This site contains the archives of my travel blogs from 2010-2016.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ilse's Raspberry


"Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present it to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend."

-- Holocaust survivor
This quote was engraved on a Holocaust memorial in Boston's historical Little Italy district. Since reading it for the first time a few weeks ago, I can't say how many times I've reflected on this story.

I am humbled every time.

One of my assignments, coming back from this trip, was to explore some of the poets, songwriters and storytellers who've written books or stories with the intention of making America better. After reviewing these, I was then to write a seven to eight page paper telling a story from my own journey across America with the intention of being helpful to the American citizenry. I can only hope that within several hundred words I wrote something that will provoke some good.

It only took 50 words to convey in Ilse's story a message that, for me, is much more powerful than any of the many other stories I read during the trip.

Teachers should never underestimate a student's appreciation for their lessons; the true learning of a formal lesson happens while looking back during a real life experience.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's that time of year again....

I'm packing up and getting ready to move into a new dorm room in the next few weeks, this year as a Resident Assistant in one of the Freshman dorms.
Nothing could transform one of our dorm rooms into a photo fit for Potterybarn, but I did glean some decorating techniques while poking around their online catalogue!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Not stolen, just borrowed

In light of the quote that I stole from a blog that I love and posted just a few minutes ago, I thought I should post this one (stolen from the same blog) to justify it :)

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."

Jim Jarmusch


"A journey does not need reasons. Before long, it proves to be reason enough in itself. One thinks that one is going to make a journey, yet soon it is the journey that makes or unmakes you."

Nicolas Bouvier

Friday, July 24, 2009

The American Presidency


In at least one blog entry, reflect on the American presidency.

I wonder what a day in the life of an American President is like. I think about how much I can get done in a day (or sometimes how little), and it just seems like there's no way a President could get more done than the rest of us. Think about what your responsibilities would be as President:

  • You have to have an armored car no matter where you go.
  • You have serious decisions to make, affecting a lot of people.
  • Your email box is probably very full, and not just with fwd's. These ones require a serious response.
  • You have to be informed on an enormous amount of issues. Even though you have aides, you still have to spend time listening to them and trying to ingest all of their info.
  • You have to give speeches constantly. I'm sure someone will write them for you, but you still have to read over them beforehand to ensure that you really want to say it all.
  • You have an entire military to command.
  • You have to make extra sure that your food isn't poisoned.
  • You probably never get a full night's sleep without some major crisis happening in some part of country or world that you have to attend to immediately.
  • You're under the scrutiny of your 304,059,724 constituents who all have a different opinion. You'll never be able to please them all.
  • You have to (in Obama's case) continuously pester the House and Senate to get your pet projects passed.
  • And at the end of the day, your wife and kids are going to want to spend some time with you.
And people sign up for this job?

According to Dr. Michael Roizen, "The typical president ages two years for every year they are in office." And while these before and after shots may be a bit exaggerated, there's no doubt that it's a stressful job!

Caption at bottom: President Barack Obama, in a photo illustration demonstrating how he might age after four years in office.

I can't imagine who might have time to speculate on such a silly thing as how a president might look in 4 years, but apparently somebody did!

Providing for the Common Defence

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

While visiting Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX, I saw several soldiers guiding their wives, children, and parents proudly through the museum. These men and women had all devoted at least a portion of their lives to providing for the common defence.

I was touched by the sense of community I felt from everyone on the base; whether it was in one of the museums, in the cafeteria, or while listening to Harold talk about the programs for Army wives and children. There was a general "we look out for each other" kind of feeling to the place.

I was not prepared for the sheer vastness of the base--it was like a city, complete with suburbs and rural areas. I thought about what it really takes to defend a country this big.

I was reminded of this again yesterday, as I read a quote from Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Reagan addressed the National Republican Convention in Dallas, saying, "There are some who've forgotten why we have a military. It's not to promote war, it's to be prepared for peace."

Providing for the common defence means making sure that we have the means to protect ourselves just in case. I like the word "defence": it's not antagonistic. I think it speaks to our goal as a nation in the overall scheme of things. We're not out there agressively trying to conquer the rest of the world. Sure, we get mixed up in things overseas, but it's always in defence of human rights, our national security, or a value that we hold as unnegotiable.

The Badlands

Have you seen the wilderness on this trip? Where? When? How did you know it was wilderness? What is and is not "wild," and how do you know?

I know I've blogged about the Badlands a time or two already, but I think it warrants another mention. Of all the things that surprised me on this trip, this might have been the place that caught me off guard the most.

When we set out to see Mt. Rushmore that morning, I had no idea that before nightfall I would have seen half of the state of South Dakota. Driving from Rapid City all the way down to the Lakota reservation (that borders Nebraska) and back, I had a lot of quiet time to observe the scenery. We literally drove hours without seeing anything. Nothing at all. It was when we started to see buffalo that I really thought, "Wow, this is the wilderness."

It wasn't the wilderness I was used to. I'm familiar with mountain ranges that seem to never end, evergreens for as far as you can see, and lakes that appear to be oceans. But looking out at grass and rolling hills with nothing to obstruct my view, seldom even a tree, I felt an overwhelming sense of vulnerability.

If I were to be lost in a forest, I feel like I would be able to survive for a few days on my own. Though I can't name many of them, I'm familiar with the different types of shrubbery in the Pacific Northwest, and I can easily identify materials that would be useful in building a hut. I know how to find berries, and to identify some of the poisonous ones. I know how to look for protein (aka bugs and worms) under rocks and could probably even catch a fish.

What I don't know is what I would do if I were stranded in the badlands. Buffalo are pretty much the only form of life I saw there, and catching one of those? Not plausible. How would I get out of the weather? No trees = no shade. Would I have to dig a cave?

It seems that my definition of wild is somewhat subjective. Someday the Badlands might not be wild to me anymore, in the same way that the forests of the Pacific Northwest aren't wild to me. Wildness hinges on familiarity.

PS - I didn't take these photos...my Badlands photos are still MIA :(


What did you see in Nashville that surprised you? Why? What does that mean, given the fact that you've been a Nashville resident for some time now?

I had fun during our first outing of the trip, here in Nashville. I finally got to check a few things off of my touristy to do list....things that I've been wanting to do for some time now but had never gotten around to.

Up towards the top of my list was a visit to Hatch Show Print (click to watch short video). The lobby area is pretty small, so I hope some day I can go back and get a tour so I can see exactly how they do the silk screening (which is the method they use, I think.) I was surprised to learn how unique they are and how famous the company is all around the world. Not only are they old -- printing since 1879 -- but apparently the machinery and method they use to make their posters is uncommon these days.

When I first arrived in Nashville, I wasn't expecting much more than little bars, country music, and lots of farms. So I was surprised when I heard several people refer to Nashville as "Nashvegas" -- I'm still not quite sure if that's supposed to be a sarcastic remark on our lack of nightlife, or if it's a genuine compliment to the nightlife we do have. (Any thoughts???)

I can't say that I was surprised by how the tourist shops and museums (like the Ryman) protrayed Nashville. I was more surprised to discover all of the other elements of Nashville--the easygoing and relatively tight-knit community, the abundance and quality of artists who haven't made it big yet (the "small-name" musicians, as I call them), and the incredible number and diversity of churches. Oh, and the number of restaurants that aren't Southern Cooking! That was a pleasant surprise.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Because a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


Days One - Fourteen in photos.

Crescent City, CA -- The Redwoods

San Francisco, CA

Los Angeles, CA -- Malibu

Las Vegas, NV -- Wedding Chapel

Salt Lake City, UT -- Mormon Tabernacle

Grand Canyon

Navajo Nation

Roswell, NM

El Paso, TX -- Fort Bliss

San Antonio, TX

New Orleans, LA

Little Rock, AK

Memphis, TN

Taking a much-needed mental break

Nothing says relaxation like a calm day at the beach. Every so often, as I write my 2,500 word essays, I reflect back on some of the great moments of the trip. I try to remember little things that will help me explain concepts in my papers and make them just a little more like a memoire than a solely academic piece.

But I keep coming back to St. Augustine and our wonderful last hurrah on the beach. My first experience on an Atlantic beach won't ever be forgotten!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Home Sweet California

I find that the hardest places to write about are the ones I've lived in the longest; it's like I have too much information -- I know how multifaceted California is, so it's hard to pick just one or two things to write about.

I was born and grew up on the Central Coast, in San Luis Obispo, CA. My childhood memories are full of sandstorms and finding jellyfish on the beach, eating grilled cheese with my family at Fat Cat Cafe on the marina, camping on nearby lakes, driving 12 hours and still being in California, wearing shorts all year 'round, selling lemonade and cookies to neighbors on our street corner, walking around the Mission downtown every Sunday.

I love California history. I was homeschooled until fourth grade, so my mom played a huge role in cultivating my passion for learning and reverence for history. I think it was her excitement in teaching my brothers and I all about her home state that really sparked an appreciation for it in me. I'll never forget Father Junipera Serra, a Spaniard who came up from Mexico and established (with some help) 21 Missions -- meant to spread Catholicism to the "heathen" Indians.

I took numerous field trips to these Missions, spread out up and down the coastline, and took great pleasure in eating warm, traditionally made corn tortillas, dipping my own candles, and watching the weavers make colorful blankets on huge looms.

Most of this has nothing to do with our group's experience during this trip, but it's what I think of when I hear "California." And so it makes me wonder what else we missed in all those other states.

Don't get me wrong, this was an amazing experience. But we still only just scratched the surface of these cities.

Our National Parks

This year, Ken Burns is set to release his new documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea. After visiting several national parks, reflect on Burns' provocative title and on what visiting the parks means/has meant to you.

After reading many of my classmates' posts on the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, Glacier, Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, and the badlands, I can't decide if I've taken them for granted or if they mean so much to me that I just can't imagine America without them.

Americans have had so many fantastic ideas: it's hard to pick a "best" one. But I understand why Burns would call his book exactly that: with this title Burns conveys his utmost respect for the parks and prepares us to hear a serious argument on their contribution to the American identity.

To me, designating national parks is a wonderful way to preserve the American frontier. We've explored it all and settled most of it. But the national parks are to be left untouched and unchanged. A powerful reminder of the Creator's magnificent artistry.

Some parks are more popular than others. Why? Location, accessibility, marketing, superlative notability (the biggest, the deepest, the longest, the tallest...), and perceived glamour all play into the decision to visit a national park.

There must have been several visitors from every country in the world at the Grand Canyon when we were there. Walking along the South Rim, I passed a string of visitors -- at least 30 or 40 -- each group speaking a different language. Two weeks later, we drove through the Badlands of South Dakota (of which my photos are missing...hoping to find them soon!) It was absolutely breathtaking, and absolutely void of visitors.

Part of me wants to start an ad campaign: "Visit the Badlands, they're really not that bad!" The selfish side of me wants to keep it a secret so that I can go there and be completely alone for a time.

Our national parks may not be America's best idea, but they certainly are America's best kept secret.

They Paved Paradise...for an empty parking lot

Have you encountered a place where, to borrow a line from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot"?

I don't know if you would call Memphis, TN a paradise, but the all the empty pavement sure isn't helping.

We got there on a Saturday.
As you can see, the giant mall below us and the numerous parking lots were completely deserted. Downtown Memphis isn't exactly a thriving community.
On a Saturday morning a downtown should be full of life!
Where there are businesses, parking lots are inevitable; I have nothing against them. Most of what gets paved over isn't very appealing landscape.

This leads me to the next prompt:

Reflect on what you've observed on the road that lets you know we're in the middle of a global economic crisis.

I wouldn't use Memphis as evidence of "global economic crisis," but all the empty storefronts downtown, the giant mall that was closed, the desolate parking lots downtown (I counted 20+), they definitely make me doubt the solidity of Memphis' economy.

This "global economic crisis" is the talk of the nation. I haven't felt it much personally, but I'm also not exactly out in the workforce.

I met some Polish college students at Ellis Island last week. They were very friendly and interested in our trip. When I asked them what it meant to be an American, one girl almost cut me off, she responded so fast. "You know--opportunity--to work, be educated, to make a good life."
"So do you plan to go back to Poland after you've graduated from college, to live near your family?" I asked.
"No, no. The economic situation in Poland is horrible -- I can't ever imagine going back."
"And the recent economic downturn in the States isn't enough to send you elsewhere?"
"Oh no! Poland is still recovering from the Cold War, so the current 'economic crisis' in America is nothing for us. Just being able to travel and take a day trip from Connecticut to New York is a huge opportunity for us."

I know corporations are making huge layoffs and cities like Detroit have been practically evacuated, but in the eyes of the Polish, this is still the best place to be.
I like their style.

More than a Giant Crevice


Why do you believe so many Americans have loaded themselves and their families up in cars to stare out at the Grand Canyon?

The Grand Canyon is a fantastic place. It's awe-inspiring, you can't help but doubt your eyes. I remember writing about it the night we got back; I was still dumbstruck.

I think that going to the Grand Canyon symbolizes the "American road trip" experience. Having a place like this is an excuse for parents to force the entire family into a moving, enclosed bubble where they will spend several hours together. Everyone will pretend they hate it, but in reality the family will treasure this time together forever.

People take their kids back to the Canyon because they want to share the experience with their kids. It's great fun to see the excitement build on the faces of the people around you. All the way up until the very edge of the canyon, you can't even tell it's coming. You're just driving along, and then all the sudden there's an enormous hole in front of you. No camera can capture the vastness of this canyon. It stretches for as far as you can see. I've never been more genuinely shocked by a landscape.

But it's not just about seeing a nice view,
it's about the whole process....singing along to the one sole radio station in the middle of the Arizona desert, stopping for cheeseburgers or pizza at some freeway town, inventing games to pass the time, fighting in the car, getting hopelessly lost and finally making it to the destination. It's about community.

This Land is My Land


Read Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Identify a song that has held some meaning for you or for the group over the trip and reflect on how it's important to America and/or the road trip.

I've always loved America's patriotic songs and hymns. I can remember finding my dad's old boy scout handbooks from his childhood, rummaging through them, and being thrilled to find a whole section in the back about our National Anthem and other songs. I memorized the words to most of them, learned to play them on piano, flute -- whatever musical instrument I could get my hands on, and sung them all the time. It made me feel like I was part of something special, part of a big, friendly group of people who called themselves Americans.

One that kept coming back to me during the trip is Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land..."

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

Arriving at the Statue of Liberty, I started thinking about everything that lies between that Redwood forest and the New York Island I was now standing on. Having journeyed from one end of the country to the other, taking in what lies between, has enabled me to have a new sense of ownership of our country. I've seen the diamond deserts, the ribbons of highway, the gulf stream waters, the golden valleys, and much, much more. I've shared meals with people all over the country, and no matter what our political or religious views, I was able to find common ground with almost everyone in breaking bread together.

I'm glad that my experiences here -- the goodness of so many Americans and the infinite beauty of America's landscapes -- have made me want to take ownership. It would have been a sad story if I went out and discovered that America really wasn't everything I had built it up to be. No, on the grand scale of everything, I didn't really discover anything new -- America is just what I thought it would be.

And that's great news. :)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Coming Home and Looking Back


Last night, driving home from Belmont to my summer abode in Franklin, I was overcome with a mixture of feelings. I felt energized, introspective, complacent, nostalgic, and hopeful, all at the same time.

It was strangely wonderful to be alone, a privilege I haven't had during the past 40 days. Every mile marker on the freeway brought a new wave of flash-backs, unforgettable moments in different cities along the way. Everything happened so fast during the trip -- it seems like it was all a blur. But even in those 20 minutes it took to get home, as I silently let down the retaining wall that held back a flood of mental notes, I began to see splotches of the big picture come into focus.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Infamous Food Blog


Bonnie's Prompt:
In painstaking detail, recall a meal that has taught you something about America.

One of the first blogs I ever wrote was a food blog. I had arrived in Bruxelles at 7am on a Saturday morning. On the way home from the airport, Philippe (my host dad) pulled over and Michelle (my host mom) hopped out. At this point I had been awake for 35+ hours and understood none of the French they were so rapidly exchanging.

15 confusing minutes later, Michelle arrived at the house on foot with a bag full of a variety of bread rolls as well as several baguettes. Everyone received a planche (a personal mini cutting board) and a knife, and started each preparing a breakfast for himself -- at the table. The rolls were piled in giant bowl in the middle of the dining room table, jams and spreads galore were brought out, and it was kind of like a free-for-all.

The biggest surprise was Nutella. Chocolate frosting for breakfast? I watched in disbelief as my host brother smothered a little roll with several tablespoons of the choco-hazelnutty goodness.

That meal was a great introduction to Belgian culture. Ever since then, whenever I see exchange students, I think about what they would describe as a "typical American meal." It really could be almost anything. We are a conglomeration of so many different cultures--a typical meal varies a lot from one home to another.

For this blog, I'm going to describe my favorite meal (and one that I enjoyed often during this trip).....

After this mouthwatering shot, you probably don't need me to describe in "painstaking detail." I'll just say that it was absolutely delicious.

One of the reasons why I was first attracted to the idea of frozen yogurt is it's healthy reputation. It's like eating ice cream, only it's been dubbed "better-for-you" and

It's pretty easy to go through life in America without eating anything that's full fat or full sugar. We like to eat, but we also want to be skinny. We tend to focus on quantity instead of quality of taste or nutritious quality, and thus we're always coming up with new ways to eat more without consuming more calories.

And while most of us could do well to cut back on fat and sugar, we should be replacing it with leafy greens--not extra processed, genetically modified "healthy versions" of fat and sugar.

And while froyo is what got me going on this rant, it's not froyo that I'm concerned about. REAL froyo--with 12 different types of natural bacteria--is really good for you.
Good enough to make a meal out of it :)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Day 38 - Charleston, South Carolina

I know that I declare practically every day to be my "favorite day so far," but I really think that Charleston needs to be counted among those favorites. I woke up groggy, a bit disoriented, and skeptical about the 80% humidity, but listening to Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints" album on the way to our first stop helped me wake up and smell the roses.
Once we arrived at Drayton Hall I knew it was going to be a great day. I'm tempted to say that I love learning about architecture, and I did today, but it would be misleading to say that I'm an architecture enthusiast. I really just love learning about anything that's at hand, anything that I can touch, feel, listen to, or experience for myself. And I especially love learning about things like this from people who are either experts on the subject or obviously very passionate about it.

The kind, gentle, elderly woman who led us about the plantation this morning was more than passionate about it; I could tell that it meant everything to her. Seeing her pride in recounting the stories and revealing all the little quirks about the two-and-a-half-centuries old home and its occupants was very touching. Her stories swept me back in time and made walking through the beautifully preserved three-story brick building an incredible experience. As I climbed the right side of the symmetrical grand staircases in the front room, I could almost feel the swish of a colonial-style sweeping gown brush my legs. I gazed upon a piece of the tile that once adorned the outside of one of the upstairs fireplaces and could practically see the servants stoking the fire, adding another log every so often. I felt the winds of a great hurricane as our guide demonstrated how the storm shutters worked. I smelled fresh-baked bread and soup simmering in giant kettles as we walked past the 15'x8'x3' oven in the above-ground basement.

The other night, as a friend and I were comparing our different experiences in Williamsburg, he started talking about the "prescence" of the place. I think it's something that is easier felt than described, but I've witnessed this intangible, often peaceful prescence in a few different places during this trip. It's a reminder of the past, a reminder that the world is so much bigger than I often perceive it to be. And it's awe-inspiring, something that continuously reminds me not to take life for granted -- especially these precious 40 days that are devoted to pure discovery.

Among these inspiring locales:
  • the Lincoln Monument
  • the Grand Canyon
  • the cemetary at Wounded Knee
  • the Library of Congress
  • the Eastern Oregon/Nevada desert
  • Breendonk Concentration Camp (Belgium)
  • the courthouse in which Abraham Lincoln practiced as a Circuit Court Judge before being elected President (moved from Springfield, IL to the Henry Ford Museum)
  • the Old State House in Boston, where the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time
  • the church in Williamsburg at which George Washington worshipped regularly, and where the colonists prayed and meditated for a day after hearing about the Boston Tea Party. At the end of the day they returned to the capitol building and voted unanimously to revolt and fight for their independence.
  • and, the Drayton Hall Plantation.
To say that these places are peaceful doesn't mean that they always were. Some of them once witnessed immense human suffering -- I'm thinking particularly of Breendonk Concentration Camp and the old plantations of the South. But there's something to be said for making peace with a place.

This leads me to two quite interesting experiences from earlier this afternoon.

  1. Pierce's parents generously bought our lunch at a delicious restaurant in Charleston called Gullah Cuisine. The Gullah culture originates primarily in Sierra de Leone, Africa, and evolved with the people who were brought here as slaves.*** A friendly Gullah woman, Kesha, who runs the restaurant spent an hour or so with us this afternoon, giving some interesting insights into the Gullah culture that I was so unfamiliar with. One of Kesha's stories was about a cousin who was recently married on a plantation. "I don't like to talk about plantations, I just don't like to talk about them," she said. So she was at first upset that her cousin was getting married there, but eventually "got over it." Some of the older family members didn't let it go so easily..."Did she forget she's dark-skinned!" they raged.

  2. After leaving the restaurant we headed downtown to a farmers market of sorts, complete with jewelry, Christmas ornaments, touristy t-shirts, fake leather bags, Chinese do-it-yourself acupuncture-simulating vibrating massagers, matted paintings, homemade candy, and hand-woven baskets for sale. After having learned about the traditional Gullah style of basket weaving during lunch, I quickly noticed the numerous basket weavers selling their wares around the perimeters of the market.

    As we walked up the street from our van, approaching the market, I couldn't help but comment on how the open-air indoor market was set up in three large barn-like buildings with no doors, lined up consecutively and positioned in a way that conveys their important role in the community. They were markedly different -- in color, size, and style -- from the buildings on either side of the street and I turned to Dr. Spring, looking for some explanation. You can imagine how my jaw dropped as he told me that these buildings were built to be a market: a slave market. A place where one man would come to inspect others--just as I was there to inspect the wares--and perhaps barter, finally setting on a "fair price." It's hard for me to imagine putting a price on a human life.

    There were so many questions I wanted to ask the merchants there; about half of them black and half white. I wanted to ask, "How does it feel to sell your products here, in the same building that your ancestors were once sold as product? How do you deal with that reality? Is this something that crosses your mind every day as you set up shop? What have you done or what conclusions have you come to that have allowed you to make peace with this place--at least enough to be able to work here yourself?" I wanted to ask all this and more; a million questions were running through my head. But I was too scared. I was scared that I would offend someone. I was scared of what answers I might get. I was scared that someone would occuse me of not being politically correct.

    But those are horrible excuses and I regret not having had the nerve to approach a vendor. Ignoring the situation--walking through there and pretending like nothing had ever happened, pretending that I wasn't uncomfortable--is what perpetuates this "touchy subject" and prevents an important dialogue from taking place. How are Americans supposed to come to terms with their history if discussing some events is taboo? Am I the only one who feels the tension in the room when slavery is addressed?
I want to come back to this notion of making peace with a place. Kesha made peace with the plantation. The Gullah seem to have made peace with the slave markets. And while I was at Fort Breendonk, formerly Breendonk Concentration Camp, I heard that several Jewish people journey to concentration camps to remember the past and then make their own peace.

I haven't really come to any conclusion on this yet: it's just an interesting concept, one that's new to me since I've been blessed with a life involving little to no hardship and no devastating injustices against me. And thus another day throughout which I'm reminded to count my many blessings.

***Gullah dishes are derived from the products that slaves (and later, poor freed African-Americans) were able to obtain; I would describe it as a mixture between the famous Creole food from New Orleans--gumbo/jambalaya/rice dishes, etc.--and Soul Food--corn bread/mac'n'cheese/green veggie stews (collard greens perhaps?). (If these are really poor descriptions, I apologize. I've only had one Creole meal and one Soul Food meal, so my sample size is unacceptably small.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Americans and Our Celebrities


America is known throughout the world for its celebrities. Besides having a large and powerful military, we are famous for super-sizing everything and for unofficially electing a few individuals to be rich and admired by the majority of the rest. And the world tends to follow suit. Sure, each country has it's 2 or 3 acclaimed superstars, but I can assure you that many American celebrities are just as famous in other countries as they are here.

Visiting Graceland was quite the experience. Audio tours are available in what seemed like over a dozen languages, and I forget the exact number, but each year a ridiculous amount of people (mostly foreigners) come to be married at Graceland. It's pretty, but it's not that pretty.

More so than anywhere else I've been, celebrities play an integral role in social life for a large part of the American population. It's especially evident when someone in the public eye suddenly passes away, i.e. Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Steve McNair. I haven't seen such media coverage on an individual death (MJ) since Princess Diana was killed in 1997.

Having recently left Graceland, I found myself wondering if Neverland would become a similar tourist attraction. Taking the Neverland Tour isn't an activity I would seek out, but having known very, very little about Elvis, I still enjoyed seeing touring his estate. Perhaps it was the outrageous 70's decor that caught my eye.

I heard a few comments about how 'disgusting' the Graceland experience was -- how it exploited the artist's legacy and intruded on his family's privacy. But the whole thing was run privately, and I think Elvis' family would appreciate the reverence with which so many devoted fans approached the King's former abode and present grave (located on the grounds, alongside his parents and other family members).

And with the 600,000+ visitors that come to Graceland each year -- at 26 bucks a pop -- Graceland fuels the Memphis economy, bringing in over $1.5 million revenue to local businesses each year. According to the official Graceland website, Graceland is one of the five most visited home tours in America, and the second most famous home in America, after the White House.

I have a theory about why the celebrity situation in America is the way it is:

Clause 1) America attracts dreamers, people who have a vision for their future that differs from the typical

Clause 2) Americans admire individuality, perhaps more so than any country I’ve been to, and reward individuals for standing out from the crowd by (for example) buying their albums, tickets to their concerts, merchandise, etc.

Clause 3) The American economy is one of only a few that can support a celebrity community—the general standard of living is such that we can afford to care about what they’re doing. We can afford to pay extravagant amounts of money on concert tickets and other celebrity paraphernelia.

I know this is rather shortsighted--there's a lot more that goes into it. But this is a start.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Shepard Fairey: A Powerful Dissident


In “The Declaration of Independence,” Jefferson wrote about citizens’ duty to dissent—in speech but also in action: “…Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Write about a time on this trip you have noticed dissent as a powerful force in American life.
This prompt has been weighing on me for a while now. I feel that mere complaints are too often mistaken for dissent, and I wanted to find an example of what I think is intelligent dissent—not just the regurgitation of a vague, generalized, partisan opinion which requires little to no understanding of the issue at hand. I'm interested in specific, creative, alternative ideas as a response to what the dissenter views as flawed.

I found an example of the powerful dissent I was looking for in a location and medium I least expected. When I think of dissent I think of speeches, books, and articles. I think of two opponents in a verbal duel. I do not think of framed pieces in the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. When I hear 'dissent' I do not think of murals on brick buildings in poor neighborhoods, bumper stickers, or reinventing propaganda. But then Shepard Fairey came along and my perspective on dissent was quickly challenged.

Even though the picture I would paint of America would differ from his, I appreciate the beauty and straightforward style in which Fairey communicates through his art. It is obvious that a lot of thought goes into his work; each word and each square inch of his pieces are intentionally symbolic.

In this re-creation of the One Dollar Bill, Fairey implies that the American people are pawns, forced to participate in an unethical capitalistic system, and subject to a government who's ultimate goal is to take over the world by way of a 'new world order.' By making this a 'ransom note,' Fairey challenges viewers to consider who/what really owns them.

I see elements of truth here: I think there are quite a few Americans who walk around uninformed and ignorant to the political, economical, and social systems that they subscribe to. But they're not victims. They will only fall prey to 'lesser gods' if they allow themselves to.

In the left circle you see a hand (adorned with dollar sign) reaching for the world. Around it is enscribed 'Hostile Takeover. New World Order.' Earlier this week, during the G8 Summit, Obama supported giving the U.N. more power. Perhaps Fairey is on to something; I wouldn't discount the possibility of the U.N. ruling the world some day. And the scary part is that some people think it's a great idea.

Across the bottom we see written, 'Indiscriminate Capitalism.' A group of us were sitting in the back of the bus when I started to work on this article, and I put this phrase up for discussion: What does Fairey mean by 'Indiscrimate Capitalism'? The consensus was that it's supposed to convey the absence of ethics in capitalism -- that the capitalistic system pays no regard to its effect on the environment, other people, etc.

"But wait a second," I'm thinking, "capitalism was never meant to be an ethical authority." That's what religion is for. I'm all for ethics, but if capitalism involved the dictation of ethics then it would cease to be capitalism -- it would become something like socialism or communism, where everything is "fair" (i.e. everyone gets the same thing no matter how much or how little they work.)

There's something beautiful about reaping the rewards of work in conjunction with productivity. And I'm all for sharing the wealth, but I want to share my wealth on my own terms and using my own discretion.

Mr. Fairey has the right to be frustrated if the people/businesses around him are not living up to his moral expectations, and I understand that his work reflects that frustration. But I wonder about how most viewers interpret this phrase. I see a common trend: Americans blame the government for some businesses' low ethical standards and feel that the way to fix it is for the government to enforce some kind of rule about how and where businesses acquire their products, manufacture their products, market their products, and distribute their products. When really, it's not the government's job to supervise any of that -- each company must set their own ethical standards and moral aspirations; and in turn, each customer must set their own. I hope viewers realize that "Indiscriminate Capitalism" doesn't reflect any failure on the part of our government; it should make them reflect on our decisions as individuals--as individual consumers and individual merchants.

I like that Fairey goes for shock value and is clear but not exhaustive in his message. He leaves a lot up for interpretation, forcing the viewer to think through what they see.

To read more about Shepard Fairey, click here.

Day 34 - Washington D.C.

Reasons why I would love to live in Washington D.C....
(in no particular order)

  1. D.C. has two great international airports, from which I can get to anywhere in the world.
  2. Life is just the right pace: not as fast as NYC (where everyone rushes around in a daze), but not lacking in vitesse.
  3. Unrivaled accessibility to knowledge: the Library of Congress, countless museums on every subject imaginable (and mostly free), a general concentration of educated people (although educated does not necessarily mean knowledgeable/wise).
  4. There's a great selection of healthy restaurants and fun bars/clubs.
  5. Great public transportation system.
  6. The seasons are well-defined, giving variety to the "look" of the city and the temperature. (And the cherry blossoms each spring are definitely a bonus.)
  7. Exciting ambiance--the feeling of "being in the middle of it all"--both historically and politically, and perhaps socially.
  8. Lots of jobs available in my fields of interest.
  9. D.C. is a very active city--I love seeing people walking, biking, and playing soccer in the parks.
  10. Opportunities to meet really neat, powerful, and unique people.
  11. Fro-Yo shops on every corner.
  12. I would get to walk past beautiful buildings every day.
  13. Being surrounded by the history of our country and legacy of our founders.
  14. The opportunity to actually use the extra languages I've learned--something I've really enjoyed doing this week.
  15. I would love to be able to wake up at 5 every morning and walk down to the Lincoln Memorial, one of my favorite spots in the world.

Day 33 - Philadelphia


Our dinner with the Philadelphia director of Mission Year tonight was a really powerful experience—powerfully encouraging as well as challenging. As Kaz started to explain the goals and purpose of Mission Year in her sweet New Zealand accent, I was swept back to another time and another place.

Their tagline is, “Loving God, Loving People, Nothing Else Matters.” An integral part of the program is living a simple life; participants are on a fixed budget—rent is covered and they are given $17/week food stipend. Participants do not have a television, use public transportation and their feet to get around, and agree to not use their phones, iPods, computers, etc. for at least the first six weeks.

My first impression of Philadelphia was not very good. It was dirty compared to New York City and Boston, and, although slower-paced, the people didn’t seem any friendlier as we trekked from the train station to Independence Square. But later this afternoon, at the Reading Terminal Market, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Michael Anthony, Operations Manager of the Market since 1999. After just 15 minutes in his office, I felt like I had known Mr. Anthony for years; he’s a big, lighthearted, black man with a very sunny disposition. Just one of the friendliest and most easy going people I’ve met on this trip—instead of getting annoyed or frustrated (as many do) when we ask challenging questions, Mr. Anthony was intrigued and determined to get us a quality answer. Emily asked why Philly is called the “City of Brotherly Love.” Having lived in Philly all his life, Mr. Anthony said he was embarrassed that he didn’t know, and proceeded to call a friend to find out. (Apparently it comes from the Greek philo (love) and delphi (city).)

I thought it interesting how one 15-minute conversation completely changed my outlook on the entire city. It went from cold and impersonal to friendly and vibrant after one personable interaction. Literally from the moment I walked out of Mr. Anthony’s office, the city looked sunnier, cleaner, and much more inviting. I found Philly’s City Hall to be among the most beautiful architecture in the United States and the fountain in Love Park to be playful and endearing. All because of my new sense of connectedness to the city.

This transition from tight-knit rural communities to isolated urban living is something that sociologists have taken note of and continue to explore. But it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook, and quite another to experience it in the third dimension.

And thus you can understand the importance of Mission Year’s mission to get young people involved in their communities, building authentic relationships with their neighbours. Teams of 5 or 6 are assigned to a neighbourhood where they work together for half the day with an organization that the Mission Year city director has identified as being a legitimate and stable presence in the community. For example, Amy and her team work at a private Christian school, providing an after-school program that keeps kids out of drugs and prostitution. During the other half of the day, team members volunteer with an organization of their choice, and on Sundays they are active in a neighbourhood church. Friday is their “Sabbath”—free day, and Saturday is to be spent in the community—working in a community garden, playing with kids in the park, tutoring, having neighbours over for dinner, etc. The overarching emphasis is consistently on caring for the people around you and using your connections to connect neighbours who don’t know each other—neighbours who will be there long after your Mission Year is over. Mission Year participants are purposefully relocated to a city they’ve never been to when they start the program, forcing them to start from scratch.

The discussion tonight was deeply meaningful to me because the circumstances closely resembled my year abroad, and the goals of Mission Year are very similar to the personal goals I had for myself. Witnessing the genuine joy and contentedness of Kaz, Amy, and Joe—our Mission Year correspondents—spoke volumes about their devotion to serving others and the personal growth and happiness that results. An important part of their message was the idea of devoting a year to lead this sort of “counter-popular culture” lifestyle—focused on selflessness and service--during which you will inevitably learn a lot about your own identity and values, and then decide which ones you're going to hold on to and take with you through life.

In all the moving around I’ve done since that year and throughout my inherently uncertain and ever-changing lifestyle I’ve lost sight of some of the things (like community) that had become part of my core values. So the discussion tonight really challenged me—in a great way—to reclaim those values by implementing them daily as I go back to spend another solid year in Nashville. There is still so much that I’m processing from all the great experiences I’ve been blessed with—this trip has definitely provided some food for thought in addition to the other voyages I’m still sorting out. I’m so thankful for all of this and really looking forward to see what comes of my re-devotion to service and community next year.

I already made the commitment last spring to take on a lot this next year—I’m going to be an RA in a freshman dorm, a Belmont Bruin Recruiter, and be working with the Entrepreneurship Club, International Business Society, involved with welcoming and hosting incoming exchange students, and writing for the student newspaper I helped start in ‘07 (The Right Aisle Review). I know that all of this on top of 17 credit hours is going to be busy, but I’m really excited to just jump in and go for it!

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