Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Rainy Season, Illustrated

So I was talking to one of our soon-to-be-arriving new missioners earlier this week, and she had some questions about the rainy season. After talking with her, I thought I would describe the rainy season to you, my dear readers.

It does not rain all day during the rainy season, nor is it gray and overcast, like I imagine Seattle to be for long stretches of time. We have very few days that are actually like that. In reality, during the rainy season, it is NOT raining for about 98% of the day. But when it DOES rain, it rains an incredible amount of water in a relatively short time. It is shocking sometimes how much rain comes down in these violent storms that appear out of nowhere and then blow over just as fast. And then it is super hot and sunny and humid again for until the next rain (which is not unlike a lot of summer storms in the southeast USA). It can actually cool down the temperature a bit when the rain comes at night, as it often does, but those storms are just as quick.

So here's a nice simple illustration of the rainy season.



Do note that Mwanza is very hilly, so the amount of water flowing downhill and gathering together causes some pretty gnarly flooding post-storm. About 45 minutes after this was taken, the stream was passable again for those on foot. It's pretty crazy. All this water collects and often floods roads as it flows into Lake Victoria. It can be so much and so strong that cars could be washed off the road. Luckily that hasn't happened in our neighborhood since we've been here.

Katie previously wrote about the water flooding due to garbage clogging the drainage passages, but that was nothing compared to the sheer amount that flowed past today.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In the Absence of Justice

I have always tried to present a balanced picture of life in mission- the good, the bad, and the ugly. So in this post I want to share some thoughts on some of the ugly that I witnessed here in Mwanza last week, and then I'll share a few reflections about some "bigger picture" issues that may be at work in the incident.

I don’t know how much I have mentioned it here on the blog, but I assume many of my readers know that we were the victims of a burglary last July 2012. (Katie discussed in numerous times on her blog, here, here, and here.) You may remember that it took a full year to resolve the case (and as of this writing, I don’t even know the outcome, I just know our part was done and that’s all that mattered to us). It is an understatement to say that the Tanzanian justice system is dysfunctional. We’ve heard stories of people languishing in jail for years waiting to simply be formally charged. There are stories of criminals paying bribes to the police to be released or have charges dropped.* And the delays in trials are notorious. We had to appear in court 11 or 12 times before our testimony was taken. “Sorry, no advocate / judge / interpreter / etc today. Come back in two weeks.” And if you think WE had it bad or we were the exception, the trial for last year's murder of the Mwanza Police Commissioner has been delayed 29 TIMES.

All of this to say, there is little faith that the justice system will actually deliver justice. So people simply take justice into their own hands. And that’s what I saw happen on the street the other day.

When we arrived in Tanzania, we were warned that there are instances of mob mentality and vigilante actions when a crime or accident is witnessed. We were told that if we ever accidentally hit a pedestrian (God forbid), we should ignore our instincts and leave the scene immediately, because a crowd will form immediately and it can quickly get out of hand, regardless of who is ultimately to blame. We were told to drive straight to the nearest police station to report what has happened. And I’ve been told that you should NEVER yell out “THIEF!!” even if you were robbed or pick-pocketed, because the reaction to theft is swift and can be violent.

On the street the other day, my friend Joanne and I witnessed what we assume was a thief getting caught in the act. It was about 9:30am, in the middle of downtown, broad daylight, one block from a police substation. It was swift and it was indeed violent. I’ll skip the details, but the thief was surrounded and violently beaten by pretty much anyone who could get a swing in. The thief was crying out for help, trying to get away, but was repeatedly pulled back into the crowd. I felt like I SHOULD have done something, but I knew I couldn’t do anything to help with limited language and my outsider status. Luckily, there WERE a few people that were trying to calm the situation. As quickly as it started, it ended. I did not actually see what happened to the thief, but the crowd suddenly dispersed and everything went back to business as usual, though there was an increased “buzz” in the area.**

What I saw was rough, but it could have been much, much worse. Later in the day, I was telling my boss what I saw, and all I said was “Today I saw a thief get caught in town…” and she interrupted by asking “Did they kill him?” That was her first assumption, and that says a lot right there. It was a reminder of why it is important to have functional institutions in place. Where things fall apart, people will find a way to fill the void and it will not always be with a better system. Just because a solution is popular doesn’t make it morally correct.

A moral and compassionate society should not want this type of justice. We’re talking about a very violent response in the absence of a functional rule of law. In reflecting on this incident, I see many ways that this sad state of affairs is a failure on numerous fronts:

From a Christian perspective, I see the entire justice system to be broken. Christians are called to have compassion for prisoners. “Remember those who are prisoners, just as if you were imprisoned with them, and those who endure hardships, just as if you were in their place.” (Hebrews 13:3). The central story of the Christian faith revolves around an innocent man’s betrayal, torture, and condemnation to a violent death at the hands of a mob. Violently beating someone- a person who may or may not have even been guilty- to the point of serious injury or death is neither a proper nor a compassionate response to injustice.

As a social worker, my Code of Ethics stresses the inherent dignity and worth of a person, which is applicable even a criminal who has done a heinous act. Punishing an offender for a criminal act is the right of any society, and “if you do the crime, you should do the time.” People should not be absolved for crimes they did indeed commit. But that doesn’t mean that the perpetrators are not human, and as such, they should be treated with basic human dignity, and the punishment should fit the crime. Stealing a wallet should not result in a death sentence.

And as someone who supports the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the entire system- from the formal legal system to the mobs on the street- violates many of the rights enshrined in the Declaration. Holding people indefinitely without formal charges, inordinate delays in trials, the meting out of street justice- all of these violate the following Articles of the UDHR:
  • Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  •  Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.   
  • Article 10: Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
  • Article 11: Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.

As I said earlier, I have been robbed, and I have seen the smart-ass smirk on the thief’s face when he was brought in for questioning. I was pissed, and I myself wanted to smack him in the face. I understand how someone may read my story above and think “Serves the thief right. He knew what he was doing. He deserved it.”

But as I stated earlier, a moral and compassionate society should not want this type of justice. And I’m sorry that Tanzania is suffering through this, both the dysfunctional system AND the reality that led the man who probably DID know EXACTLY what would happen to him to be so desperate that he took the chance he did and suffered for it. I’m not absolving the thief of his actions, per se, but most certainly the ultimate culprit here in the pervasive poverty of the country.

So there you go. I know my own country’s justice system is far from perfect, and I know that I am just a guest here. It is up to the locals to address this issue and fix these problems. But I do have hope that they WILL fix the system. My Tanzanian friends are ashamed of the violent reactions of the streets. People KNOW the system is broken. So here’s hoping that the hard work to solve these problems is done sooner than later. The Tanzanian people- both victims and perpetrators- deserve better.

* The officer we worked with was excellent and was truly concerned about getting justice. So certainly not every police officer or court official is corrupt or lax.

** Witnessing something like this incident is NOT an everyday occurrence and I have no increased fears for my personal safety or anything like that. Tanzanians are very happy and peaceful people. But obviously there’s a bit more frustration churning below the surface than what is immediately apparent, and when the opportunity comes to let it out, the results can be unfortunate.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Shopping Among the Poor

One of the realities of living abroad is that even the littlest things that you wouldn’t expect can have underlying cultural baggage. I want to share a few experiences involving shopping in our neighborhood- and not in a “conspicuous consumption” type of shopping, but simply buying daily necessities.

Katie and I shop all over town for what we need. There are a few more “Western” style grocery stores around town where we’ll pick up a few items as needed- things like cheese, ketchup, cereal, etc- that the locals don’t generally eat. We buy most of our vegetables at the big local market downtown. But for many of the basic staples we need throughout the week, we shop at the little local stores- called a duka (or maduka in plural). We buy sugar, flour, matches, soap, an occasional soda, bread, eggs, charcoal etc. We frequent several different shops and stalls and have a good rapport with most all the shopkeepers.

We live in a neighborhood called Mabatini (I recently posted some pictures here). We moved here because we could live next door to our fellow missioners the Rossers as well as live right down the hill from several Maryknoll priests and brothers. For all its challenges, we very much like the neighborhood. But Mabatini is a microcosm for all the issues in Mwanza. There’s crime, there’s prostitution, there’s trash everywhere. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city. Poverty abounds. People do a double-take when we tell them where we live. Their eyes get wide and they say “I didn’t know there were any white people that lived there.”

So this is where we live. We live among the poor. People here buy just what they need for the day, and maybe buy just what they need for the next meal, making trips to the store multiple times to get just what they need and nothing more. They scrounge for cash and many times people will come to buy just a few hundred shillings of an item (which is just pennies in US dollars). People may work all day to get a few hundred shillings and then buy food at the end of the day to have some semblance of dinner for their family.

On the other hand, Katie and I tend to want to “stock up” on things. I think this is a normal, American view of things; why go to a store everyday to buy things when you can buy enough for the week in one trip?

This is not the lifestyle of poverty, and people notice.

For instance, our guard cooks food for our dogs every night, so we buy charcoal for the little stove he uses. A few weeks ago, I went up the hill to buy charcoal and decided to buy a few extra bags of it to put some in our storage shed because sometimes my guard forgets to tell me when we are out until it’s late in the evening. So I bought three bags. On the way back, I stopped at another shop to buy something else, and the shopkeeper looked at the bags of charcoal and asked why I needed so much. I answered that I buy it for the guard and wanted to get more a few bags so that I would have some extra. She just stared at me for a second and then said with a hint of a scoff “Most people can get by with just one bag around here” (or something to that effect). I walked home deeply self-conscious of the big bags full of all the stuff I bought and hyper-conscious of how everyone I passed on the way home was giving me sideway glances to stare at my bags. (And this was not just paranoia or over-sensitivity at the time, because I’ve noticed it since).

Another day we were having company, so I went up the hill to buy several sodas. I bought something like 6 or 8, and we only ended up drinking about half. The next morning as I was walking by, the shopkeeper called out to me asking for the bottles back. I told here I hadn’t finished them yet and would bring them back when I was done. She looked completely baffled and just stared at me, I assume because the idea of buying something you didn’t actually NEED is unheard of in our area.

We also like to buy a few days worth of flour for our dogs’ food (they get fed a type of stiff porridge called ugali). When people buy flour here, they buy little bags of it, so when we ask for 2 kilos of flour, we’re definitely buying more than anyone else does. Katie was making a purchase one afternoon when one of our neighbors walked up, looked at the big bag of flour, and snorted “Did you get enough?” clearly reproaching Katie.

Another time, I went to the duka and asked for eggs. They had six eggs left and I needed about that many, so I bought them all. Our friend David went later to also get eggs and when he asked for some, he told us that the shopkeeper said “Your friends bought all the eggs, so now there’s none left for anyone else.”

So with that, here are a few final thoughts about these instances:

• I expect that these instances have more to do with the poverty than any underlying cultural difference, but living in poverty does create a unique culture of its own, so maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, we are the outliers here.

• The poverty of our area is immense and people really do live hand-to-mouth here. The idea of planning out food and supplies for a week, or even just a few days, is not a luxury that most people here have in Mabatini. And as welcomed as we DO feel here in this neighborhood, the fact that we are NOT poor will always mark us as outsiders. We live a simple lifestyle, but we’re not poor. We’re strange to the locals anyway, but our lifestyle is lavish compared to most everyone else’s in the area.

• Simply walking down the street after buying a few bags of supplies can be seen as ostentatious and to some, a sign of greed- ie, if we buy up all the items, then there’s none left for others, thus we have no concern for those around us. To buy MORE than we need at this moment is selfish.

 So, like I stated above, one of the realities of living where we live is that even the littlest things can have underlying cultural baggage. Even just buying a few extra eggs.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Doot Doot Doot, Lookin' Out My Front Door

During a recent phone call with my sister, it occurred to me that when I talked about my neighborhood, she had no idea what it looked like. Katie is better at posting pictures of our daily life, but I rarely do. So here are a few shots of our part of the Mabatini neighborhood. More specifically, these are the sights we see when we walk outside our gate.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why My Brother-In-Law is Awesome

So last Sunday, my awesome brother-in-law, Fuzzy, finished the Madison Wisconsin Iron Man competition. (You can read about it in his own words here.) This is a huge accomplishment. What that means is swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, then ran a marathon of 26.2 miles in just under 16 hours. It is a grueling competition that requires serious training and commitment. According to my sister, Fuzzy would sometimes train 6 hours a day. His accomplishment is quite inspirational. Many people have expressed this same sentiment.

Let me tell you why Fuzzy inspires me. When I think of Iron Man competitors, I think of big, bulky musclemen, a description that very well may be the case for some of the professionals that were competing (one of the winners finished the entire course in about 8.5 hours, the other in less than 10). These guys do this kind of thing for a living.

But here’s the thing: Fuzzy's not a professional athlete. Fuzzy is just a guy. Now, he's a great guy. He is athletic and is in really good shape. But he’s just a guy. A guy that made a commitment to do something hard, challenging, draining and risky, because after all that training, there was still the possibility that he wouldn't pull it off. He could have failed. And he took that risk.

And he did it!

He finished the course in just less than 16 hours. And it inspires me much more so than the guy that finished the course in 8.5 hours. That guy? Professional athlete. Can't relate. However, I am inspired by Fuzzy because Fuzzy’s just a guy. Because I’M just a guy. It impresses me to no end at what he has done, because he's not some superman- he's my sweet, shy, super-nice, super-cool brother-in-law. You know, a normal person.

Fuzzy’s accomplishment gets me thinking that maybe if I put my mind to something, maybe I can accomplish it, too (maybe something like, I don't know... learning freakin' Swahili?). Katie and I are embarking on some new work projects here in Tanzania that will assuredly be challenging. When we hit a rough patch (we will), when we feel we are bombing out here in the mission field (a fairly regular occurrence), I will without a doubt think of what Fuzzy has done and say to myself “If Fuzzy can do an Iron Man, I can certainly do this.

So to Fuzzy, I say congratulations on your amazing accomplishment. But even more than that, I want to say thank you. Thanks for setting such a high bar and for showing us that while it’s high, it’s still attainable. Your example to us- and especially to me- is priceless.

 Photo of Fuzzy by my sister, Erica.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Curmudgeon Takes Stock

This won’t come as much of a surprise to those who have spent any extended amount of time with me, but I can be a fairly cynical and pessimistic person. I'm just wired that way. Cranky. That doesn’t mean I’m a hopeless person when it comes to social change and “making a difference.” It just means I expect a lot of those attempts to fail. ☺

But seriously, I am a sympathetic/empathetic person, but I also like to be upfront about challenges and struggles. So I’m not one to spout off little platitudes to make people feel better. I think little sayings like “Everything happens for a reason” and “When life gives you lemons…” are simplistic and rarely do I think they address the complex and difficult issues they are usually hurled at. But I’m going to trot out a well-used saying right here on the old blog:

Count your blessings.

Blessings?” some of you may say. “What blessings? Grumble grumble grumble...” I know. I’m a curmudgeon, too. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. ‘Tis true. But you do have blessings. Your nasty, brutish, and short life could be considerably nastier, more brutish, and much shorter than you know.

Earlier this week, I was sitting in the little office I sometimes use when I'm working in downtown Mwanza, and through the window, I watched a street kid walk into the little cafĂ© that’s located outside my office door. He was on a mission, scouting empty bottles. He swooped in, grabbed some bottles off the table, got a few that were littered on the ground, then without hesitation, moved to each table and ate every scrap of leftover food off every plate that hadn’t yet been cleared. He then turned and walked away toward town, having just had one of the few meals he may have had for the day.

Count you blessings. Yes, life is difficult and full of hardship, but there are blessing to be found. It would do all of us good- myself most of all- to spend a bit more time recognizing that.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Little House on the Hilltop

If you are a regular reader of our quarterly newsletters, you may remember our brief story on Paulina, a woman with whom we are acquainted through Chris’s caregiver support group, Chanua. Paulina has no formal income or education and scrounges for the little money she has to support her family. She has 6 children one of which was born this summer. Of her 3 school-aged children, only one has ever attended school. She is married, but by default she is a single mother, as her husband simply disappears for months at a time. After falling many months behind on her rent (for a tiny house overcrowded with her landlord belongings), the family was forced to move into a single-room “home” the size of a storage shack.

There are many women that we encounter who live in very similar and difficult circumstances, but Paulina’s situation was particularly dire to us. Katie and I, along with my Capacitor coworkers, decided to take a more active role in assisting this family and help with the construction of a small house for Paulina and her family (two of her older kids attend my twice a month children’s group).

Despite her daily struggles, Paulina had luckily managed to purchase a small plot of land far up on the side of a rocky hill. After meeting with a fundi (a builder), we determined what our group could contribute to help at this time. Even with the low cost of local materials and the cheap cost of labor, the total added up to a significant amount (several hundred dollars). So we decided at this time we couldn’t build the whole house, but we could at least build half, which basically meant just one room. Katie and I contributed about a third of the building costs from our mission account donations (the remaining costs were provided by my coworkers).

The construction went well and quickly. The fundi had it built in just one week! So Sr. Genie and I made the trek up to the plot to see the house. Mwanza is a crowded area and growing daily. For those seeking land, the options are often limited especially for those who don’t have the ability to “shop around” and spend a lot to get a plot. The house is built on the rocky top of a steep hill- a hill that is already covered with other small shacks and houses. There are no formal roads to reach it. You either climb up the steep hill, scurrying over the rocks, our you take a daladala (a local bus) to an area called Buzariga and then either walk in or take a pikipiki (a motorcycle). We had to meet the fundi to guide us in because we couldn’t find the plot on our own, and then we each opted for a pikipiki and rode in to the spot.

Truly, the home is small- a single room with no toilet. You may be surprised to see how basic this home is. Remember, there are SEVEN people living in this room. (I myself was surprised at how small the house ultimately was), but this type of housing arrangement is not unusual for the poor in Mwanza. And maybe it’s tiny, but Paulina is now a homeowner, which puts her in a better position than many others in her circumstances.

Paulina stands with the builder (and her 3-day old newborn) at the new house.

The view from the house.

The above picture is a view of the house from the ground. As you can see, the house is located way up on a hill. this picture doesn't adequately convey the hike it takes to get up the hill. When we had previously visited the spot before construction began, it took us about 20 minutes of climbing to reach it. To grasp the inequality that exists in Mwanza, compare Paulina's house to the house in the foreground.

The family moved the week after it was completed, and the week after Paulina’s new baby was born. I can’t say there life is not hard, but perhaps it is a little easier now that Paulina will not have to worry about paying rent. There is space to build an additional room for the house, so hopefully in the future we can help make this happen. Katie and I are grateful for the financial support we get from our donors! It was the support of our donors that made this possible.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Question/Answer #2: Was It Scary Getting Malaria?

I recently wrote a blog post requesting submissions for questions to be used as writing prompts, so here's the next in the series of posts I am calling "Question/Answer." 

Question: Was getting malaria scary?

So I got malaria last fall. Was I scared? Not really. Malaria is a dangerous disease, and in these parts it certainly wreaks lots of havoc. Many people die of malaria, but with proper (and simple) treatment, it generally lasts only a week or so. It’s no fun and can make you miserable, but if you have access to the right medication and a decent immune system, you’ll survive. That’s what is so tragic about the number of deaths from malaria ever year, primarily children, who are particularly susceptible.

But back to the original question: I was not really scared.  When you look at the potential symptoms, I had a fairly mild case. I had an inkling I was infected after a day or two of a weird headache that was coming in waves. I was really tired and noticed I as taking really long, really intense naps. I was fatigued and couldn’t make it through an afternoon without crashing, and when I would I was entering REM sleep for hours at a time. After a few days of this, the headaches kicked in and I suspected malaria. I went to a lab in town, gave a blood slide, and lo and behold, I had malaria.

Now, I take a low-grade antibiotic as a preventative measure (and this method is very debated among the ex-pat community due to concerns of eventual resistance to the drug). Our nurse in the US said if we took a prophylaxis we would never get malaria. The long-time folks out here in TZ just laughed and laughed when we repeated that fact to them.  They told us everyone will eventually get malaria regardless of the meds. It’s just too prevalent, and we live in Tanzania’s hot zone for infections (the Lake Zone), but the meds will prevent cerebral malaria, which is nasty and much more fatal, evidently.

So I got a blood slide, bought some medicine for US$5, and just two doses cleared me up. I took it seriously, but any of the numerous times I’ve had strep throat were much much worse than the malaria. It sounds exotic and scary, but with proper treatment most folks will be fine. In reality, everyone seems to have malaria here, and for most people it’s just a fact of life. Nets are available, but many people don’t use them, and you can’t just sit under a net from dusk until dawn. And the locals don’t always have the leisure that I did to take a break, get rest, and recover. People get malaria and go work their farm because they have no other option. It’s not healthy nor is it recommended, but it’s hardcore, to be sure.

I’ve also had worms. Ascaris. I was feeling tired again earlier in the year, so I should have suspected something was up again. But it wasn’t until…

[Those of you who are squeamish should skip the next section.]

…it wasn’t until I pulled a 7-inch long worm out of my butt one morning that I thought “Hmm…I think I might have worms.” You think having a cup of coffee in the morning will wake you up? Try the worm method. You’ll perk up pretty damn quick. Anyway, three days of meds and I was fine. I told two long-time residents that I had worms and they both gave me practically the same response, word for word: “Welcome to the club!” Everyone gets worms here.

The worst? Amoeba. It also makes you very tired and can give you headaches and diarrhea. But the worst thing about the diagnosis is the treatment: Flagyl, or some variant thereof, is a terrible, potent, strong, and sickening medicine. I lost about 8 lbs in a week because of my inability to eat anything and my inability to stop crapping. The meds cause terrible, strong, nauseating headaches, gives you diarrhea, and causes a nasty, metallic taste in your mouth that takes days to wear off. It got so bad, just putting the medicine in my mouth made me gag and/or vomit. I’ll take malaria over amoeba any day of the week.

While all of the above was concerning, none of it was “scary,” per se. Do you know what WAS scary? Nothing too exotic at all: having an asthma attack. You can buy inhalers here in Mwanza, and I have one with me at all times. Recently, the change of weather flared up my allergies, which in turn flared up my coughing, which kicked my asthmatic wheezing into gear. I was lying in bed in the middle of the night, after having woken up wheezing, waiting for the inhaler’s medicine to kick in, and I thought about how in the States, in a worse case scenario, I could get to an ER and get a breathing treatment immediately if the situation ever called for it (and one time several years ago, it did). But it occurred to me that here in Mwanza, a breathing treatment would very likely NOT be available, and if it was, it may not be administered in a timely manner. THAT was a scary realization. Without an inhaler (which are available in town) I was facing a life-threatening scenario. Something so mundane-sounding, like asthma, and something so exotic-sounding, like malaria, can both kill you if you can’t get the treatment.

I recently read the transcript of a speech given by Dr. Paul Farmer where he describes findingsomeone who was at the point of death from an asthma attack. After a few puffs of an inhaler, the man immediately began recovering. Something so simple, but something out-of-reach to the ill man. So as I lay in bed thinking about my health, it wasn't the scary sounding disease that was giving me concern; I was my boring-old, 100% treatable illness that had me worried. And it gave me a moment’s pause, after I took a blessed inhaler puff, as I reflected on how lucky I have it and how hard it must be for so many people around the world who still must contend with the reality of lacking adequate treatment on a daily basis.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Question/Answer #1: Why Did You Decide to Give Up on Being an Artist?

As many of you know, I recently wrote a blog post requesting submissions for questions to be used as writing prompts, so here's the first in a series of posts I will call "Question/Answer." This request was inspired by a question from a long-lost friend who asked several questions about what had transpired in the two decades (!) worth of time since we last saw each other. Subsequently, my sister requested that I share the answer to that particular question, so here you go…

The question: Why did you decide to give up on being an artist?

Around age 20, after a few years as an art major, I made the conscious decision to stop making art. I have dabbled in it again over the years, but the decision was a fairly life-altering event and one that I felt I had to make or I would just go crazy. 

All growing up, I loved art. I always had art supplies, sketch pads, paints, etc. I was known as an "arts guy." In high school, I delved fully into the arts: Honors art, played trumpet in band, worked set (and eventually stage managed) the school musicals, designed school t-shirts, worked on layouts for the year book, etc. I was never the best, but I was pretty good and very dedicated. My senior year, I won the overall “Art Award” for the school. When I graduated, I went to Hinds Community College and double majored in Fine Art and Commercial Art Technology (AKA Graphic Design). My plan was to get the vo-tech degree in Design then go get a BA for Fine Arts.

But somewhere in there, I came to the realization that I didn’t ENJOY making art. It was not a fun process for me. This doesn’t mean that the physical act of drawing a picture was without any enjoyment. Rather, the whole concept of “creating something” just stressed me out. Was it good enough? Was the picture impressive? Did I make a mistake? Would people like it? I was unable to divorce the act of creating from a concern about others’ opinions of my work. Making art should be about the desire to create, not impressing other people. I stressed too much on whether it was “good” or what other people would think and it sapped away any of the pleasure of creating art for the sake of art. It took me a while, but I slowly came to recognize that this was the root of my problem, and I decided that I would stop. I made a very conscious decision to cease making art because it was literally driving me nuts. The decision made me sad, but it also gave me peace. I have pursued art projects in the years since, but for the most part, the decision was final. I tried to do some painting/assemblage type work again years ago, and once again, I had to pull back because the old feelings of stress and pressure crept back into the process. I stopped again.

To further put a nail in the coffin of my time as an artist in the traditional painting/drawing/fine arts sense, a few years ago, during a very fast purging of my mother’s house that occurred when we quickly moved her to a smaller house for health reasons, I had to make a decision on what to do with all my art from high school and college. I decided to take pictures of the better works…and then I threw it all away. Pretty much everything I had done, I put in the trash (I saved a few pieces). A very difficult process, but necessary in light of the circumstances. But on some level, it honestly felt almost like an albatross around my neck was purged; the thing that had caused me such stress over the years was washed away, almost with a trace (save a few photos). It was definately losing part of an identity, for better AND worse. Then a year or two after that, I packed up all my remaining art supplies (which I still hauled around for years) and gave it all to my niece, Lizzie, who IS inspired to dabble and create. It was the end of an era.

There’s a second side to my decision to NOT make art. The deep-seated desire to “be good at art” was sadly not accompanied by the desire to “BECOME" good at art. I never really wanted to commit the time that it would take to become better. That sounds lame, but honestly, honing a craft takes lots of time and energy and I wasn’t compelled to give the time to art. I did not have the passion that I saw in others that drove them to spend hours and hours in a studio, practicing, studying, making mistakes and learning from those errors. I just wasn’t drawn to it (pun intended). And honestly, I am “good” at art by conventional standards, but put me up against other artists who really mater their trade and I wasn’t all that great. Not bad, but nothing particularly noteworthy. So I opted to take a step away. Why drive myself crazy for something I wasn’t enjoying? So I walked away.

Well, mostly. I didn’t leave art completely thanks to my Graphic Design degree.

Now, I knew I didn’t want to be a full-time graphic designer before I even finished that degree (again, I could tell my skills weren’t up to snuff to really make it a profession) but I use that degree fairly regularly. Very glad I got it. I have used my training at every non-profit I have worked with, whether it’s designing fliers, creating logos, or just making a form or document look better. Even here in Tanzania, I redesigned all our regional materials and have designed 2 logos for different groups. One of the logos, for Chanua, a support group for orphans and their caregivers, is pictured to the right. My style is very conservative, simple, and clean, which doesn't make for particularly groundbreaking or exciting design but is exactly what most organizations need to spruce up their materials, so that's my niche. And I’m fine with that. (Nothing bothers me as much as a poorly designed flier or form!) I’ve also designed a few t-shirts over the years for friends and families, and even created a 50-page comic book with fairly not-very-good art, but it's funny and I’m very proud of it nonetheless. (Click here to download the comic or read it online.)

So there’s the reason that I did not pursue a career in art. I still have an artistic eye that serves me well, but overall, I don’t do art. I have some sketchpads here with me in Tanzania, but so far I have not cracked them open. The old pressure to create a perfect work of art rather than simply enjoying the process for its own sake is still present and still rears its head. And that’s OK. Some people’s demons drive them toward art. Mine just asks that I keep my distance.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dig Deep, and Peel Back the Layers To Expose the Real Chris Reid That Nobody Knows...*

So, I don’t post very often on this blog. I know this.

I also know that this fact is related to the internal drive- or lack thereof- that has forever prevented me from keeping a journal more than a few days. I’m not at all inspired to write about the minutia of my day. If I think it’s boring, you will, too.

It’s not like I don’t have ideas or anecdotes to share, but I just don’t sit myself down to write (see also: why I’m pretty terrible at answering emails). This is dumb because I really like writing.

However, I really like to ANSWER QUESTIONS. (Perhaps this is a sign of me being a know-it-all?) I have recently reconnected with an old acquaintance (and reconnected in a way that can only happen in the age of Facebook, because I haven’t spoken to this individual in 24 years) and it’s been fun catching up, though “catching up” is hardly the right term since we were barely teenagers when we last saw each other. It’s really just “hitting the high points of our lives with virtual strangers.” But it’s still fun.

In the last email exchange, she asked why I had decided against pursuing art as a career. A simple question, but a loaded one. Now, I’d probably never post about anything like that, because, really, who cares? But she was curious about it, so I wanted to give her a good answer. I tried not to ramble, but I wanted to give a truthful answer. So I thought about it, and even though it was just one facebook message to one other person, I enjoyed having to think about the answer and process my thoughts.

However, I KNOW this won’t necessarily translate into me writing more. I’m too distracted- and that’s my own fault (as well as the fault of the A.V. Club, Facebook, and

So, I have a request. A request to inspire me to write a bit more.

As I said above, I like to ANSWER QUESTIONS. I tend to write novel length answers when a question strikes me, so I want you to ask me questions. I am taking submissions.

Ask the question in the comment section below (on this blog). It can be about anything- my life, my family, what movies I like, why I love a certain musician, why I chose to make a specific decision, my opinion on a political topic, my personal philosophies, a silly hypothetical scenario- whatever you want. But make it a specific question.

I cannot promise that I’ll answer every question. Hell, with my track record, I might not answer any of them. But with some writing prompts, I might just get to posting more, and maybe over the next few months, you’ll be amazed at the deep, personal answer I provide. Or more likely you’ll just be bored, but hey, there’s your answer.

So help me be productive and use my brain more instead of just reading movies reviews on the interwebs.


*This long title is solely to make my sister giggle.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Norma Reid, RIP

My sweet grandmother, Norma Doris Smith Reid, died Thursday, February 6th. She was buried yesterday in Vicksburg, MS. And I wasn’t there. This was the second time in the last year I will not be at a grandmother’s funeral. My other grandmother, Juanita Bane, died a year ago, just a few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania.

As with my other grandmother, I can’t really tell you too much about her long life. I can’t say I know many of the personal details of who she was. Funny thing about grandmothers; it doesn’t really matter who she is, or who she was. She’s just your grandmother, and that’s all you really need to know. I will say this: my relationship with her grew stronger as I got older. She was certainly important to me as a child, but as I got older, my grandmother become more of a friend, and it was a relationship I will always cherish.

As I started writing this, I was flooded with thoughts and memories. It would take me days to write them all down, so here are just a few:

She had four kids, three boys and a girl. And she loved them all, and she was proud of them, and she hurt for them and they struggled, as marriages failed, and they were sick. She loved to see them. And those four kids gave her a slew of grandchildren. I was the first. She loved all of us, too.

She was a strong woman. Late in the 1990's, my grandfather had a stroke that left him unable to really say much and confined to a wheelchair. She adapted to the situation and took care of him for years. I’m sure it was hard, but I never heard her complain. And when he died, it broke her heart, but she kept going. And I watched her sit at the bedside of her firstborn child (my father) as he died. It broke her heart, but she was strong an kept on going. Life was not over for her.

She became a very close friend of my mother is her later years. They were always friends, but the bond between them grew as my dad was sick, and after he died it grew even stronger.

My grandparents loved to travel, and twice the drove to Alaska and back from Mississippi. They would be gone a month at a time. This always seemed so exciting to me as a  child (and really, it WAS exciting. Who wouldn’t want to do that?) And this was the days before digital cameras, and she would return with so many rolls of film to develop, which she would then type labels for and meticulously construct photo albums of her trips. She did the same for family reunions.

My grandparents were longtime friends with Country Music Hall of Famer Sonny James. I don’t know how they met (maybe someone can add that story in the comments section below) but all I know as they would visit him and his wife and always received cards and letters over the years.

My grandfather used to have a jukebox business, so there were TONS of 45 records at the house. I remember one day (in my adult years) a bunch of family was at her house and  we popped some Booker T and the MGs on the turntable and I remember thinking it was so cute to see my grandmother bopping around the kitchen dancing to “Time is Tight.” I always think of her when I hear it.

She loved casinos. Good Lord, did she love casinos. She was always out and about, popping in to see people and play the slots. She never really won big, but that wasn’t the point. It was a place to go with something to do and people to see. The employees would see her and greet her like old friends. She knew their names and was happy to see them, too. When my dad was working for IGT, he was often in town at one of the casinos servicing a machine and she’d pop up to see him. She gambled often enough to get a lot of comps- free rooms, discounts, free meals. Anytime Katie and I came to town, she’d gather as many family members as possible to meet at some casino buffet and she cover the whole meal. She got Katie and I plenty of free rooms. And up until her health was failing and her eyesight was giving out to the point she couldn’t go (which was very recently, I should add), my Aunt Susan would drive her out so she could spend a few minutes playing some games. She loved it.

She took great delight in picking out cards for people’s birthdays. I know this sounds minor, but her love of a good greeting card cannot be overstated.

She loved pageants. For years she never missed a Miss Vicksburg or a Miss Mississippi pageant. She loved them.

She loved watching golf games on TV and she was a diehard Tiger Woods fan. She loved him and talked about him all the time.

She loved those creepy-ass “Ghost Hunter” types of shows. She saw one on a haunted house in Cape May, NJ and always said she wished she could have gone to see it during our wedding. I know she’s in a better place now, but if she was given the option, she’d probably have a blast haunting somewhere for a little while.

She was very supportive of us going to Tanzania. She thought our stories were so interesting and loved to hear about our travels, our adventures, our challenges. She was proud of what we were doing. I talked with her in early December. That was the last time we spoke, but I will always remember her laughing and asking all sorts of questions about our Serengeti safari.

The last few months were very hard for her. She fell and cracked one of her vertebrae. She was in a lot of pain, and then in early December, her Brother Cecil died of a heart attack. I think the pain and Cecil’s death were just too much. She tried to rally, but in the end it was too much. Evidently she had a stroke.

My Mamaw was fun, quick to laugh and easy to talk to. She was a great lady, and I thank her for all the wonderful memories she has given us.

Mamaw Reid, you will be missed.