Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Dog Sitting & More

Sam, as always, expectant

I’m in Grand Rapids this week, house and dog-sitting for my son Robin and his family while they are going on their first-ever cruise. Their dog, Sam, is a highly kinetic, one-year old muensterlaender. The contrast between him and my 14-year old golden retriever, Jack, is amazing. Jack tolerates him, and I’m learning to. He’s very sweet-tempered, just a lot more active than I’m used to.
My son, Joe, is home from college. I had lunch with him last Friday (he’s staying at his mom’s right now), but he’s driving over on Thursday to hang out with me. My older brother John is driving over from Detroit on Thursday, too, to spend the holidays with us. I didn’t expect to be here at this time, so this is one way in which the Lesotho cancellation worked out well, the opportunity to spend these holidays with my family before I go overseas. I’m very grateful for that.
I spent three hours yesterday visiting with my cottage neighbor, Frank, the one I mentioned in the "Peace Corps Brother(Sister)hood" post, who was a PCV in Morocco 40 years ago. It was a fascinating several hours, mostly talking, but also looking at some books and slides. In many ways, the experience has been central to his life. Prominent on his walls are two spangly fabric pieces that he brought back (don't know the name for them) that are used in the pise houses to help catch reflected light. And the rug on his floor - a beautiful white rug, still in very good shape - is one he also brought back. Peace Corps is quite different now from then. He trained in the U.S., we'll be training in Morocco. He was not required to learn Arabic or Berber (we are), though he could speak French well, and that got him by. He was posted to Casablanca. Nowadays, volunteers are seldom posted to large cities. Interestingly, his country director was a young Richard Holbrooke, who went on to great renown and accomplishments as one of the U.S.'s great diplomats (Dayton Peace Accords, special AfPak envoy, etc.). But one thing that remained the same is the indelible impact service appears to have made on his life. He's near retirement himself and wondered about how Peace Corps works now. But he's already connected to some mission program where he can contribute his talents as an architect and has already received his first assignment, somewhere in Mexico next year.
As for my new Morocco program, one of my co-volunteers has mapped the locations where we rural health educators may be assigned. Except for two on the Atlantic Coast, the rest are in the Atlas Mountains, with a few on the eastern edge of the country, where the mountains kneel before the desert. Gives me a better idea of what to pack!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Morocco, Here I Stay!

This'll be short & sweet. Peace Corps offered me a spot as a Rural Health Educator, and I've accepted.

I'll still be leaving in mid-March. My efforts to learn to read, write, and speak Arabic have not been in vain. (Ditto, French). My community involvement and non-profit experience will stand me in good stead. I have some work to do on the "health" part of it, though.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Incroyable! Encore une annulation!

Incredible. My Peace Corps program has again been cancelled!
I got a call yesterday from the Morocco Country Desk Officer telling me that the NGO development worker program (a pilot program) has been cancelled. She told me that I was at the "very tip-top" of the list for reassignment (seeing as how this is the second of my assignments to be cancelled). There is another program in Morocco, leaving at the same time, for which I qualify “at least on paper” – rural health education worker.
So this is now the third program the Peace Corps thinks I'm qualified for, and I know there's another - business development. They must think I'm a Renaissance man! Actually the danger will be if I begin thinking I'm a Renaissance man. My first thought on hearing this possibility was, "in what way do I qualify as a rural health worker?" But then I began to think of a variety of ways, especially in regard to community health programs, in which I could be effective.
I'm playing phone tag with a guy in the placement office right now, so nothing is definite yet. But if they formally offer the rural health worker job to me, I'll take it. Stay tuned….!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Peace Corps Brother(Sister)hood

The day before yesterday, the guy who owns the cottage next door left a message on my cell phone saying he’d heard I was going into the Peace Corps and going to Morocco, and he wanted to tell me that he had served in the Peace Corps – in Morocco – 40 years ago. I called him back and, during a 10 minute conversation, he said numerous times in one way or another, “you’ll love it” and “it was an amazing part of my life.” We’ve made a date later this month for me to visit him at his home in Grand Rapids, where we can talk longer. He’s also going to show me some of his Morocco memorabilia.
It’s amazing to me the profound impact Peace Corps service has on people. They proudly display those RPCV initials with date and country once they’ve returned, they join “Friend of (name your country)” groups, and they feel an immediate kinship with other people who are drawn to Peace Corps service: they just want to talk to you about it!
I’m feeling some of the same thing, and I haven’t even gone yet. In my last post I mentioned that one of the other Morocco volunteers had contacted me by email. The next day, a young guy contacted me and said he’d set up a Facebook group for us Morocco March 2011 volunteers. He already had two others. I joined and notified the woman who’d emailed me, which made five. Since then, three more have joined. I was not down in the dumps by any means, but I can’t tell you how it lifted my spirits to make contact with other folk who will embark on this Moroccan enterprise with me next March.
Names, faces, a few bits of information – already they’re real people. The demographics? Mostly young, as you would expect, early 30s or younger for all but two of us; five women, three men. I seem to be the oldster so far. We’re starting to communicate – about service, books, and about language, French, Berber, and Moroccan Arabic, the learning of which will be a major challenge and source of anxiety for many, if not all of us. We’re not friends yet (except in the Facebook sense), but it’s a start, and It’s fun!

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Steps to the beach,
looking due west,
December 2
I awoke to snow on Wednesday. Because of my cold, I’ve been letting myself sleep, and I woke up after sunrise. When I came downstairs, through the bank of west-facing windows, I saw snow had dusted the porch and ground and road and was still coming down.

We had a snow squall back on the evening of November 5th. The snow lingered on the ground, and I wondered if that was going to be the beginning of winter, but by morning it had evaporated.  Then the weather turned and the whole month of November was warm, often sunny, with temperatures approaching 70 a few times. In short, it was glorious. Of course, out here on the lake, you have to qualify that a little bit because of the wind. If there’s even a hint of coolness, a strong wind can make it downright cold.

Jack near the ice-rimmed
sag in the creek
 A friend who’d never been to this house visited me the other day. The surf was big and crashing incessantly; the wind gusted insistently out of the northwest; the sun kept poking out between the clouds and lighting the lake in incomparable blues and greens and, near the shore, where the surf churned the sand, browns. It was the kind of day we lake dwellers love – bracing, exciting even. As we were driving out of Lost Valley, my friend said to me, “I don’t know if I could live this close to the lake.”
I laughed. I could tell by his tone that it was too much for him. It’s loud, that’s for sure. But there’s more. The unceasing movement could be disturbing, and that, I think, is what got under his skin. It’s an acquired taste, probably. I wonder, having lived near the shore of Lake Michigan for 40 years, how I’ll fare in Morocco if I’m posted to a desert area, or the high Atlas Mountains. In terms of my seeking new experiences, that is probably what I should hope for. But maybe I’ll get lucky and get posted to Essaouira, or some other town on the Atlantic coast, where I’ll be able to continue to experience the weather and sounds of a huge body of water.
Right now, it is the weather, Big Lake weather, I’m attuned to. It’s my first awareness as I wake up in the morning, even before I open my eyes. I listen for the surf and can picture the lake and the shore. I listen for the wind and envision how tightly I’ll have to wrap myself when I go out. If I hear a tinkle of running water (the downspout runs down the corner of the house where my bedroom is), I know there’s a quiet rain. And then I open my eyes. Because it’s dark when I normally wake up, I don’t know what the sky will be till I take Jack out. Then I see either a big, clear sky and thousands of stars (there is little light pollution up here), or clouds scudding past, or an impenetrable black slate, and I can guess what the dawn will bring.

The creek carving a new
curve in the beach
As part of my weather watch, I’ve begun taking photos of the shore from the same place every day in two places: from the stairs down to the beach and at the creek in Meinert Park. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the photos, but it amuses me. The beach has widened considerably in the short time I’ve been here, and blowing sand has already covered four treads at the bottom of the stairs. Likewise the creek has changed too, in fact changes constantly, as it snakes across the beach. Its mouth has moved back and forth over a hundred meter stretch as wind and surf pushes the beach sand now this way, now that.
Last weekend I moved a bag of clothes I’ve been collecting to give to Goodwill. Right on top was a balaklava. Despite the generally mild weather in November, it’s been vicious enough a couple of times so that my face hurt. When I saw that balaklava, I said to myself, “Why did I ever think I should give that away yet?” and I pulled it out and put it in the closet with my gloves and scarf. I know I’ll have use for it soon. Not today, though, which was another glorious day. Though still cold enough to keep the snow from melting, there’s no wind, so it seemed almost balmy walking the beach. Made me feel almost human again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Catching Up

I don’t seem to be very good at this blogging thing – too long between posts – but I’ll keep working at it till I get the hang of it.

Making Contact

On Monday, I came down with a cold, one of those that descend suddenly out of the blue. By evening I was pretty miserable. I cancelled a trip I had planned and hunkered down. My trip was to be a little “circle tour” to visit some friends in northern Michigan (Petoskey and Gaylord), then my brother in Detroit, and it was supposed to start Tuesday morning.

Instead on Tuesday I went into town to get some cough medicine and ginger ale and stopped at The Book Nook & Java Shop, my local bookstore and Internet café. Much to my delight, I had an email from another Peace Corps volunteer who’s been assigned to Morocco. She’d tracked me down through Google. I responded, and I also found the blog of another woman who is assigned to the same program – so that makes three of us so far! I have no idea how many of us there are to be in this group, but this is pretty cool, that three of us at least are in touch. I had never been able to make contact with any of the others assigned to the Lesotho program, even though I searched Google and Facebook. This was just the impetus I needed to write another post.

Premature Farewells

Saying goodbye was an important part of my personal agenda for October. I’d already taken care of most of the physical details for departure (though, fortunately, I hadn’t yet sold my car!), but I wanted to do everything possible to be able to say farewell to the people in my life, and I had little time between my last day of work (October 15) and my scheduled departure for Lesotho (October 31).

At my association’s trade show (October 8-10), I had the opportunity to give a valedictory at a banquet on the first evening, but there were many other occasions as well, including, of course, serendipitous encounters. And a number of people gave me impromptu tributes, which was flattering. There seemed to be a theme to their comments:
·         My laugh – I do have a distinctive laugh, kind of dorky if I’m really amused (think “Revenge of the Nerds”), but they were really saying that I laugh easily. I liked that.
·         My calm – However they said it - “unruffled ” or “a steady hand” or “calm in a crisis” - that that trait of mine stood out to them was particularly gratifying to me
Now, many of those people were expecting to see postings from Africa by this time. Believe me, it wasn’t my fault!

A good friend had organized a farewell dinner for me for the 17th of October.  I got the call cancelling the Lesotho program the evening of the 13th. I didn’t want to hold the dinner under false pretenses, but I also wasn’t sure we could reach all of them in time to cancel. The next day, after an exchange of emails, we decided to go ahead with the dinner anyway. After all, I was still going into the Peace Corps sometime, and besides, she’d already ordered the cake! So, a few days later, over 30 of my friends and I broke bread together. I was able to bring them up to date, and they were able to kid me a little. It was a lot of fun. But what about when I actually go…?

My younger son, Joe (who is a junior pursuing a BFA in painting at Western Michigan), and I had planned a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago on the 29th, as our last day together before my departure. I called to tell him about the Lesotho cancellation and suggested we keep our date anyway. He was emphatic about doing so, so on that Friday morning, I drove the two and a half hours down to Kalamazoo and picked him up and we turned west to Chicago. The particular occasion was the reinstallation of the Chagall Windows, which had been removed five years earlier. As a member, I was able to get us in for a members preview and a lecture about the windows, which had been commissioned specifically for the museum. Additionally, now that I had been assigned to Morocco, I was hoping I might see Moroccan period pieces by two of my favorite painters, Matisse and Delacroix. Unfortunately, the AIC doesn’t have any of those in their holdings, but we did get to see the windows. We even had our pictures taken by AIC staff as we were looking at the windows! We also saw a really interesting installation on the grand staircase of the museum – the words are from a speech given by a Muslim scholar at the Columbia Exposition in the late 1800s – words about mutual understanding and peace. So appropriate for these times and for my entering the Peace Corps!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jack Is Back

I have a Golden Retriever named Jack who will be 14 in December. It always upset him a little when I packed a suitcase to go on a trip, so last August, to spare him the big trauma of moving out of my apartment, I took him permanently to his new home with my former wife Mary, where he would be able to live out his days with two cats and someone who already knows and loves him.

The problem was, I missed him. I wrote a piece called “Missing Jack” a couple of weeks later but never quite finished it and never posted it to the blog. In it I talked about how he slept much of the time, and how he’d become so hard of hearing that he often didn’t notice me come in the door any more, and how much of our interaction had come to consist of a certain nearbyness and an occasional sigh.

In the busy-ness of getting ready for the trade show and preparations for Peace Corps departure, I accommodated myself to Jack’s absence. But now Peace Corps has been postponed, and last week, as I was beginning to settle into a routine here at the cottage, I again became aware of my aloneness and the emptiness of this big house. Coincidentally, and thoughtfully, Mary suggested that Jack move back in with me for these five months till I leave for Morocco.

“He’ll be happier with someone around all day,” she said.

“And so will I,” I said to myself.

 So yesterday, I picked up Jack and all his things and moved him up here to the cottage with me. He’s always loved the beach. As soon as we got here, he headed off toward it. It’s amazing how it quickens his step. For about 10 minutes he walks with a regal prance, races along the water’s edge, chases a seagull if one is handy, and screeches to a halt to sniff at something half-buried in the sand. In general he acts like the young dog he probably still, in his mind’s eye, imagines himself to be. I’ve included some pictures of our very windy beach walk. I also included one – more typical – of what greeted me this morning as I came down the steps from the top floor.

In one of his books, Henri Nouwen talks about the quality of the profoundly disabled people who lived at the home where he spent the last decade of his life and career and what it gave him. He calls it Presence. It's what I get from Jack, I think.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Morocco Bound!

I’ve received my official invitation to serve in Morocco. I immediately emailed my official acceptance, and on Friday I got their official receipt of my acceptance (this has possibilities for theater of the absurd, doesn’t it?).
I’m scheduled to depart in late March. My job will be different - an NGO development worker rather than an English teacher. I’ll be part of the first group of volunteers to serve in this new program, a pilot project to help community-based associations (CBAs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) improve their organization, management, accountability, capacity, etc.
Unusual with Peace Corps, I know in advance the general region where I’ll be working. It’s called the Tensift, an area in Central-Western Morocco made up of five provinces and including the major cities of Marrakesh and Essaouira, a port on the Atlantic Ocean. As best I can figure out, it’s roughly 150 miles by 150 miles (about the size of all of Lesotho), centered on the 32nd parallel (think Savanna, Georgia). Geographically, it’s made up of coastal plains in the west and the High Atlas Mountains in the east, including Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Winter weather could be spring-like on the plains to bitter cold in the mountains. Summer weather, hot and humid in the plains to just hot in the mountains. So packing will still be a challenge! If only I knew which part of the Tensift region….maybe they could just send me the address of where I’ll be living?
I’m pretty excited about Morocco. I get to learn Arabic, something I’ve always wanted to do, and I get to know the country. In my imagination, Morocco is the epitome of exotic – camels, belly dancers, incense, strange musical instruments, Kasbahs. What will it really be like? But I have a personal connection, too. My oldest brother, Hamid, was a Muslim convert who did the Hadj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and travelled to several other Muslim countries later in his life. He loved Morocco and spoke of it often with affection. Morocco is also close to Europe, a realistic and economical option in case I need a vacation from the exotic. I have a friend who owns a house in southern France; we’ve already made tentative plans for me to visit him there.
I’ve just begun my study of Morocco – with travel guides, what else! (Lonely Planet - thanks, John - and the Eyewitness Guide) – but I’m hungry for suggestions. I have five months, after all. Books, movies, send me your thoughts. In this age of the Internet, it’s easy just to Google it, of course, and I’m doing that, too. I’ll soon add a tab to this page, with links and other information on the country, language and culture, creating my own little portal to Morocco.
That's it for now. More soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is This a Test?

Of the ten “Core Expectations for Peace Corps Volunteers,” the third on the list is “Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.”
In July I received my invitation to serve as an education volunteer in Lesotho, a country I’d never heard of before (only later did I realize it was the country called Basutoland  in colonial days). I was scheduled to leave November 2.
In August, I moved out of my apartment, distributing most of my worldly possessions to friends and family, charitable organizations, and the junk yard, keeping only the things I intended to take with me to Africa. I moved into a cottage I own and began commuting 45 minutes each way to work.
In August and September, I helped my employer interview and hire my successor and set my last day at work for October 15. I also prepared for my trade association’s major event of the year, our annual fall trade show, which was held October 8-10.
Two days before I left for the trade show, Peace Corps sent me details on staging and departure for Lesotho. I called SATO travel, the Peace Corps’ travel agency and booked my flight.
The evening of October 12, two days after I came back from the trade show, I had a message on my cell phone telling me to call the Lesotho country desk. It was about 6:00 p.m. when I called, not sure I would still find someone there. But I did, and she told me, apologetically, that the Lesotho education group had been cancelled. The good news was that there were many other programs leaving in the next few months and they would put all of us Lesotho invitees at the top of the list for placement with those programs.
The next evening I got a call from the poor woman in the placement office whose job it was to find a spot for all 27 of us who had been assigned to Lesotho. It was late (about 7:00 p.m.), she said she was probably going to be working another 4 hours, and I could tell she was just opening my file as she said, “We’ll find something….” She paused and said, “Unfortunately, there aren’t many options for you.” (I have a medical restriction that prevents me from being sent to a malarial region – and almost all of Peace Corps’ programs are in malarial regions!) The earliest available departure for me would be January 28. After that, there was one in late March, then one in April, and another in May.
She emailed information on each of the possibilities. In the morning I emailed back with my preference. That evening, Thursday, the day before my last day on the job, she emailed back saying my choice would work. So, even though I haven’t yet received my official invitation, I know that I’m now scheduled to depart in late March (about five months after my original departure date) for Morocco as a non-profit development volunteer.
So my question is, “Is this a test…and do I pass?”

Actually, lest I leave the impression that I’m a whiner, I see that this situation – the tragic killing of the young man that I talked about in my last post – and Peace Corps’ decision to go into the country and do a security assessment – is an extreme example of why Expectation #3 is on that list. And, I must say, the Peace Corps staff have been most sympathetic, understanding, helpful, and efficient. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens.
I’d been wishing I had a little more time between my last day at work and my departure. I’ve never had such a big chunk of time to do with as I please since I began my working career. Even though I hadn’t planned on not having an income for this length of time, I’ve decided to not to go out and find a job. Instead, I’m going to do some writing and lots of reading. There a couple of projects at the cottage I now can do instead of put on the shelf as “things to do when I get back.” And I can buff up my French and maybe get a start on Arabic. I’m going to read Paul Bowles and some of the Beats who found their way to Morocco and go back and look at the paintings of Matisse and Delacroix. That sounds like more than enough to fill up those five months already.
While this decision has caused a disruption in my plans, I’m sure I’m in an easier situation than some of the other 26 volunteers who were affected, and I feel for them. In these last two weeks, I’d planned to sell my car, change lots of addresses, discontinue various services, etc. But I hadn’t actually done those things yet, so I don’t have to undo them. I also have a wonderful place to live – a vacation home on Lake Michigan that I built between 1998 and 2001, photos of which you see in this blog, along with my view to the north and the south from the top floor porch. I’ve never even spent that much time there – a week or a weekend here and there – as my work schedule was especially busy in the summer. So now I’ll get five continuous months - glorious months, I'm sure. I’m looking forward to logging the changes in the weather, the beach, and the wildlife. The summer people have already left!.
I plan to continue this blog – and post to it more regularly (I should be able to, don’t you think!) – since, though I’ll be using these months just for themselves, they will also be preparation for my Peace Corps experience. I hope you'll stick with me.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Moving Days

The title of this post has taken on a grim irony. I wrote it almost 3 weeks ago then let it sit, stalled by a combination of moving, being very busy at work, and my lack of experience transferring usable photos to the Internet.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yippee! and Yikes!

That was the response of a friend (Russ Lawrence, PCV Peru, 2009-present) when I told him that I’d been “invited” to be a Peace Corps volunteer. It so succinctly captured my feelings of elation and anxiety that I had to use it as the title of my first post. I may adopt it as my motto!