tower will notice history in the city’s skyline. Instead of the boxy skyscrapers and glass buildings we’re used to in America’s big cities, Istanbul’s pointed mosque minarets and jagged palace walls give the city a creatively pure look. Every day, the Bosphorus shines a bright blue, shaping a stunning scene against the red tile roofs and typically clear sky of this bi-continental city.

The Bosphorus divides the city between Europe and Asia, and anyone can take a ferry or bus trip between the two sides for about $1 or $2 each way. As an American, I would normally find this type of travel unthinkable. Travel leisurely between two continents? It seems it should be more difficult than just a 15-minute leisurely ride. As my friend Jessica stated quite simply on our ferry ride to Asia, “we’re sailing down the middle of two continents right now.” Continue reading

Istanbul: A shock to the system

I can think of no better way to say it. Istanbul, Turkey has been a shock to my system.

It all started when our plane arrived 45 minutes early (but curiously took off 10 minutes late) into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Delirious and exhausted, we exited the plane at 4:30a.m. to find about 20 robed Muslim men and women scattered around the arrival gate on their hands and knees. They had been participating in one of their five daily prayers while waiting for a flight.

I had slept for about 20 minutes since leaving Copenhagen, Denmark and nearly forgot what continent we were on, let alone that we were entering a predominately Muslim country. I gave myself a mental reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, then continued on to passport control. Continue reading

I would be a Dane

If given the opportunity, I would be a Dane…or at least half Dane. Copenhagen, Denmark has been one of my favorite cities ever visited, not only because of the beautiful architecture and lovely people, but because the city and I have compatible personalities.

I would be a Dane, because women wear sneakers as fashion statements. People look presentable and well dressed, but in a neighborhood-casual type of way. A pair of jeans, short-sleeved shirt, Converse sneakers and pashmina scarf provide both comfort and class in this city. My stiletto-loving friend, Rachel, would disagree, but I love this type of practical attire.

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Biking in Copenhagen

One of the happiest moments of my two-week travel adventure occurred at 6:30a.m. while sitting on the Copenhagen, Denmark metro after two short hours of sleep.

To ensure a stress-free journey to her apartment, my friend Kristina met my travel buddy, Jessica, and I at the Kastrup Airport. On our journey into town, Kristina announced in her Danish accent, “I hope you’re ready, girls. I got you bikes for the week.”

I had heard about Copenhagen, Denmark’s well-developed bicycle paths, but had only hoped to cruise down one somedaySince living in Denver, Colorado three years ago, home of America’s outdoorsy and healthy citizens, I came to appreciate those United States cities aiming to develop bike-friendly infrastructures. Still, the initiative is new in the States and the on-board cities few. Continue reading

Dear Dad, please visit Iceland

Dear Dad,

I know international travel is not your thing, but I went to a place I want you to visit. Iceland may seem a random and obscure destination for Americans, but believe me when I say it’s a hidden gem.

I originally decided to stop in Iceland after hearing about a stopover program through Icelandair. The airline allows travelers to extend their United States-to-Europe layovers for up to four days in Iceland – a perfect amount of time to get a feel for the country and likely decide to visit again.

Reykjavik, Iceland’s largest city, is only a four-hour plane ride from the Northeastern U.S. Think about it. Since you live in New York, it would take you less time to fly to another continent than to visit me in New Orleans. Continue reading

Penn State's sports culture is the rule, not the exception

by Brian Moritz

News of the punishment came down first thing on Monday morning, July 23.

More than eight months after scandal first broke at Penn State, about a month after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child molestation, two weeks after the Freeh Report blasted Penn State leadership and former coach Joe Paterno for covering up the allegations, and one day after the statue of Paterno was removed from Beaver Stadium, the NCAA handed down its sanctions against the program.

The punishments are harsh, severe, and justified. The $60 million eats up more than half of the profits Penn State’s athletic department earns annually. The postseason ban means the team is basically playing four years of exhibition games. The scholarship restrictions mean that it will be 2020 before Penn State fields a football team with four full scholarship classes. Vacating 111 wins is a final punishment for the late Paterno, who had been the sport’s all-time winningest coach. Continue reading