December 29, 2008

Today: I gripe about poor people who have big televisions and don't tip

I want to share a story with you. But first, I should tell you that this whole post is nothing more than my complaints about people who don't tip. So if you don’t want to read it, you can stop right now.

There is no worse time of year for the pizza delivery driver than this, when the snow falls quickly and heavily and the plows can’t keep up and people don’t bother to shovel their driveways. And it has been bad lately. With all of the winter storms and lake effect snowfall, the drifts piled up high over the mailboxes, obscuring addresses and spilling over to block driveways and hide walkways.

Oh, and the economy has been bad too.

And so it was that I found myself one night last week, on an unfamiliar street just before my shift was to end. As I counted down the house numbers, I eventually arrived at what must have been the proper address, though I couldn’t tell because there was no light to illuminate the numbers above the door. It was (at best) a modest apartment building in a poor neighborhood. I saw no driveway, no pathway, so I parked my car on the street, beside a mound of snow that peaked just below chest-level. Snow had long since found its way into my shoes and through my socks and melted against my skin, so I simply stepped up into the mound, and the light above their door flicked on, and the door flew open.

A young boy stood inside, shivering, and behind him I saw the blue glow of television, illuminating the walls and shining through the blinds on the windows. Since I saw no pathway to him through the snow, I asked if there was a back door or another way. He said nothing, only stared at me, ogling the hot bag in my hands. So I trudged over the hill and across their lawn up to the door. Inside, one of the largest televisions I have ever seen stretched across one of the walls, showing the Pistons game to the homeowners and anyone within a two-block radius.

He had been charged with the duty of delivering the money to the pizza guy, and I could see the bills in his hand. Having done this for years, I know exactly what it means when you meet a child at the door: There will be no tip. Grown-ups, at least most of them, are aware of the unwritten rule that people who provide a personal service are to be compensated by the consumer in addition to the employer. Children are not aware of this. So people who are too cheap to tip take advantage of their kids and send them to the door as sentries of ignorant cheapness rather than confess their cheapitude to another working adult.

And so, with the bill for the pizza being $12.71, the kid handed me exactly $12.71. I handed him the pizza, thanked him, and checked the score of the Pistons game on their jumbotron. He walked away without ever saying a word to me.

This was a lower class neighborhood, and the majority of the people on that block were not in the financial position to tip their pizza man lavishly. But there is no excuse to ever stiff the pizza man, unless he’s rude or obviously incompetent or has big fat rims and neon under his car. I don’t expect big tips from poor people, and I know the economy is bad. But: If you cannot afford to tip, you cannot afford to order pizza. (Unless you’re an elderly shut-in.) And if you can afford to drop $12 on a pizza when you could get one from the grocery store for $4, you can also afford to pay your driver a few dollars more to bring it to you. And if you can afford a TV visible from space, you can afford to tip your driver. And if you’re going to ask someone else to risk their life on dangerously slippery, snow-covered streets because you don’t want to risk your own, you should compensate a little more.

December 22, 2008

Me and Santa

I’m not sure I ever believed in Santa Claus. At least, I cannot remember believing in him and I especially can’t remember a moment when I passed from Santa-believer to Santa-denier. And it’s not that I would consider myself skeptical or wise beyond my years - I don’t remember ever looking down on mistaken classmates, at least those who gave him up at a respectable age. Of course, if you were still telling people in middle school what Santa brought you, I would have been happy to ridicule you.

My parents never told us about Santa Claus. They still took us to sit on his lap at the mall, which was a not-so-covert way of getting us to spill what we wanted for Christmas. One time we went to Rogers Plaza, back when people still went to Rogers Plaza, and when I met Santa I told him I had seen him crossing 28th street a few minutes before. I was on to him.

I think we always knew that the presents under the tree were from Mom and Dad. (Probably because the tags said “From: Mom and Dad.”) And whatever shred of Santa-belief that may have conceived in me would have been quickly debunked by my older brother, with whom I shared a bedroom. He was happy to dispel rumors of fairy tales, introduce me to popular music, and write on my face with markers while I slept.

My parents always made sure we knew that the reason for the season –it should go without saying that the Easter Bunny never stood a chance in our house – was because Jesus was born, and it was cause for celebration. Dad still reads the opening chapter of Luke before we ever touch a gift. When you’re six, it’s agonizing because you know there’s a big wheel or some Legos under there somewhere and you’re dying to get at them. Now that I have all the Legos a man could ever dream of, I can appreciate it a little more. Even after I’ve heard it 23 times.

Still, I really like the Santa Claus story. There are lots of variations of it, but most of them have in common the idea of a guy, usually with a beard, who generously doles out gifts for good kids. Here’s a hastily compiled summary I gathered from Wikipedia: We call him Santa Claus, but he also goes by Saint Nick (Saint Nicholas, of Myra, put coins in peoples shoes). Or “Sinterklaas” is the Dutch variation – kids leave their shoes out for coins/candy/gifts, and leave carrots or hay for his horses (much more reasonable than flying reindeer). Then there’s Kris Kringle, which we got from Christkindel (“Christ Child”) the Austrian variation which has him as a shorter/younger person who gives gifts to the good kids and is accompanied by another guy who (yikes) beats the naughty ones or takes them away in his sack.

The good kid/bad kid gift ultimatum may or may not have been invented by parents, but I’m sure they helped give it wheels. Doesn’t matter where you live, Santa Claus/Kris Kringle/Sinterklaas/Saint Nick is an effective deterrent for naughtiness.

Beyond that, there isn't a whole lot to say about Santa Claus that hasn't already been said a million times before.

Merry Christmas,

jim

December 13, 2008

Christmas and pudding

“We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a happy new year.
Good tidings we bring, to you and your kin
Good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year.”

What a nice song. It’s traditional, unassuming, gives a friendly and hopeful message. It’s a nice one for kids to sing, standard fare for Christmas pageants. But just as the first verse ends and the audience begins bask in the kind words and contemplate the good will bestowed upon them, the next verse begins. It says, in no uncertain terms, that the singers want pudding (and in some variations, alcohol), they want it now, or else they’ll never leave. See, you knew there were strings attached. No one offers good will like that for free. You welcomed their singing, and now they’ve essentially embarked on a pudding sit-in.

“Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
And bring it right here [or, And a cup of good cheer]

We won’t go until we get some,
We won’t go until we get some,
We won’t go until we get some,
So bring it right here.”

Then, of course, they play nice and wish you a Merry Christmas again.

All I know is that if I’m making pudding-related demands, I'm aiming higher than figgy.

December 11, 2008

Chasing God

I was browsing the science section at Barnes and Noble yesterday, looking for books about brains. Deep down, I'm a nerd who happens to be no good at science. I got bad grades in all of my science classes, from jr. high through college. To hell with science. But the brain - it's cool. It's fascinating. There’s this wrinkly thing inside your head and it makes you think and feel, gives you real smiles and fake ones for photographs, remembers names and places and directions, keeps your heart beating, helps you swerve to avoid accidents on Tuesday nights when the roads are slippery and people run red lights. The brain gives you wonder, wonder about life and people and how your brain works and – and God.


As I was looking for brainy-related enlightenment on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, one book caught my attention because I saw the letters G-O-D. And since I happen to know Him, it piqued my interest and I picked it up.


The crossroads of God and science are fascinating. I don’t travel them very often, but it’s an interesting place. This book, however, was called “God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.” Imagine my elation at finding a book about my creator, and the ensuing dismay at learning it was about how he isn’t. Doesn’t exist. Period. How you write a whole book about something that doesn’t exist, I don’t know, but this guy – Victor J. Stenger – seems to have done it.


I guess I always thought that if and when someone finally proved that there’s no God, there would be a lot of media coverage and lots of red-faced Christians. And Jews. And Muslims. And some very satisfied atheists and some relieved agnostics. I guess – if his proof is real - we just haven’t heard about it yet.


To make a good evaluation of the book, I would have to read all of it. But like I said above, I'm no good with science. And I'm not exactly sure how nature can be used to prove that something above nature (in other words, super-natural) doesn't exist. That's why I said, "to hell with science," because science, if it's used to deny God, is probably headed exactly there.


On the back there was a quote from Richard Dawkins about how great the book was. Part of it said, “Stenger drives a pack of energetic ferrets down the last major bolt hole and God is running out of refuges in which to hide.” It struck me how much effort people put into proving there’s no God, and how important it is to them to do so. They have to chase Him out of His hiding places. I guess they think they’ve got Him on the run or something.


Dawkins wrote one of many God-debunking books that has come out recently, his called “The God Delusion,” which I didn’t read (yet). And I didn’t read much of Stengers book. If I ever took either one of them on in a debate, I’m sure I would get schooled. And then I would go home and read my Bible and pray and go to bed.


Atheism isn’t new. People have always found reasons to object to God, and I understand that. There’s injustice in the world and God, it seems, remains invisible. History and the present are full of examples of hypocritical Christians and a church that did some nasty things. (Though, to be fair, Maybe God’s not invisible because there are lots of Christians fighting poverty and hunger in His name, and it never made sense to me to judge the merit of something based on those who do it wrong - its most off-base and hypocritical practitioners.) So I don’t blame people for objecting to God. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t blame them.


What I can’t understand is the vehement opposition to God from people who have decided He doesn’t exist.


I am an evangelical Christian. I believe God created the world, sin wrecked it, and that we’re reconciled only by Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection. I believe that when we accept that reconciliation, we spend eternity with God. If we reject it, we spend eternity without Him, the experience ranging from things still being broken to things being absolutely horrifyingly awful. You won’t blame me for trying to spare people from that.


But if God isn’t there, as they believe, then there probably isn’t much purpose in the universe. Unless you make some up for yourself. So I can’t understand the concern atheists have for Christians believing what we believe. Why the crusade to convert me? To help me out of my ignorance? Sounds like evangelism to me.

December 8, 2008

She was a good woman

Grandma’s funeral was Wednesday. I am slow to blog. I guess funerals aren’t necessarily things you blog about. Nevertheless…

I learned a lot about Grandma at her funeral. Just as I was growing up and beginning to realize that she was an invaluable window to history – my history, family history, world history – her age began to take her mind. One of the miraculous things about her, though, was that when her mind was going, her body stayed strong. Throughout her whole life, she almost never got sick. She had pneumonia once. She beat breast cancer in her old age, too. But she was spared lots of the other physical ailments that come along with getting old.

Grandma never did her part to keep the apothecaries in business. Most old people, it seems, endure a daily cornucopia of pills and capsules and tablets and elixirs and ginkgo biloba to keep themselves breathing for as long as possible. Grandma lived 96 years without them. I don’t know her secret; I hope it’s genetic.

A long time ago, she ministered in a women’s prison in Wisconsin, leading Bible studies and church services. One of the inmates attacked her once, beat her severely. When Grandma was healthy again, she went back.

When she was a child in Russia, the Bolsheviks took over. Grandma told stories, multiple times, about how they came and took her dad’s watch. When he protested and insisted it was his own, they told the family they “didn’t even own the leather on their shoes.” The communists, she knew, could give you a little but had to take everything first. They promised the people a feast, and when her neighbors all brought food, the soldiers piled it up and poured fuel on it and burned it in front of them. She never took anything for granted. She worked hard her whole life.

Her faith was intertwined in every story my mom and my uncles told. She shared it, taught it, lived it.

She was a good woman. We're proud of her, proud to know her and to love her, to call her mother and grandmother. She left a great legacy. I know she rests in peace.

November 29, 2008

Grandma

Mom called yesterday, asked if I could bring her Grandma’s dress. It was hanging in the rafters above the dryer in the basement. I told her I would, that I would bring it right then. I took it down, brought it to my car. It’s green with little white dots and a frill around the neck. It’s plain, but it’s nice. It’s the one she’ll be buried in.

Mom was sitting by Grandma’s side when I got there, holding her hand. Grandma was asleep, breathing hard with her mouth agape, looking thirsty. Her skin was loose and her cheekbones sharp, her eyes were closed and dark and sunken back just a bit. She did not look well. On the wall were pictures of her and her kids, her face full of smile and life, just the way I want to remember it.

I wonder why the sheets are white, always white. So bland and plain. I wonder why people who are on their way out can’t die with something a little more aesthetically pleasing. They have white sheets in hotels and nursing homes and hospitals, and I think it's because these are places you just pass through. They aren't home.

Mom points me to the book where visitors have kept a log of Grandma and her condition. My cousin Julie wrote that she was already gone, already with Jesus, her body was just waiting to run out of fuel. I liked the way she said it, I think she was right.

Ninety-two years ago, my grandmother was four years old, living in a German settlement in Russia. An evangelist came and held a rally, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When he came to her, he said, “What about you, Natalie?” She knew, at four years old, that she wanted to live her life for Christ. She accepted him that day. Not long after, the evangelist was martyred.

And she lived her life for Christ, knew this wasn’t her home, looked forward to the day she would see her savior. She escaped the communists in Russia, came to the United States. She met Adolph Hunt and married him and they raised five children, made sure they knew the Gospel, too. My mom was one of them, and she passed her faith along to her kids.

Years ago, my grandma was diagnosed with dementia, and slowly her brain failed her, and her body began to fail, too. She went into Hospice care a few weeks ago, and a few days ago it became clear she was close to heaven.

Yesterday, I sat with mom and held her hand as she cried. She has cried a lot lately as she has waited nervously, watching her mom go, wondering when it would be, dreading her departure but awaiting her release. I held grandma’s hand and kissed it, said good bye to her, wondered if it would be the last time.

I drove away, went to work, went out with friends from high school, and as we went our separate ways in the middle hours of the night, my dad called. He told me they’d gotten a call from the nursing home, that Grandma had taken another turn, and that she would probably not make it through the night. I wondered how they knew, how they could predict that. They were going to see her, to say good bye. I told him I would go, too.

When I got there, it was 2:15 am and Grandma was asleep, breathing slowly. Mom and dad were there, along with Uncle Jim and Aunt Bonnie. Mom was at one side, holding her hand and crying, and Uncle Jim was at her other side. We sat for a while, quiet, watching her breathe, waiting and wondering, knowing that it was time for her to go. The pauses between her breaths grew longer and longer. The nurse came and closed the curtain.

At 2:30 this morning, with family at her side, her body stopped working. She breathed her last breath and went home. She waited 92 years for it. And now, she's free.

November 26, 2008

Why the Detroit Lions must go 0-16


I really, really want the Lions to go 0-16 this season. And it’s not like I’m just lusting for a trainwreck, with some sort of poke-it-while-it-dies morbid curiosity. I have legitimate reasons.

First, if you don’t follow the NFL, know this: For the last thirty seasons, NFL teams have played sixteen games each season. No one has ever lost all sixteen (though before the sixteen-game era, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14). A few have lost 15, and a few more have lost 14. But the Lions are very, very bad, and they might just be the first to lose all sixteen. And I for one, really really really want to see them do it. I might write them a letter.

There are obvious reasons why a fan would, at this point in the season, want to see their team lose. The most obvious and beneficial is that each year, the NFL feels sorry for the most awful teams and typically gives them the first pick of the college players. So if the Lions go 0-16, we’ll get to see them grab a promising player, give them lots of money, and firmly dash their hopes of Super Bowl glory.

And as for doing something no one’s ever done - it’s always fun to see your team break new ground. We’d be pioneers – of suckiness, but pioneers nonetheless. We’d make history. We’d become the yardstick for awful teams. In the future when teams are pretty bad, the debate will be, “Yes, they’re bad, but are they 2008 Lions bad?” Think of it this way: It’s an epochal change. Right now, it’s an impossibility. If we can pull this off, we’ll live in a post-0-and-16 world. In an 0-and-16 world, anything can happen. Including, maybe, such an outrageous thing as the Lions making the playoffs.

And the only way that can happen is if the Lions somehow hit rock bottom first. For now, things have been bad, but they’ve always been able to get worse. We’ve been a 2-14 team. Twice, even. And the fans have always been able to say, “It could be worse.” Going 1-15 would be bad. But it still wouldn’t the wake-up-in-the-gutter moment we need to turn things around. And the only way things change is if we get a season full of losses. Imagine: A whole season, a homogenous batch of losing. Perfection.

Fans have been hoping for this for a while, the point at which someone realizes what they’re doing isn’t working and hasn’t for some time, and maybe they need a new approach. I don’t have any suggestions for that. I don’t run football teams. I just watch football and hope my team wins, wait for drama and shoot-outs, 70-yard touchdown passes, fumbles picked up by linemen and chugged into the endzone, defenders clinging to his ankles. And someday, the playoffs. Or maybe a Super bowl.

Maybe 0-16 gets us there. Or maybe we’re mired in the mess for a few more decades. I dunno. But I can hope. Hope. Maybe Obama can fix them. For now, though, to not go 0-16 would be a disappointment. This just becomes another losing season like the ones before where we can say, it could be worse.

November 19, 2008

This blog, that blog, moving on

I'm back. I was there but now I'm back here. For the last three months, the Africa blog has served its purpose - sharing the essentials of my journey to Tanzania and the exploits therein, and my subsequent and successful return to the United States. Since I could get on the internet, say, once a month there, and could only get into email once or twice a week, and since I wasn't up to haggling with a long long email list, I figured writing that blog (and sending them to my surrogate blogger brother Jon to post) would be a great way for those who really wanted to keep tabs on me to do so. And lots of people did, and I'm thankful. I only hope I kept it relevant and useful. Anything I may have neglected to tell you about on there is no doubt better shared in conversation. For now, that blog will only be updated sporadically, whenever some story or image or picture comes up and bubbles over to the point that I just have to write it down and stick it up on the blog. And whatever I put there, I will also put here.

I'm returning to blogging life as normal. I don't remember what that entails... It's hard to come up with content for a blog that has no real purpose other than to share my own thoughts on things that are mostly pointless. Nothing here about hyenas, fires, climbing mountains, stepping in feces. But I wouldn't be blogging if I didn't think you'd be reading. And here you are. So... Come back again soon. I promise not to be boring, not to gripe about politics, not to spend hours writing about how I'm listening to the Cold War Kids.

Karibu tena.

jim

October 3, 2008

souvenirs

I am glad to be off the bus.

I am so glad to be off the bus.

Yesterday I took a 12-hour bus ride from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam. Two hours into it, we took a pit stop, a bathroom break. Now that I think about it, this was our only stop except for lunch, and it was two-hours into the trip. But on this stop, we pulled off the road and everyone hurried off the bus and into the bush to relieve themselves. I went last and trekked down a path which the men quickly claimed as their own. I walked past everyone else, chose a spot, and reunited with the animal kingdom. I walked back to the bus and sat down in my seat. Now, since I was traveling alone, I had no one to urge me to watch my step, and once I sat down I was met with the sudden, unmistakable odor of human waste and the sneaking suspicion that I was somehow responsible for it despite the fact that I had only “gone onesies,” as the Africans say (which they don’t say.) Since I had no room to check my feet, (a backpack betwixt them, a wall in front of and beside them, another gent’s legs on the other side, and a seat filled by myself behind them) I could not confirm or deny that it was I who had returned with a… souvenir of our stop. I help hope that one of the many other feet on the bus had an unfortunate hanger-on. A few hours later, after much gagging and guessing, I got off the bus for lunch and discerned that it was, indeed, I who had borne great displeasurous* odor upon the bus. I was thusly forced to bear it the majority of the trip, as I had carried a fair amount back with me and shared it with the floor beneath my feet and, quite possibly, my backpack which rested upon it. In short, I smelled people-poop the whole way here.

But all of that aside, it wasn’t so bad a trip. I only had an awful African soap opera on the tube to deal with, and a guy next to me with whom I jockeyed for the arm-rest, and knees that inexplicably burn in agony when I rest them at acute angles for seven hours at a time.

I am so very glad to be off the bus.

And here I am, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. It is the hot and humid time of year, and that is genuinely saying something. I am in the tropics right on the ocean. The air is thick, and I’d bottle it for you if I could. It’s hot enough that I was sweating through my shirt over breakfast, at 8:00 am. (And to think, A week from now I’ll be in a place in the same country where it reaches below zero.) Dar is a fantastic city. There are lots of big buildings and you can sleep in air conditioning and buy ice cream and A&W Root Beer (2,450 shillings each – I bought two for about $4.50 today).

(Hold on, I just remembered the word “Gondwanaland” for no explicable reason. If you know what Gondwanaland is, please tell me.)

We went to Slipway, a bayside resort where lots of white people hang out. And having been away from all but ten of them for so long, I find them fascinating. I want to stare and shout “Wazungu!” Slipway is a resort-ish, touristy shopping and eating place. The shame in this, I thought today, is that many people I guess (and probably guess unfairly) that many people come here and stay in a nice hotel and visit a game park and see some wild animals and buy some carbon-copy souvenir ebony carvings, and then get on a plane and go back home. And they will say that they have seen Africa, without ever sharing a meal of ugali under a kerosene lamp, or frightening a baby who has never seen a white person before, or catching a cold from a village kid, or changing a tire in the bush. I am just arrogant enough to claim merit badges for each of those, and three for the last one. And I wouldn’t mention sleeping by hyenas, listening to a church choir, or staring at the Milky Way from below. But I guess you can say this about anyone who travels anywhere. “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt,” right? You probably haven’t really seen a place until you’ve been culture-shocked by it, and even then you don’t really know it. I don’t know Africa. All I know is Michigan. And I miss Michigan.

But now, I am no different. I am a tourist. Dar is only a stopping point for me, on the way to Kilimanjaro. Tomorrow morning, we’re getting on a bus to go and do something so stupid as to climb a mountain, something impossibly high that people stay off of and build roads around, the top of which no animals can live on. We’re going to haul ourselves to a dangerous altitude to say we’re no smaller than a mountain, to set before our eyes a fleeting but spectacular sunrise. We’re going to see this place. The truth is, I am super excited (ugh, I just used “Super Excited.” Guess I better go watch The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or something) to do this stupid, stupid thing. But more on that once I’ve actually seen the mountain.

One love,

jim

August 15, 2008

Ninafika (I arrive)

It is hard to get on the internet, so I hope you’ll forgive me for taking so long.

First and foremost - I’m here and my stuff is here. Beyond that, there’s little more I can ask for. I’m still a little tired. Jet lag will do that to you. At 12 am Tuesday, the sun was coming up as we were going down into Amsterdam. Of course, it was almost six am there. There is something wrong with having another day begin when the last one has not yet ended. So I roamed the Amsterdam airport groggily until I met up with Gloria, a fellow traveler to Dar Es Salaam and onward to Mumba, whose children work as missionaries there and were provided us transportation.

If I am to file one grievance against the airport in Amsterdam, it is that they took away two unopened bottles of Dr Pepper as we were checked through security to board our plane. I purchased them legitimately at DTW, and I will not forget the offense. Dr Pepper poses no threat to air security.

Nevertheless we arrived (almost) on time in Dar Es Salaam where Mike and Lynn Caraway met us with Luka, a three year old they’ve taken under wing from their orphan ministry. His mother abandoned him in the woods as an infant, and after the family found him and returned him she abandoned him again. He was found and brought to an orphanage in Sumbawanga as little more than a skeleton. The Caraways usually take in a handful of orphans to nurse back to health, and they've temporarily adopted him (you cannot officially adopt a Tanzanian unless you are a Tanzanian) while they search for a home for him.

We stayed two nights there with a day in between to run errands and change money in the big city ($500 USD bought me 569,000 Tanzanian shillings.) We spent an afternoon at a pool/hotel on the Indian Ocean and had dinner at Subway, the only chain restaurant with any presence in Tanzania.

Yesterday, we drove across the country to Mbeya where we’re currently staying until we go onto Mumba tomorrow or Sunday. That’s where I’ll live until November. The main highway runs from Dar Es Salaam through Zambia, and it goes right through Mikumi National Park. Just beyond the entrance, we saw the aftermath of an awful accident that took place the night before. A semi truck sat in the middle of the road, still smoldering, and a passenger bus had careened off the side of the road into the trees. It looked as though it might have rolled over. There were probably lots of casualties.

Further down the road, the highway along a cliff up a mountain. Lynn told me that vehicles often break through the barriers on the side of the road and plunge over the cliff. It’s no wonder, as it’s a two-lane highway and people often pass precariously, usually at high speeds. Just as we neared the top, we saw a group of people gathered at the edge of the road and skid marks attesting to yet another tragedy.

Beyond the mountains is Iringa, one of the bigger cities beyond Dar Es Salaam. We stopped here for some lunch with some missionary friends of the Caraways. Less than two minutes on the road (a dirt drive that leads back to the main highway) we lost a tire. Mike and I changed it. I got dirty in the African sun, and it felt like I had arrived. We drove the rest of the way to Mbeya without a spare tire, and much of that leg was at night. Driving at night, as you might guess, is not a favorable option. Mike reinforced this point of few. In Tanzania, you needn’t worry about bandits harming you to take your stuff. “They’ll steal your stuff,” Mike said, “But they won’t hurt you.” The same cannot be said for Kenya where, as I understand it, the punishment for robbery is the same as the punishment for murder. There’s little incentive there to leave people alive after you’ve robbed them.

Still, we made it to Mbeya where we’re eating and resting well and staying safe. This morning we had pancakes and this afternoon I got a haircut (from an Indian barber – he did a good job, Mom) for 4,000 shillings, or $4. So for now, the culture shock has been minimal. Pancakes help that, along with fatigue. Tomorrow we’ll spend another day here and depart on Sunday for Mumba, which is another 6-8 hours beyond here, depending on road conditions.

Thanks for your prayers. Pictures tomorrow. Maybe.

jim

July 24, 2008

My Call, My Answer

(More self-plagiarism. I'm seeing a pattern here. Maybe you should just read the other blog.)

I’m going to write about myself. And I really want to sit here and tell you that I’d rather not write about myself, and that I don’t usually indulge in myself all that much in my writing, but that would be a lie. I love to write about myself. You should read my diary - it’s all about me. Actually, you shouldn’t read my diary. Please don’t, it would be terribly embarrassing for me. But I can’t exactly sit here and tell you about what has been happening in your life for the last few months, can I? I have to tell you about my own, and why I’m going back to Tanzania and how this all came about in my life.

My church has held a missionary conference for as long as I can remember. They still do. Once a year, a few missionaries from across the world would come back home and put up a booth in the foyer behind the sanctuary, and stick it with all kinds of pictures and souvenirs for the church members to browse through and gawk at. They’d put out post cards with their pictures and the name of their country and a verse on them. I would hoard them, stick them in the pages of my Bible.

Speaking from the perspective of a sleepy kid who struggled not to nap in church and drew pictures of spaceships during the hymns, I always found the missionary conference to be the most interesting two weeks of the year. You got to hear people talk about interesting stuff. They talked about faraway places and showed videos of African choirs and pictures of dudes in canoes and people making porridge over open fires and stuff. Whatever anecdote they might have told at the beginning was probably enough to satisfy me for the rest of the service. It was interesting.

Even as a child, it energized me. The African missionaries especially. Nothing in the world was as exotically different and shocking as Africa. The people were darker, their houses were smaller, their food was stranger, their animals were bigger, their jungles were darker, their skies were bluer, their mountains were taller, their roads were bumpier, their choirs were louder. Africa was fantastic and unreal, and I had to see it someday.

But then I grew up.

Ever kid has a similar top-five for vocational pursuits. Somewhere in there you’ll see astronaut, professional athlete, fireman, race car driver, and/or ninja. And inevitably they fade away and get replaced by far more realistic, lucrative, and boring jobs like lawyer, doctor, teacher, engineer, architect. Though, honestly, if we could all be ninjas, we’d all be ninjas. And the world would be a lot safer. But that’s beside the point. In my top five may at one point have been Missionary, that’s how much I was into it. But it faded away, too.

And I went through high school and college, and knew that I’d never be an astronaut or a quarterback or a ninja (not in any full-time capacity with benefits, anyway), but I never could figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Through all of the confusion and career conundrums, though, there was a constant of involvement in ministry. I stayed involved on campus or in youth group, I served on staff at Grace Adventures for three years, and in 2005 I got to go to Africa. This wasn’t the fulfillment of my lifelong dreams. In fact, in retrospect it seems like it all came about in such an unplanned, sudden spiral of events that one day I found myself sitting on an airplane with my (then) future brother-in-law and another kid from Muskegon, asking where it was that I was going and if I had remembered to pack enough soap. The soap, as it turned out, was irrelevant, because they lost our luggage and I had to buy some there anyway. When I got my stuff ten days later, I was already thoroughly attached to the African soap, as well as the boxers I’d bought at Woolworth’s and the secondhand clothes I’d haggled for in the markets.

Anyway. When things arise in such an abrupt, unexpected manner as the trip to Tanzania did, without my planning or consent or selfish ambition to get in the way, it seems as though there are other forces at work in your life and in the world. One night as we sat around a campfire, celebrating the Fourth of July in true African style with rice pudding and “barbecue” (its true identity escapes me now), all of the things about Africa I’d thought as a kid came rushing back to me, unhindered and unflavored by my grown-up impressions and exposure to academia and the media. And suddenly Africa again became the mysterious place that I loved and had only then started to experience. And I decided it might not be so bad to come back again someday.

One day, Grand Valley State University decided they’d had enough of me and my money and that my credits were satisfactory enough for them to spit me out with a degree and tons of debt. I didn’t have a career path in plan, but I had enough ideas to survive on for a while. I did an internship with Relevant Magazine in their editorial department. When I got home, I searched for and found a job with a small business magazine in Grand Rapids. And always, I thought, before I really get going, I’m going back to Africa, at least for a while. Almost always, I targeted this fall, 2008, as a time to go. And when Barb Sherman called me last fall and asked if I wanted to go back, I knew that I would be on my way soon enough.

I got laid off at my job just before Christmas. Those circumstances are strange and they warrant a whole different conversation, but it suffices to say that it freed me up to pursue other opportunities, none of which panned out because there was something else more significant in my future, and I still had an open offer from Steve and Barb Sherman.

I don’t remember ever making a decision to go. I remember realizing one day that I was already planning to do this and simply had yet to tell the Shermans and my parents, and I guess myself, about it.

I am not qualified to be a missionary. And I don’t know for sure that that’s what God has blocked off for my entire future. But I know that this was something I had to do now. And I know that though God does not always call the qualified, he does qualify the called.

July 16, 2008

A startlingly brief, inaccurate, uninformed summary of Tanzania that should be taken with a grain of salt

(Note: I decided to plagiarize myself and post this to this blog too. For the most part, I'll try to add posts from my Tanzania trip blog to this one.)

I feel a little bit like a seventh-grader about to give a class presentation. You see, I want to tell you lots of interesting things about Tanzania because you probably haven’t been there, and you probably don’t know much about it. The majority of people can't point Tanzania out on a map. So if you can't, either, you're normal. So, let me begin:

Here’s some boring but essential stuff that you and I will both soon forget: Tanzania is in Africa, on the east coast. If you were to hold Africa like an ice cream cone, it would be at that webby part of your hand between your thumb and index finger. It’s the 34th largest country in the world, about twice the size of California. For your convenience, I’ve included a map with a gigantic yellow arrow:







Tanzania is like Michigan, where I live, in that it’s surrounded by some Great LakesLake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. That’s probably where the kinship ends, though. Michigan does not have Tanzania’s mountains, nor its rainforests, nor its terrifyingly poisonous snakes, nor its man-eating lions, nor its tribal diversity. We do however have black bears and multiple peninsulas. Tanzania has no peninsulas and no black bears. Edge: Michigan.

The highest point in Africa is found atop Mount Kilimanjaro (If all goes well, I’ll stand there in October) and the lowest point on the continent is found at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika (If all goes well, I won’t stand there, ever), both of which are in Tanzania. Also found in Tanzania: The Serengeti plain, Zanzibar and the spice islands, Gombe National Park (where Jane Goodall spent lots of time writing down fascinating things about Chimpanzees) and Olduvai Gorge, where scientists say mankind was born, though I can’t confirm that because I wasn’t there when it happened. You’ve probably heard a little bit about all those things, just maybe not that they’re in Tanzania.

Also fascinating: Tanzania grows lots and lots of bananas. They’re a staple there, because they provide great nutrition and require relatively little work. A well-maintained banana grove will produce for 30+ years. Bananas need good rain and high temperatures, and Tanzania has both. Africa grows 35% of the world’s bananas, and the average African eats 550 pounds a year. So says a National Geographic book about Tanzania.

There's a lot more to be said, but I believe I promised a startlingly brief, inaccurate, and uninformed summary, and I'd hate to disappoint you.

I leave twenty-seven days from today. Then I'll have much much more to write.

Keep reading.

Jim

Pictures from 2005:

butcher
busstationsalesman
chalula
chipsmayai
dancing
guysaboverukwa

mkundaboy
pastorsdoor

June 12, 2008

A most excellent new blog

I am going to Tanzania. I made the decision a while ago. I don't remember when, exactly, but it was warm out and I was walking to the library and it just kinda felt like I had already chosen to do this. I didn't feel like I had made a choice, I felt like I realized I had already made it. That's how you make decisions like this, I guess.

In August, I'll be leaving for three months. I'll miss the World Series, the election and all the hoopla surrounding it, Mom, bro, and sis's birthday, hamburgers, and most of the pretty fall season.

I already bought my plane ticket, you can't stop me.

I started a new blog about it: http://jimandafrica.blogspot.com. I'd be honored if you'd check it out - I explain what I'm doing and stuff, it will be worth your while. And, I'll try to keep it updated when I'm in Tanzania, too.

Until then, this blog will keep going at the same breakneck pace of 2-3 posts per month. Once I get there, though, everything I'll have to say will probably be more appropriately posted there.

One love.

May 29, 2008

Death and the Thrift Store

Thrift stores are wonderful, marvelous, awful places. For the most part, they stay the same no matter what store you’re in, in what part of the country, whoever the owner is. They all bear the same smell. If we combined every basement into one giant super-awesome basement, that would be the smell you get in a thrift store. Incidentally, that exact scenario would also produce an ideal thrift store. They all have the same disheveled and disorganized batch of knick-knacks, the same semi-organized selection of clothes too old to be fashionable but too new to be retro-cool, the same unacceptably dingy furniture, the same graveyard of a library. Somehow, though, they all manage to have different prices, ranging from the ridiculous bargain to the questionable cheat. I marvel at how I can buy a t-shirt at one store for 99 cents and go across the street and find someone charging $3.99. Charging $3.99 for a used t-shirt makes only slightly more sense than charging, well, anything for used underpants.

I spent yesterday afternoon searching for a pair of broken-in cleats for softball. I found them, but only after visiting three or four thrift stores. They were tacky, off-white, a size too big, perfect. I also picked up a golf bag, a few decades older than me but younger than my current model. A clear upgrade at two dollars. It’s unfortunate that such charitable places should remind me of death.

First of all, their business model makes them essentially the scavengers of the retail world. People give them stuff for free, they sell it at pure profit after the cost of business. They’re vultures. But they’re charitable vultures. As best I can tell, thrift stores were birthed mostly by charities (In the UK, they call them Charity Shops) and churches looking to raise funds and help transfer goods from one basement to another. In this way (and many others) the thrift shop is vastly superior to the pawn shop. Don’t ever, ever buy anything at a pawn shop unless you have to. I shudder to think of a situation when you would have to buy something at a pawn shop. (You don’t need that copy of R.E.M.’s Monster.)

Secondly, it becomes painfully clear after visiting several thrift stores that things go there to die. Everything that is there is there to die. When people find things they don’t need anymore, can’t fit anymore, or can’t turn on anymore, the obvious solution is to give it to charity. And, generally, it’s stuff that they tell themselves could be someone else’s treasure. Surely, they tell themselves, someone else will find use for these faded, bleach-stained personalized, towels.

Thrift stores are the burial grounds for sports gone by. Nowhere else can you find as great a collection of badminton rackets, rollerblades, or holey water socks used for avoiding sea urchins or, in Lake Michigan, hypodermic needles washed up from Milwaukee or Chicago. I’ve noticed there are also lots of bowling ball bags, but few bowling balls.

Every fad diet book there ever was or will be ends up in a thrift store. Usually, there’s also a pretty good selection of inspirational literature that outlived its inspiration. And lots of books by Danielle Steele. But the book section, for whatever faults I might give it, is usually the best part of the entire store, unless you’re not into books. (Then, I suggest you check out all of the dated vinyl records and amuse yourself with their silly covers.) I cannot leave the book section without buying something. Someday, I really will read that Lee Iacocca biography.

T-shirts come here to die. The shirts they throw at minor league sporting events, the ones people toss small children out of the way to get at, always end up on the racks at Goodwill. For $3.99, of course. Yesterday, I saw a college student bolt into a store, rifle determinedly through each rack of t-shirts (mixed in with the scandalously small beach-guy tank-tops and old football practice jerseys) and immediately bolt out toward the next store. These are the people who get all the good ones. They leave the tasteless ones, like one I saw: It said, “What happened to my booger?” and there was a giant green blob next to the question mark. This shirt came in an adult size, that’s what concerns me. Nevermind the impossibility and utter ridiculousness of putting such a shirt together to find a booger in a timely fashion, or the size of the “booger.” I’m going to guess this was given as a gift to some embarrassed person who brought it immediately to the thrift store without ever saying thank you (or good bye) to the well-meaning wacky aunt who gave it. You can put whatever goofball t-shirt you want on a baby, and it will be silly or cute, but this shirt has no business being worn by anyone over the age of, say, three.

Say you find a t-shirt you might want. Say you’re lucky enough to find it in your size. And, the neck isn’t stretched out after years spent waiting on a hanger or suspending hyperactive children from some poor father’s collar. There’s still the likelihood that somewhere on it, most likely in a place you won’t notice until you’ve purchased it, there’s a stain of chocolate ice cream or something worse.

Of course, the other day when I went, I did find a t-shirt that seemed like a good idea at the time. I made my way to the line, waited forever, and promptly made my purchase. And this is where the thrift store shines best: The clerk asked me if I had a college ID. I am not a college student, but I do have an ID. I flashed my credentials, and was offered a college discount. A college discount? By Jove! I can save an additional 15% on my purchases. Thrift stores are wonderful, terrific, marvelous, awful places.

Also, there are lots of crutches. Lots and lots of crutches.

May 23, 2008

Lawn Care

Dad killed our lawn.

For as long as I can remember, we've had an awful front yard. Not by our own doing, mind you, I prefer to blame mother nature and the people who lived here before us. They conspired to impede any efforts on our part at having a front yard with any aesthetic appeal. Certainly, we are not to blame for its ugliness.

Usually, when I need to give someone directions to our house, I can tell them to find the house on the west side of the street with the patchwork quilt of a lawn. (And now, I just tell people to look for house that looks like it used to have a front yard.) Everyone else on our block seems to invest a lot of time, effort, personal pride, and fertilizer in their grass. Not so for us. When it needs mowing, we mow. When it needs sprinkling, we sprinkle. Nothing more, nothing less. For the most part, our efforts have sufficed at maintaining a pretty, dull sheen for the several different types of grass, moss, dandelion, fungus, and decomposing political signage that sit in front of our house. There might be a bicycle in there, too, somewhere. (Actually, probably no bicycles.)

Occasionally, and only at his personal convenience, dad has attacked the patchwork with herbicide or fungicide or weedicide or some such -cide that is supposed to kill bad things. Like zit-cream for grass. It has never worked.

For a long time, I silently appreciated my dad for not wasting his time with the vanity of lawn care. People put way too much into their lawns. In some places, like Arizona, they tap dry already-thirsty aquifers to keep lush, green lawns where they have no business keeping lush, green lawns. It's not because I'm an environmentalist. It's because it's stupid. You don't need grass. In the Great Lakes region, we can get away with this. We have lots of water. If you don't have water, you don't need to have grass. Keep a zen garden. Some nice rocks, a cactus, that sort of thing. But not a lawn. Besides, a zen garden is a lot less work. Rake the sand, keep the rocks happy, done.

People work too hard just to have nice grass. It's going to be there if you don't let it die. Mowing and sprinkling is good enough, and if you ask me, just mowing is enough (That's the bare minimum to keep your family in the "normal middle-class suburbanite" category and out of the "Probably sends their kids to school in burlap sacks and feeds/underfeeds a vast army of rescued pets until the city steps in" category.) What lies between our home and the street has always been a socially acceptable, pleasantly diverse ecosystem. Sure, we could have a lush, green lawn that blends smoothly with the rest of suburbia. But at what cost? Are we that shallow, that our dignity and self-worth is vested in how our grass looks? We're defying convention, we're sticking it to The Man with our bare-minimum effort front lawn.

Which is why killing it all makes perfect sense. As anyone who has ever tried to extend the life of a doomed-from-the-start ramshackle project (i.e., less-than-amateur efforts at baking a pie, drawing a picture, building a galactic castle with legos, cross-stitching the Detroit Lions logo) can tell you, it makes a whole lot more sense just to start over.

And that is why dad killed the lawn. He killed everything, attacked it with the everything-cide, laid waste to it, nuked it. And everything died - the weeds, the crabgrass, the grass, and almost, I suspect, the maple tree too. A few days later, when the poison had done its job and run off into the sewer or into the neighbors garden or dissipated or something, he threw grass seed all over it.

And that is where we stand today. We're all crossing our fingers, hoping the lawn comes in nice and pretty. If it doesn't, at least we didn't have to deal with the dandelions this year.

(Edit: I was wondering how big the collective lawn of the United States is. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably bigger than Vermont or something like that. If, for some silly reason you know the answer to this or if you know how to get it, I'd like to know, for no other reason than that it's a very strange thing to know.)

May 1, 2008

Dude tries to cash $360,000,000,000 check

Here's a link for you to check out: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/050108dnmetbillion.b623795f.html

Thank you, internet, because despite all of your flaws, you help spread news of stupidity with great speed.

A little over a week ago, some guy in Dallas, Charles Ray Fuller, tried to cash a check for $360 billion. He said his girlfriend's mother gave him the check to help him start a record business. Now, I don't question the possibility that such an exchange might have occurred:

"What's that Charlie? You want money to start a record business? Why of course I'd love to help my daughter's good-for-nothing boyfriend start a record business! Okay, lemme just get out my checkbook. How much do you need? $50,000? Wha-? How does A Billion sound? How about $360 billion? Here ya go."

Maybe Charles missed the sarcasm.

Something, though, tells me Charles is a sensible man, and he would have done fairly well with his business had the bank actually handed over the $360 bill.

Just so you know, $360 billion would make him...
-Roughly six times richer than the world's richest man, presently Warren Buffet (worth $62 bill.) [Forbes]
-The country with the 31st largest GDP in the world, were he a country. [CIA world factbook]
-Richer than the combined GDP of the lowest 95 countries in the world. [Factbook]
-The owner of the fifth most valuable company in the world (Not bad for a startup record business.) [NY Times]

If Charles wasn't blindly trusting his girlfriend's mother and made that part up, and if he indeed wrote the check himself, why not try a much more reasonable $360 million?

April 9, 2008

My politics (as though you cared.) Part Two

This is part two of three (or more?) pieces I’m writing about what I believe and how I came to believe it.

At the time of the 2000 election, I was still pretty decidedly Republican for life. Though I can’t remember being aware of the intricacies of the nomination process, I knew I was on the side of George W. Bush before he was the official Republican choice, what with him being a straight-shootin’ baseball-lovin’ Texas Governor and all. And I, being a straight-shootin' baseball-lovin' Texas gov- er, straight-shootin' baseball lover, it was a natural choice. I had then, and still have, a pretty politically incorrect disposition, and George W. Bush was my hope at having a President with a spine that wouldn’t take any Democratic guff.

On the other side of the ticket was Al Gore, in his pre-hipster-hero-hysteria days, his pre-Nobel Peace Prize days, his pre-Oscar days. My knowledge of him at that point was that he loved planet earth, snuggled up to the tree-huggers, and threatened industry (also that he was just one more Clinton-impeachment away from becoming President). This was partly influenced by the overabundance of Rush Limbaugh in my childhood soundtrack courtesy of my parents’ radio. Lest I layer the cynicism too thickly, I have to tell you that I still don’t much trust the man, and I’m still not convinced New York City will be underwater in 30 years, that the ice caps will melt, that if they do melt it will be in part due to my Ford Escort, and that having New York City underwater would be an altogether bad thing. Then again, I haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, either, which I know would inevitably sway me to become the Greenpeace-donatin’ Prius-drivin’ tree-hugger I’m destined to be.

Where was I? Oh yes, the 2000 election. Of course, you know, George W. Bush won. The electoral vote. Not the popular vote. This is nothing new in American elections (it happened three times before this). There are annual bills to change the electoral college. (I think it would be a grave mistake – the electoral college is a convenient way for people to cover regrettable political choices. Case in point: I voted to re-elect Bush in 2004, but I get to hide behind to cover of living in a Blue state. This, at the small cost of being disenfranchised every four years.) Bush’s victory cleared Gore to spend his time fighting his war against global warming and win Oscars and Nobel prizes and stuff. It cleared his supporters to spend the next few years sulking over how Bush stole the election.

September 11, 2001 – I’m sitting in Mechanical Drawing class, trying to draw a sprocket or something on graph paper. The DJ on the radio (Mix 96), somewhat shocked and confused, tells us a jetliner hit the World Trade Center. He didn't know any details yet. I like to think we were the first in the school to know. We turn on the TV, and no one draws anything for the rest of the hour. No one in the school gets anything done for the rest of the day. We pray in band. They send a note home. They tell us we’ll remember where we were that day for the rest of our lives.

Foreign policy changed. Everyone’s did, including my own. The president said we were going to get the people who knocked down the buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see some bombs drop. We went to Afghanistan, I went to college.

The Iraq war is hard to write about. There’s not a lot that I can say that hasn’t already been said. We’ve all thought about it. We've been inundated with news reports about it. Since its start, we’ve been divided over it. We all have an opinion about it. When it began, I was behind it. Even now, the last place I want to be is at an anti-war protest. But it’s my generation that is fighting it, shrinking because of it. And we all hoped it would be over by now.

History, I think, will be a far better judge of the war than a business-minded media and college students with picket signs or graffiti artists with stencils. The same should be said of George W. Bush’s presidency. History, I think, will be a gentler critic than Bush’s harshest detractors, but certainly more harsh than his most adoring and tenacious supporters who ignore a ballooning government, a tanking economy, and an arduous, divisive, seemingly endless war. Where I had once been a part of the adoring and tenacious group, I have in the past few years ceased to consider myself a member.

To be continued…

(I told you part two was coming didn't I? Part three is on the way, I swear.)

April 3, 2008

My politics (as though you cared.) Part One

Maybe my biggest issue with being a grown-up is finding myself caring about grown-up type things. For example, since when did I care about the economy? I find myself watching the stock market, even though I don't have any investments; I read the business page of the paper, even though I'm just a pizza guy. The world's problems have become my own. I do grown-up things, read grown-up books, have grown-up conversations (a real grown-up might disagree if they listened my brother and me). My PS2 is gathering dust right now.

And entwined in all of this is some real personal stake in politics. That's nothing new, actually. But my political tastes have evolved considerably since I was a kid.

I remember the presidential election of 1988. Is that normal? It's one of my oldest memories, somehow being aware that George Bush and Michael Dukakis were trying to become president. There's very little I remember prior to this, apart from standing in a wading pool in my backyard, blowing bubbles, and other random things that you probably don't really care about. I remember seeing Michael Dukakis on television in a tank which, since I had little awareness of the electoral process, gave me a really warped view of how one becomes president. I was young and, being a wise four-year-old, didn't choose a side, though I'm pretty sure in some Freudian repressed-fear way, Dukakis in a tank gave me the impression that the Democrats were the aggressors. (Turns out, this is a famous and historical PR blunder.) So in a way, you can blame him for the fact I still vote Republican today.

My parents were (and still are) Republicans. Not upper-crust country-club fundraiser Republicans, but conservative lower-middle-class worked-for-their-money-and-want-to-keep-it Reagan Republicans. When George H.W. Bush got elected, mom and dad were happy, and I was happy.

I remember with more clarity the 1992 election, when George Bush ran against Bill Clinton. I was eight years old and thoroughly aware of Mom and Pop's political bent. I remember asking the Janitor who he voted for, and I remember that George Bush, if nothing else, carried the popular vote at North Godwin elementary school. Clinton won and launched me into eight years of siding with my parents against Clinton's debaucherous crusade of evil.

We had a Dole/Kemp sign in our yard in 1996. I guess it was fitting that our country should be run not by the guy who went on to shill for Viagra, but the guy who had the fortitude to get it on with a 23 year-old intern.

We took a car ride once, and I asked my parents if anyone at our church was a democrat. I guess this was my early litmus test of whether or not Democrats could be good people. Dad gave me a name, and I asked him why that person was a democrat. Dad, ever sarcastic, told me, ever naive, that someone had put a gun to their head. I get it now, that it should be fairly obvious that political alliances are a matter of personal preference, but when you're a kid and you already think Democrats win elections with M-1 Abrams Tanks, this is all the confirmation you need that the GOP are the world's only good-natured freedom-fighters.

I took the conservative point of view in class, too, piping up with my worldview in discussions. I pity any teacher that decides to take on a class of third-graders in a political discussion, because they're all just repping their parent's point of view. I considered myself particularly well-informed, and went to bat for the Right side of things. For the most part, I'm pretty sure I held my own. I was a proud, outspoken conservative all through my elementary, middle school, and high school education. I even joined the college Republicans during my freshman year at WMU, but I didn't attend any of their stuff. I wouldn't have fit in, anyway. Had to join something, I guess. They kept sending me annoying email updates long after I decided they weren't my crowd.

To be continued [mostly because I know I've pretty much reached the limit of as much as I would want to read in one sitting if I were you.]

(Editor's note: This is only part one. Come back later to see if Jim is headed for a gutter-to-the-pew political conversion. Does his cynicism point to a resentment for his political upbringings? No. The answer is no. I'll explain in a few days.)

March 25, 2008

panhandling 2

This happened the night after I wrote my last blog, the one about panhandling.

When I stepped out of the pool hall, it was cold. Winter had stretched its bony fingers longer into March than usual and the ground was still covered with ice, and the streets were lined with dirty snow. A man stood just outside the entrance, where the smokers would stand if they weren’t allowed to practice indoors, but the man was not smoking. He was waiting for the comers and goers to see him, waiting to ask them for a little financial help.

I walked by him, didn’t look at him. If you look, you have to talk. If you talk, you have to give. There are rules.

He was a panhandler, and lately I had been thinking about people just like him, how homeless or not-so-homeless people like him are simply in pursuit of a bit of alcohol on the dime of some na├»ve patron. I didn’t like the rules. It’s simpler to walk by, to not listen, to not look. But he didn’t care about the rules.

“Hey, mannnn,” he said, “Please help me out. Help me out, mannn.” I tried not to stop, but failed. I turned and looked at him. He was thin with big eyes, had patches of hair across his chin, little islands of beard, and was huddled over himself, shrunk down to hold his heat better. He sounded desperate, as one who had long given up on saving face.

“What’s up?”
“I just need some money to get some groceries, anything, man. I haven’t eaten in days. I don’t wanna end up in the hospital again, man.”
I tried to gauge his honesty. I thought about him, and I thought about me. He sounded genuine. I thought about the cash in my wallet. His voice was humble, he sounded like he really cared. He might have been telling the truth.

“You were in the hospital?” I asked him.
“Yeah, for three days. Last month.”

I have never felt as wealthy as I did that moment. And feeling wealthy didn’t feel good. I thought about how unbelievable it was that anyone in Grand Rapids would go without a meal. I cannot remember ever missing a meal for lack of access. And I, at 24, was now the provider. This man was rail thin begging a kid half his age for some coin to buy groceries.

Part of me still knew, still thought he was lying. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t want to give him beer money. I thought about walking to the grocery store with him. I thought about giving him a ride. But I was alone, and that’s how stupid but well-meaning people get hurt and disappear and get found in a park somewhere when the snow melts.

“Man, I want to help you. It’s just that,” and now I can’t believe I said this, “Sometimes, people don’t use the money one what they say they will. Sometimes people use it for alcohol.” I spoke what was on my mind, trying to be honest, trying to tell him I was onto him, trying to guilt-trip him, too.
“I’m not going to buy alcohol. I just need some food.”

I had started the dialogue with him, and in some ways I felt the burden to teach him a lesson, to inspire him or something. I wanted to tell him flat out, “You can have a dollar, but don’t use it for booze.” I didn’t say it.

He never got hostile with me. I don’t think he was a hostile person, just someone in need. Still, I thought about myself, alone with this desperate stranger who could be all kinds of dangerous. As much as I wanted to help him and ensure that I wasn’t just buying him booze, there was just no way I was going to accomplish that right then.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said. I thought about how ridiculous that would be. Me, tracking down the poor guy for a dollar.
“No,” I told him, and I thought of a solution. “Hey, I’ll help you out, but this is what you have to do – just pay it forward, man. Help someone else out. Okay?” It sounds more righteous than it really was.
He nodded, and I pulled out my wallet and opened it toward me so he wouldn’t see how much I really had. I gave him a dollar.

I walked away and thought about all of it again. I had wanted so badly to call this guy out, like I was empowered to help him kick his alleged habit right then and there. All he needs is some truth, right? But here’s the thing: No one likes addiction. If anything, the guilt-trip does vastly more damage than good for people in his state. If he really was an alcoholic, someone at their real rock bottom without income, shelter, or food, what could I have accomplished? I can imagine walking away, and the poor, desperate guy just feeling worse about himself. That would really pull him out of the mire.

March 11, 2008

Panhandlers

When I was a freshman in high school, our youth group went to Chicago for the Holiday Youth Convention. It was like youth group, but with like 1,000 kids and it lasted for 48 hours. When we weren't sapping youth pastors of their energy at the hotel, we were free to sap it on the streets of downtown Chicago. As best I remember, this was my first encounter with a pan-handler.

I was wearing cheap, faux-leather shoes, a size too small, scuffed and peeling at the creases. They were barely passable as footwear. Some guy stopped me and complimented me on them. He made the transition from complimenting to physically shining so smoothly I can't remember it. I do remember looking up as the rest of our entourage wisely walked away, and looking down as the guy went to town on my shoes, dabbing them with hand soap from a dixie cup. The shoeshiner was going on about how his hand soap was actually a fine, high-end shoe-polish, specially formulated to preserve texture and give unbelievable sheen.

Now, I don't know what makes a naive-looking high-schooler a good mark for a shoe-shiner (except for the whole naive-looking part). Why he expected me to pay him to shine my crappy shoes, I don't know. He finished - one shoe, I think - and waited for me to hand over some payment. It's unspoken, but obvious, that you're supposed to pay people for things like this. Since it was unspoken, to me it remained unheard. I thanked him and walked away, and I didn't look back.

I was in Chicago again this weekend, a bit more seasoned to the wiles of the panhandler. I had to catch an early train to get back to a friend's house, and I had skipped breakfast, so I stopped to buy some apple juice from a corner store. I spent one of the two singles in my wallet, unaware that a trainride would be two dollars, and the ticket machine didn't give change. So when I got to the Lawrence Avenue station and paused in front of the machine to consider my options. The clerk fingered me as a newbie, and stepped out to tell me I'd have to get change elsewhere. So I walked down to a Starbucks to make change.

I was greeted out front by a man who quietly asked me for change. (The door to Starbucks is a great place to pan-handle - There are lots of guilty-feeling yuppies hoping to earn some instant karma.) He had just smoked and I could smell his breath, deep and rotten. I could smell his lungs dying inside of him. I didn't say a word, just handed him my bottle of juice and nodded and felt proud. Now, I had to replace my cheap apple juice with expensive Starbucks apple juice, which was mostly ice. But still tasty. I used the singles in my change to buy my ticket and hopped the train south.

The night before, after an unplanned trek down Michigan Avenue, we went to the Cheesecake Factory for some dinner. Dan was a marked man, tall and grinning, the only one in our group with shinable shoes. Just as had happened to me ten years earlier, a man stopped him to compliment his shoes, and we all moved steadfastly forward hoping to pull him along. I told him we had to get to our table (a lie) but the man rambled on just the same and smoothly went to shine the shoes. A few minutes later Anna went to physically rescue Dan and the two of them came back, Dan flustered and Anna frustrated. Dan had given the man five bucks, a huge fee for an unwanted shoeshine. He told us the guy asked for $9 a shoe.

This guy was smart. He probably wasn't homeless, and I don't know if it's more appropriate to lump him in with panhandlers, scam artists, or legitimate nostalgic shoe-shiners. Maybe he's all three. But I think it's appropriate to realize that not everyone on a street corner who asks for change - even the ones that provide a service or a good excuse ("It's my birthday" once scored a couple quarters from me) is someone in actual need. That's where the difficulty really is: When you hand change to someone on a street corner, are you helping them get back on their feet, or stay off them for just a little while longer? A professional mooch can probably have their needs met just fine, especially if their needs are a bottle of scotch and a pack of Newports.

Better than coins: A gift card to Subway or McDonald's.

February 26, 2008

Man-Fashion

Some time ago, I started reading grown-up man magazines like GQ and Esquire. I don't buy a subscription, I scavenge them from book store shelves and from libraries that are edgy enough to carry edgy grown-up man magazines.

At the heart of it, the man-magazine is just like a women's magazine. They really are just men's fashion magazines. They're man-Vogue. They're man-Cosmo. The similarities abound: They sell themselves by putting skinny chicks on the cover; They offer tips on fashion; They fill pages with dumb quizzes. The man's mag just gets away with content that is considerably just as inconsequential as that of a women's magazine, but somehow well-suited to the man.

Mixed in with all the man-tailored Cosmo-content there's actually some good writing. That's why I pick them up: I read the articles. And while I'm at it, I try to take a look at what is and is not cool in men's fashion. I am one of the last people on the earth to go to for advice on what to wear. I feel stupid just using the word "fashion."

When I was in Junior high, I showed up to school one day with my oversized stretched-neck Taz t-shirt tucked into my jorts (jeans + shorts = jorts.) I went up to a table of friends and Greg Borst called me out on my miscue: "Dude. Untuck your shirt, that is not cool." So I untucked my shirt and told him I was well aware that it wasn't cool. Then I probably changed the subject. But that day, I took a tiny step forward in dressing well.

Sadly, that was the last step forward I ever took. I have been style-ly stagnant ever since. My style from then until college graduation was the t-shirt with the jeans. And that's a big part of who I am: I don't like to stand out. I just want to blend in.

Unfortunately, when you start to interview for jobs and eventually join the working-class, you can't blend in. You have to woo employers by looking like you care how you look (I actually have to shave more than once a week now, and might occasionally wear a tie) and dressing in appropriate correspondence to the ever-vague "business casual" (or, as those of us not in-the-know say, "biz-cazsh".) Hence, my increasing interest in not looking like a buffoon.

I've turned to the man-mag for help because I recently concluded that I have the following things going against me: lack of practice in looking "nice" for two-plus decades (save for pre-church motherly spit-bath and approval), color-blindness, and general apathy. I'm content with jeans and free t-shirts from Team Building Exercise 1999, and employers want dudes who aren't content with jeans and free t-shirts from Team Building Exercise 1999.

Except, I've found it really hard to accept what the man-mag promotes as fashionable. They usually get a couple of male models, probably skinny chain-smokers, who would probably look okay in an over-sized, stretched-neck Taz t-shirt and jorts. (In fact, I might have seen that in Esquire once.) They get a bunch of free clothes from designers who sell t-shirts for $80 and jeans for $350, and match it with some other designer's $250 sweater (which, altogether probably cost more than I've spent on clothes since my big shirt-untuck in Junior high.) and stick them on the skinny chain-smokers. Also, they get a bunch of stuff that normal people just do not wear - poofy shirts, aviator jackets, other stuff I've never seen before and can't categorize. They take pictures of them looking like Zoolander frolicking in some park somewhere.

My thoughts: Fashion is moot if you're a model. If you're professionally good-looking, then you probably aren't the one to convince me that this shirt will make me look good. You want to sell me a sweater? Put it on an ugly dude (some portly, unshaven, and dissheveled oaf - not unlike myself - would work) and show me that it makes him presentable. Then, maybe I'll buy it.

But not for $250.

February 18, 2008

Naivejim, taxpayer

I pay taxes.

I just don't pay very many of them.

It goes something like this: I deliver pizzas, the government visits my paycheck before I do and makes a few withdrawals to buy $500 hammers and medicine for old people, I deliver more pizzas. Then, once a year, the government decides to test everyone and see if they paid more or less than they should have. You file your 1040s, then they cut you a check or ask you to cut one for them. Everyone's happy. Except people who have to give the government more money.

Since I am a lowly pizza man, I get away with not paying much for income taxes, (except those that go to the state of Michigan. For some reason, they don't like to give money back. Usually, because our economy blows, I end up giving them more money.)

Naturally, each year I wonder "If I'm not paying taxes, who is?" Don't you worry, someone is. But I know why I don't pay much income tax: I'm in the bottom half of the tax bracket. Do you know how the percentages break down? I'll spare you any big, long, complicated numbers, (because I don't understand or have them) and give you the gist of it:

Percentile of wage earners (Bottom income of respective percentile) : Percentage of Federal income tax paid by that percentile: (source: IRS)

Top 1% ($364,657) : 39.38%
Top 5% ($145, 283) : 59.67%
Top 10% ($103,912) : 70.30%
Top 50% ($30,881) : 96.93%

In other words, nearly 40% of all federal taxes are taken from the top 1% of the population, and 97% of the income tax is paid by half the population. So, if you're doing the math:

Bottom 50% (<$30,881) : 3.07%

The bottom half pays just 3% of the federal income tax. I'm in this bracket, and that's why I get a check back every year. Apparently, Michigan has not gotten the memo that, being a relatively poor pizza man, they should let me keep more money.

Who does most of the investing in this picture? I'd venture it's the people in the top ten percent who bear 70% of the tax burden. These are the people who own businesses and start new ones.

Say you're in that segment, and you have an extra $100,000 lying around, and you see that there's an unserved part of the population needing an astronaut-themed ethiopian restaurant. So you think to yourself, "Self, I'd like to open an astronaut-themed Ethiopian restaurant." So you take your $100,000 and open an astronaut-themed Ethiopian restaurant. You rent a space in the local strip mall, buy some supplies, meet some suppliers, start buying food and hiring staff. Soon, you're serving a payroll of $400,000 and doing $1,000,000 in business each year. You give poor Jim, an astronaut-loving trained ethiopian chef, a job when his pizza delivery gig falls through. All because you had an extra $100,000 lying around.

Now imagine that someone got elected and, in the name of equality, decided it was a bad idea for some people to have a lot of money when others have so little. They say, "Well, let's just make a few adaptations to those tax laws, and take a little more from the rich folks and help the po' folks out a bit." And everyone says, "Yeah, that's a great idea. The rich folks can spare it." So you, wishing to take a risk and open an ethiopian astronaut-themed restaurant, get bumped up into a new tax bracket and no longer have your $100,000 lying around. Jim, having had his pizza delivery gig fall through, gets no job. Good news, though: He gets government-commissioned dentistry, provided he fills out the proper forms and waits the 6-8 weeks for approval. In 7-10 years, he'll be cavity-free.

More dumbed-down economics for us simple folks: Barstool Economics.

February 14, 2008

Life Without Medical Insurance

Well, now that I'm out of quarantine, I can write again.

I spent last weekend in Houston, Texas, visiting my friend Ryan with another friend Ryan (no relation). The weather was gorgeous - sunny and dry in the 70s the whole time we were there. Nothing beats getting on a plane in beautiful sunshine and coming home to find it's 3 degrees.

(Travel anecdote: When we went through security in Grand Rapids, they took my toothpaste away. Clearly, a dissheveled college grad with a tube of toothpaste poses a threat to national security. I offered to dump half of it to get it under the 3.5 ounce limit, but they shot me down. My Colgate presumably went to some impoverished airport security person's kid that night. A few days later, we went through airport security in Houston. To my horror, the guard there plucked my bag from the x-ray machine and pulled out a pair of scissors. Not tiny scissors - big, sharp orange Fiskars scissors. Good scissors. Scissors which I had no idea were in there. After my initial shock and worry of ending up in Guantanamo Bay, I nervously admitted I had no idea how the scissors got there. They took them and, presumably, they went to some impoverished airport security person's kid that night. I have no doubt they were in there the whole time, and I soon recalled that the Grand Rapids security person had made a joke about the scissors, which I met with a confused laugh because I was completely unaware I had them. He saw the scissors and left them, but took my toothpaste. Moral of the story: Toothpaste is more dangerous than scissors.)

Anyway, not long after I returned to the Michigan Winter, I came down with a nasty cold. My nose ran all day, non-stop on Monday, and something was wrong in my chestal-region. Wheezing, coughing, hacking, thick-multi-colored stuff coming out, I was pretty convinced it was my annual bout with Bronchitis. Mom encouraged me to visit a doctor. Since I hadn't been to one in a year, and since I had an upcoming job interview, and since this might be something serious, I told myself I'd cut my losses and visit the doc. Mom told me to go the Spectrum Pavillion because, she and I assumed, it would be a similar price to the clinic up the road and there wouldn't be a wait.

So I drove on icy roads in a drugged stupor to the Spectrum Palace of Medicine. I put in my name, was given one of those hospital shirt-smock-gown things, and was placed in a room. It wasn't busy, but they still managed to make me wait. I think they forgot about me, because the attendant told me it would be just one minute and it turned into twenty. I fell asleep, and they woke me up and moved me across the hall.

Finally, the doctor saw me and, after a little banter, informed me that I was suffering from what they call "The common cold," just a considerably vicious strain of it. Since the cold is a virus, antibiotics wouldn't do me any good. He told me I'd be fine in a few days, and said I should pick up some Claritin D. A nurse came around and gave me a thick packet of information that I'll never read, detailing my common cold. I went to check out, and awaited the price tag. I wondered if it would be $75, or at most $100. The nurse behind the counter looked it up in a little book, and gave me the total: $135. I asked her if she was serious (I'm normally very polite, but when I'm ill, I get downright belligerent). She told me she was, and I begrudgingly handed over cash to pay for it all.

As I walked out, I realized this: I paid $135, or ten hours of wages, to be told I had a cold, nothing more.

And my question is, how is that economical? I have a financial cushion. I live with my parents. I'm not paying rent or a mortgage. I can make it work, but not everybody can. As attractive as socialized medicine may be, I don't think that's the answer. The government isn't going to make things better for everyone in the system. I need only to think about how long I have to sit at the secretary of state's office to renew my driver's license, or about how it costs the government $300 for a hammer, or how we still can't find Osama Bin Laden, to realize the government needs a lesson in stewardship before we hand over our health care system.

February 4, 2008

How Sarcasm Can Be Life-Threatening:

(or how I learned to stop worrying and love my safety.)

So it's come to this.

It was virtually a dead sports weekend, and nothing political is happening this week. So I guess I have to tell you about my life.

Lately, I haven't been writing much on here. Trust me, I would love to write more, but I just haven't had anything to say. I can only do so much with a pizza-man's life. And I have to have something to say, otherwise you're not going to want to read this. You don't want me to get on here and be all xanga-ish, do you? Didn't think so.

Lately, we have taken up pool.

I never saw myself getting into billiards, but it turns out I'm very good at beating Josh Usadel at it. And since pool is a relatively easy way to kill time, be social, and not spend tons of money, we have taken up pool.

I used to have a pool table in my basement. When I was in elementary school, I taught myself to play. But my parents, thinking pool was an unchristian thing with which to occupy myself, decided to get rid of the table. They gave it to the church.

But lately, all of the skills I garnered as a youth have been reawakened. Now, I'm not very good. But if you play me and you're not an avid pool player, I have a pretty good shot at probably coming close to just barely edging you a little more than half the time. If the conditions are right. In other words, I'm a force to reckon with.

So we play pool at the Break Room on Plainfield, and people mostly leave us alone because they see us dropping cue sticks, launching the cue ball off the table, and otherwise making ourselves out to be overly-obvious (but secretly not very good at all) pool sharks. Saturday night, we were playing pool, minding our own business, when a drunk guy and his goon friend came over. Drunk guy could have done very well as a salesmen, starting conversation and being overly-cordial and apologizing for his friends overall gooniness.

Anyway, I'm minding my own business, virtually destroing Josh in pool, when I hear drunk guy ask if Michigan State won. I tell him no, they got beat by Penn State. (And it tears me up inside.)

Goonie pipes up: "Michigan State sucks."

And I, being of sound mind and body, question his statement. I say, "What's that?"
He repeats himself: "Michigan State sucks." An obvious Michigan fan, one unlikely to ever be a Michigan student or give birth to one.
Now, I am well aware of Michigan State's gridiron suckery. But in basketball, they have a solid program. Arguing the point that a 19-3 basketball team sucks is hard to do. I ask him, "in Basketball?" and he nods.
The sarcasm switch, the one that up to this point in my life has usually just been used to chide friends and generally hasn't yet caused me any physical harm, turns on. I go, "You know, basketball is the one where they put the orange ball through the hoop."

And the goon stands up. It's at this point, where my brain stops recording what he's saying. Something about say that again to my face, and I know what it is, and something else about removing part of me, and something about my physical appearance. I remember that I thought I was going to have to run away. I turn around and miss a nervous pool shot, acting like nothing ever happened, and wonder why he took my comment so personally.

Paul quotes Anchorman. He says, "That really escalated quickly."

Always-cordial drunk guy, still wanting to con us out of some money on the pool table, apologizes on behalf of his friend. "I apologize on behalf of my friend," he says. I don't make eye contact with either of them. Somehow, goon sits down and the fire goes out. They play us in three-ball, and drunk guy takes our money ($1 from three of us - We're losers, but we're conservative losers) and buys a drink with it. They talk to us - guess our respective religious dispensations - and try to get us to play more. We say no, and a few minutes later we make for the door. I leave with my bones intact, with an important lesson learned on using sarcasm on goons.

January 30, 2008

Special: Hip-Hop Videos of the 90s, Volume 2

This is part of my sparsely ongoing series chronicling the Golden Age of Hip-Hop: The 1990s. Special thanks to Craig, my homey. (Link for those reading on Facebook)

When I posted my first Hip-Hop videos of the 90s feature, featuring Public Enemy's "Give It Up," I had no doubt that I would create a wildly insatiable appetite for not-so-long-lost hip-hop lore. I was right: The world changed. Now, some might call that an overstatement, but I tend to disagree. I created a firestorm rivaled only by the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Identity Mystery. (I am about to blow your mind: I suspect they are the same person.) I am well aware that the addition to my hip-hop series, this addition in particular, will feed the aforementioned firestorm into a dangerously riotous frenzy, but I am dedicated to my art. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the second installment of the Hip-Hop videos of the 90s phenomenon:



In 1995, Chicago-born Antoine Roundtree, aka Skee-Lo, rocked the world by introducing the short-lived epoch of self-deprecating hip hop. The 5'4" rapper's underrated single, "I Wish" embraced its status as a historical benchmark by featuring samples from Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth," which featured the lyrics "Stop, children, what's that sound, everybody look what's going down," The song is often used as a symbol of change (mostly in nostalgic 60s movies) and Skee-lo was well aware of the change that hip-hop needed. Thirteen years later, due mostly to Skee-lo's brave leadership, modern hip-hop is no longer the puffed-up egocentrist hodge-podge of money and women it once was.

Wait.

Well, I did say it was a short-lived epoch, didn't I?

Okay, so Skee-lo didn't exactly stem the tide of bling-and-ho hip-hop, but his humility was earth-shattering. The rap world has yet to see someone else who can rap not about how awesome they are, but about how awesome they genuinely aren't. Among other things, Skee-lo raps about how he wishes he:
-Was a little bit taller
-Was a baller
-Had a girl who looked good, he would call her.
-Had a rabbit in a hat, with a bat
-Had a '64 Impala.
Skee-lo also laments his lack of height, and his miserable ride.

I tell you, if Skee-lo's song isn't refreshing, I don't know what is.