Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quick Update

I hope to get some more photos up from our trips as well as start reflecting on our time here in Ossining, but I AM EXHAUSTED. We've had jam-packed days so far, and it only looks to get busier and busier. Like "grad school" levels of busy. The calendar of events is insane.

But I am with some of the most amazing people that have done some of the most amazing things in their lives. This is a life-changing place. No way we can come out of this experience without experiencing a powerful transformation.

That's all for the day. Off to bed. Full day of Theology classes tomorrow...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Goin’ Out West, Part 3: California→MS→Alabama

The final part of the trip out West was to see my old friend* Jeremy Mucha’ (AKA Cap’n Hardqore AKA Homeskillit) out in San Diego. It was a brief trip-just two days- but it is always great to see him. I went out to see him back in 2009, but this was Katie's first trip to California, so for her this was a chance to check something off the list of states to visit.

We spent the first day driving up and down the coast, checking out some sights, just hanging out. The next day we spent the day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido. Really cool place.

Up Close and Personal with Lioness

But the most exciting thing was the Great Power Outage of San Diego AKA San Diego Unplugged 2011. Around 3:30pm on that Friday, the power went out at the zoo. OK, whatever. Then Jeremy starts getting texts from a friend saying that the power was out in all of southern California. Eventually we realized that the power was also out in some of Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico. The entire grid went down. We assumed this was big news, but we now realize that this didn’t make much of a blip on the radars of national news outlets (thanks, lamestream media!**) But it was a big deal for those of us stuck in it. No traffic lights worked. Airport shuts down, all flights cancelled. The radio announcer starts telling everyone that the power could be out for days and to enact your emergency plans immediately. It was quite surreal. Now, in the grand scheme of things, the power was back on in 10 hours and we left on time the next morning, but for a while, we really didn’t know what was happening, so we raided a target, bought a bunch canned food and went back to Jeremy’s for a bonfire behind the “Adventure Shack.” It was a great evening. Who needs power when you're with such good company?***

Looting Target (You pay for stuff when you loot, right?)

The fire behind the "Adventure Shack"

We flew back to Mississippi, stayed the night with my Uncle Carl and Aunt Mischelle, then took off to Alabama to see Gringo Star in concert in Opelika, AL. Great show, great to see the guys.

To finish out this blog post, here’s the video of the first single from their soon-to-be-released album Count Yer Lucky Stars:

* I’ve known the guy for 27 years now.
** I hate this term. Please don’t ever earnestly use this term in conversation with me. Seriously.
***Robots. Robots would likely need power.

Goin’ Out West, Part 2: Arizona

After our visit to Mississippi, we ditched our car at my Uncle’s house and flew out to Phoenix, AZ to see Garry and Holly, Katie’s dad and step-mom, plus her sister Rachel who had joined us for a few days. I had been THROUGH Arizona before on my road trip out to LA back in 1999, but we didn’t stop in Arizona, so this was all new to me. Garry and Holly really went all out to show us a good time, so we took in the Grand Canyon and Sedona, both of which were stunning. I’m glad to have sen the Grand Canyon, because so many of my international students had seen it and were always very surprised when they found out I had not. Since we are on the verge of leaving this country/continent/ hemisphere for several years, I was very pleased to be able to see this beautiful sight right here in my own “backyard.” Seemed patriotic, almost.

But whatever, we went to a MUSIC MUSEUM!

On our first full day there, we went to the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix. I’ll be honest: I LOVE music, I can play trumpet, I can read music, but I’m not particularly “musical.” Music theory, and chords, and all the technical stuff about music escapes me, so I was not quite sure that a whole museum about instruments would be a whole day’s worth of activity. I was nervous it would lose my attention pretty quickly. I WAS WRONG. We spent SEVEN HOURS at this museum. It had a separate display for every country on the planet. Which means it was really a world music museum and THAT is exactly the kind of thing that can hold my attention for at least, oh, uh, seven hours. A few observations:

1. I have a lot of world music in my collection (some of which I cannot understand) and within the first 10 minutes, I had already learned which instrument makes a very unique sound that appears all throughout my music collection from West Africa. It was great. This happened more than once.

2. The instruments themselves became rather repetitive and similar, which was actually very interesting. It is interesting to see which instruments spread throughout the world thru migration, cultural sharing, and conquest, and also how many of the basic shapes and styles of instruments are universal.

3. This was one of the most aesthetically pleasing museums I have ever seen. The displays had video monitors playing videos of instruments representative of the featured country. You wore a headset, so as you walked through the museum, you headset picked up the audio for the video playing in front o you, so as you strolled along, the music changed along with the countries. Great layout, great displays. Even the restaurant was great, offering one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had. I highly recommend this place.

We spent the following day at the Grand Canyon. I won't write much about it because it’s really impossible to describe. Let’s just say it’s pretty GRAND. However, I will talk about how my never-really-gives-me-a-problem mild-at-best fear of heights came blasting to the forefront as I approached the edge. Really wasn’t expecting that. Factor in the fact that I had been experiencing some mild vertigo that was keeping slightly off-balanced, and I’ll say the trip- while beautiful and amazing and totally worth it- wasn’t qute as relaxing as it could have been. Especially hiking down some of the switchback trails leading down into the canyon. The picture below shows that I pretty much hugged the inside edge as much as I could and tried to keep away from other people as I hiked.

Two days later, we went to Sedona, and while it is not as overwhelming as the Grand Canyon, it is still equally as beautiful, in my opinion. First stop was at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a functional Catholic chapel that overlooks the area.

Garry and Holly treated us to a Pink Jeep Tour and took us up to Schnebly Hill Vista. As we stood on the rim, a rainstorm was blowing in, and we could see the rains begin to fall on Sedona in the distance. Truly a beautiful sight.

To see the full set of pictures from the Arizona potion of the trip, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Can See Clearly Now

I’m going to take a brief detour from party pictures and vacation stories to veer into honest reflection; bear with me, it’ll be brief: Tuesday evening, I was sitting in Fiesta Pizza in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, which is Katie’s old stomping grounds. We were talking about the future, but not the immediate future. Rather, we were talking about POST-Africa plans. Will Africa be 3.5 years, or will it be 20 years? Where will we go when we return? What will we do? Will we rent? Will we buy? Will we go back to Columbia? Will we move to Philadelphia? Chicago? San Diego? Wherever there’s a good job waiting? Will we have a kid? So many questions that we simply cannot begin to answer. We have 3.5 years in Tanzania ahead of us. So much can change in the next few years, it’s silly to even try to make plans. It occurred to me that for the first time, I really don’t have a long-term goal. Yes, obviously, we have the HUGE adventure of years in Africa ahead of us, but after that? Who knows? I really have no clue what the future will hold and it feels GREAT.

There is a lightness of spirit that I haven’t felt in years, and I realized it is because this urge, this passion, this obsession with getting to Africa is gone. We’re not there yet, but barring a major catastrophe, we’ve made it. For almost the last decade, we’ve been working toward this goal, and this drive has been all the more intense due to the spiritual nature of the pursuit; we’ve felt called to do this work from our Christian beliefs, so to contemplate NOT being able to do was a very intense feeling of frustration. All my thoughts and plans for the last many years have been run through the filter of “How will this affect our plans to get to Africa?” Anything that could even be remotely construed as an obstacle for getting to Africa could send me into a tail spin. And while this single-minded vision and drive has obviously paid off- we’re moving to Africa to answer the call!- I am realizing just how much of a psychological burden it has been.

So I have no idea what is really waiting for me in Africa. I have a lot to learn, and there will be challenges, and stress, and failures, but there will also be joys, and successes, and life-changing moments that I will remember for all my days. And after that? I don’t know. And that is wonderful.

Goin' Out West, Part 1: Mississippi

As the photos I posted a few weeks back attest, Katie and I took a cross-country trip to see friends and family. The trip took us to Mississippi, Arizona, and California. The trip was great, but it is, of course, tempered by the knowledge that these trips and visits are also “goodbyes.” We’ll see several of these folks again before we head off to Tanzania, but the emotions are still there in the back of our minds.

We spent a few days in Vicksburg, MS to see my family. On the way into town, we stopped over in Jackson to have dinner with my old pal Ian and his girlfriend, Mary. Now, I have to publicly state something here: Ian’s been one of my closest friends for 16 years now, but with his close proximity to Vicksburg, it has been difficult over the years to get in a substantial visit. There's other people around, or people waiting for us to arrive in V'burg, or there's a project to be done, or SOMETHING. I know this, so I want to state for the record: Ian, I know you kinda get short shrift on the visits. But I still love ya, man. I didn’t get a picture from this visit, so this one will have to do:

Of course, we visited my mother, as well as my grandmothers and multiple aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of the family. We also made our requisite trips to the Attic Gallery / Highway 61 Coffeeshop. But the most notable part of the trip was that we sold my mother's house. This was a prayer answered to have this burden taken away before we head overseas. The house was a good house but also an albatross around our necks, so when we sold it, I called my sister and said “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” at which point she pointed out that the house was located on National street, so my quote was especially appropriate.

Anyway, the trip was a good one. I managed to see some cousins who I had not seen in years. Got in a dinner visit with my cousins Emily, Austin, and Jamie. I am a lot older than these cousins; in fact, I’m twice as old as Austin. I just don’t know these cousins very well at all, but they’re good folks, and it was really good to see them. After the dinner, Jamie joined Katie and I for a bad game of pool, some half-assed darts, and some good conversation (and salt and pepper in my water- thanks, Jamie!) at the Biscuit Company. I’m glad I have had these chances to get in these visits, but I am sad that I’m taking off overseas for a few years and that will be that many more years before I get much of a chance to see these guys again. But hey, there’s always facebook!

Here’s a shot of some of my family gathered for a dinner, generously funded by my grandmother and Aunt (as was the hotel room where we stayed for 4 nights). Thanks!

To see some more pictures from our Mississippi leg of the trip, CLICK HERE.

At the tail-end of our trip, we flew back from San Diego to Jackson since we left our car at my Uncle Carl's house in Mississippi. We crashed at their house that night and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting around and talking with Carl and Mischelle. Since I have been unable to make it to any of the family reunions in recent years, it was great to catch up. Super cool aside: Carl found a letter tucked away in an old torn up family Bible. The letter was written by my Great-great-grandfather, Tavner Hed Elliott (for real, y'all) when he was a young recruit in the Rebel army in the Civil War. Anyway, it was perfectly preserved and it is written on Confederate States of America letterhead, watermark and all. Pretty amazing. It was written almost to the day that we were at my Uncle's house, so it was surreal to be reading a letter written 150 years ago.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Final Party

One of the things we have enjoyed while living in Columbia- and one of the things I think for which we will be remembered- is that we knew how to throw a good party. We have always enjoyed hosting people, and it’s one of the things that we loved about our house; it was a good welcoming place to visit with friends. We would host friends over for dinner, we would have small gatherings to sit around fires, we would host Bible studies, and we would almost always have a big blowout (post)Christmas party in early January.* Now, I know lots of people have good parties, but ours were EPIC. In fact, one of Katie’s coworkers mentioned to another person that Katie and her worked together, and the person responded “OH, you work with Katie? Does that mean you get to go to their parties?” We threw good parties, I’m just sayin.’ But seriously, I like to think the strength of the parties and gatherings was our ability to pull together a very eclectic group of people from all across the spectrum. It was nothing WE did; it was the good company. So thank YOU.

So it was fitting that we had one more big shindig to send us off. Technically, our friend Carrie was the host though it was again held at our humble abode. And that party lasted for NINE HOURS. We appreciate everyone for coming out to wish us well, and we appreciate all the years of good food and good company. Come see us in Mwanza and we’ll make sure to do it up real good for ya.

To see the photos from the party, CLICK HERE.

*Seriously, have your Christmas party in January. The weeks leading up to the holidays are always SUPER busy, but AFTER the holidays, people tend to NOT have many plans, so you’ll get a good turnout in our experience.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Goodbye, SC! It's been real...

As of 8:45am this morning, we are no longer a residents of South Carolina. We rolled out of town this morning and made a long, wet slog up to New Jersey to spend a few days with Katie’s folks before we start our Maryknoll training in NY. The morning was such a flurry of activity that we really didn’t have time to stop and give much thought to the act of leaving Columbia and specifically leaving our house. I think any emotions behind our departure are tempered by the knowledge that is STILL our house, regardless of our absence. In fact, while we have countless good memories about our house, at this point it has sort of shifted from “our cute, peaceful little home” into “the house that MUST be rented so we can pay the mortgage.” The transition from “our home” to “a bill” does knock off some of the "fuzzy memory" aspect, though there is something subconsciously calming about knowing that if everything goes to hell with our Africa plans, we have a house to come back to. We do love that place.

These last few weeks have been super busy, but we’re up in Cape May, NJ for the next few days. Hopefully, I can get some catch-up posting done soon. I’ve got party pictures, vacation pictures, and all sorts of goodbye shots with friends to get up here.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Saying Goodbye to USC (But Not Really)

So I was standing on the USC campus a few Thursday nights ago- August 25th, to be exact, as it as the day before my last day at USC. (Well, what was technically my last day. I went back in on the 27th to sort through some final projects, and just yesterday, I was still sending work emails to people. Hey, old habits die hard.) It was about 9pm, after the first International Student Association meeting of the fall semester. The campus was quiet but there was still lots of movement. Looking at the Horseshoe, standing by the Byrnes Building, it struck me how strange it is to be leaving USC. We’ve lived in Columbia for 8.5 years, and 7.5 of those have been in some association with USC. That’s not the longest amount of time, but it’s a pretty good chuck of my life so far.

USC brought us to Columbia. Katie was looking for a place to get a Masters in Social Work (and a school that wouldn’t require the GRE!) so we ended up choosing USC's College of Social Work and coming here in 2003. After Katie graduated in 2004 with her degree, I went back to school to finish getting my Bachelors degree. Since then, I have been an undergrad student, a grad student, a full-time staff member with the office of International Student Services office (ISS), and adjunct faculty in the Social Work department teaching a class on international Social Work and social justice. Connections and friendships we’ve made through our affiliation with USC have really had a huge impact on the course of our life. Honestly, the impact has been so great, I’m not even going to try to list examples here.

I DO want to give a special shout-out to the job I just left. Back in 2007, I took a Graduate Assistantship with the office of International Programs. It was a lucky break, as the Social Work Department at USC only gives assistantships to folks paying out of state tuition, so I was happy to get this. The GA was actually the second time I would be working for a Willer: My new boss, Pat Willer, was the wife of Dave Willer, for whom I worked as an undergrad research assistant. There was a convoluted little trail of how my name reached Pat, but it did, and for that I am grateful. I worked 10 hours a week on special projects dealing with recruitment and student admissions. Eventually, my work shifted me into the International Student Services office (ISS) and I started interacting with the staff in that office more frequently. Skip ahead to 2009, and I was hired as a full-time International Student Advisor. My coworkers were great, and I had the chance to work with some inspiring and wonderful students from all over the world. The office I just left has changed A LOT since the start of the year. The picture at the top of this post was taken at the start of 2011; at the time of this writing, six of the ten people pictured have all gone on to new opportunities, but man, what a fun office to be a part of (and the International Programs and Study Abroad staff were also great colleagues). Good folks all around.

But here’s the thing: I’m not REALLY severing ties with USC. I’ve already had three professor friends talk to me about the possibility of working together in the future to develop faculty-led study abroad programs to bring students over to Tanzania. So we’re not leaving USC, we’re just entering into the next stage of our university affiliation. I am very proud of the work I have done at USC, so please excuse this brief moment of ego-stroking as I repost the notice that was sent out announcing my departure. So thanks, USC; I had a blast!

Please join International Student Services in wishing a fond farewell to one of our student advisors, Christopher Reid. Chris has served in the ISS office for the past 4 years, starting off as a Graduate Assistant then later accepting a full time position as an International Student Advisor. Over the last 4 years Chris has made numerous contributions to ISS and the University as a whole. He has been an inspiring mentor to the International Student Association and Pan-African Student Association, as well as provided constant support to the Carolina Global Community on campus. Chris has been a wonderful colleague and will truly be missed. Thanks Chris, we wish you only the best!

A New Chapter

A lot has happened lately, and that’s an understatement. I have purposefully left my blog untouched since my last posts about Maryknolls and our upcoming move to Tanzania because, really, that’s what people have been asking about and it’s what people have wanted to know. Also, work was very busy these last few weeks, and I decided to wait until I was done with my current job to get this blog going again. And that brings us up to now. Currently, I’m on the road, but I’ll try to get some posts and photos up soon.