Friday, December 31, 2010

Twin Shots: A Photo Comparison of Texas & Namibia

Thousands of miles stand between them, creating one of the vastest distances I've ever traveled. States, then oceans, and African nations are crossed before my journey deposits me in Namibia, a relatively unknown country, about which almost everyone asks, "I should know, but where is that?"

Just northwest of South Africa, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Angola, Botswana and South Africa on its interior borders. Namibia is the second least populated country in the world, second only to Mongolia, a rugged stronghold where few man-made distractions exist. Most interesting, at least to my native Texas eye, are the physical similarities between its terrain and Texas ranchlands (both places are bastions of cattle ranching). These curious parallels inspired the photographic comparison below. See if you can identify the photos taken in Namibia versus those captured in Texas...

Plains Zebras at the ranch, with full-bodied stripes.


Mountain Zebras in Namibia: their stripes pause at the belly.














The view of Namibia's Waterburg Plateau, from the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Brady Creek.


A warm, fall day at our family's Texas ranch.
Tracking leopards at Africat.







Stunning December sunset in San Antonio.


Daily sunset in Namibia.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Disaster Strikes Midway to the Namib Desert

I have always hoarded past written work of every variety.

Several years back, I spent a lazy afternoon rifling through my childhood bedroom when I discovered an essay I wrote in the 6th grade entitled “Vacations and Holidays: How Bad Things Always Ruin Fun.” Such a young skeptic, disappointed by altitude illness on ski trips, poorly timed bouts of the flu, and one horrific car accident that practically wiped us out and unquestionably ruined Christmas. And yet I continued to travel, developing into a sort of modern-day vagabond. Someone who lives everywhere and nowhere, both prisoner and beneficiary of my own stream-like memories.

Still skeptical, less superstitious, and extremely enthusiastic: this was my frame of mind when I departed for Namibia this November. I arrived in Windhoek and shot off the following day, back to Harnas, a place I’ve lovingly written about during the past 15 or so months.

Thanks to new management and a horrible attack by vervet monkeys, my volunteering experience was drastically different this time, leaving me exhausted rather than revitalized. I left Harnas so physically and mentally depleted that I almost changed my flights to return home early, but I decided to stick it out for the sake of adventure. With a few days to spare before starting my next project, I joined a short tour to the Namib Desert, where rust-colored dunes encircle dead acacia trees and long desiccated riverbeds.


Our motley crew—2 American and 3 Japanese tourists along with a Namibian guide—all pile into the white 4-wheel drive vehicle early Friday afternoon. Besides two of the Japanese women, none of us knows one another, so we drive in relative silence, idly chatting about our African travels and how we all envy the Europeans for their 5-weeks of annual vacation.

We’ve been driving for almost two hours when we stumble upon a ghastly scene, the type normally reserved for big screen blockbusters.

A man furiously waves at our vehicle, some 50 yards ahead of us on a minimally traversed gravel road. To his right is a flipped truck, the cab of which is crushed to the bone.

We pull to an abrupt stop, discovering that he’s not alone. Under the shade of an acacia tree rests a young woman, who seems to be in decent shape apart from a broken leg. Beside her is a large male body, face-down in the dirt. We quickly surmise that he’s still alive but bleeding heavily from several head wounds. This man needs medical attention ASAP or, more precisely, a half hour ago when the crash occurred.

We are in the middle of nowhere, all but one of us incapable of communicating with the injured passengers. No one knows the location of the nearest medical facility. Interestingly enough, the other American in our group is a doctor, a neurologist to be exact. But he’s not a surgeon, doesn’t have the requisite tools, and is understandably worried about getting too close to an open wound in a country with one of the highest HIV rates in the world.

I alternate between feeling useful and paralyzed by exhaustion and fear, all the while thinking that events like these don’t occur in real life. These scenarios only crop up on law school exams. My inner lawyer can’t help but wonder: what duties and protections are created by Namibian law? Legal systems vary on these so-called “Good Samaritan” scenarios, with distinct rules reserved for physicians. Some countries require them to intervene. Most hold no requirement; rather affording the passerby physician increased protection should he decide to administer care.

I snap back from my philosophical digressions. We’ve no time to waste on legal what-ifs and discussions about the long-term. We haul the three into the car and drive like mad towards anything resembling civilization. Many wrong turns and confused conversations later, we find a medical facility where we leave the injured passengers. A local nurse assures us that she will arrange transport to the nearest big city, one that promises a staffed hospital (although the American-trained neurologist doubts that such facilities will have the expertise and equipment needed to prevent further injury to the man’s brain).

Leaving seems unfair, callous even. Like it or not, we’ve been roped into this situation, and I don’t feel comfortable just walking away. But we have no further assistance to offer, and I'm not calling the shots. We wind down the road, through the small town we’ve stumbled upon until we hit the poorly paved road leading to Sossusvlei, driving much more slowly this time.

Connecting with strangers has always been easy for me, customary now that I do so much traveling on my own. Experience supports the possibility of speedy bonding. But certain traits are naturally withheld. Challenging situations, the sort that force people to come together under unwelcome circumstances, may not arise for years, if ever. The effect on human relationships—we often don’t know how a person will react when the tough gets going until it does—would have been devastating to our ancestors. Survival depended on strength and the ability to respond to near-constant turmoil.

The relative safety of the modern era means that we rarely anticipate or prioritize someone’s propensity for fight versus flight or their ability to stay calm and productive in these difficult situations.

Perhaps we should. There’s nothing more revealing or crucial, particularly when you’re the one dependent on a Good Samaritan.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Road to Namibia

Life is funny, not that I’m wise enough to make absolute declarations such as this one. I always knew what I wanted, from the age of three, when I planned my future as an attorney-turned politician. In shopping malls, I’d ogle women’s suits through reflective window displays, reiterating an innate desire to be traditionally successful.

Snaking around such certainties were equally informative forces that were for many years overlooked. I was magnetically drawn to the Earth and its many creatures, animals being my preferred childhood companions, the ground my favorite resting spot. I was confident, adventurous and believed in my own ability to live large, certain in fact that I possessed the power of human flight. I simply had to find the right cue, which is what propelled me—pun intended—to routinely jump from our wooden deck towards the grassy lawn below, improvising verbal exclamations and hand signals as I soared towards the Earth, hoping that one of them might hold the key. Accompanying my personality was a natural gift for storytelling, but I equated art with tangible products, creations that I was unable to satisfactorily produce, so I stayed in my safe harbor towards mainstream living: good grades, leadership positions, law school, and a coveted job. I toiled away until I arrived at the end of the map charted by my three-year old self when it hit me: the suit I long admired doesn’t actually fit.
***
I am working as an attorney in England when I meet Davey, a friend of a friend who stops in London en route to Africa where he plans to “work with wild animals at a wildlife sanctuary.” Approximately 2.5 seconds pass—just long enough to set down my beer—before I assail him with rapid-fire questions about his program. “They’re letting you work with lions, cheetahs and baboons?” Yes. “Will you actually be able to see them up close and touch them?” Apparently. “You don’t need a background in zoology?” Nope.

A curious picture begins to emerge, one filled with: animals in need of refuge, cast out from the wild terrain they once ruled; people of all ages and backgrounds who unite because of their devotion to wildlife, leaving much behind for the sake of their journey.

They risk everything to learn about wild animals, particularly the predators that effortlessly captivate you with one intense stare. At night, the volunteers slumber to the sounds of roaring lions, whose elocutions emerge at dusk in a terrifying, beautiful symphony.

My experience deserves more than a few romanticized paragraphs, but my initial plan (to self-publish a personal account with sale proceeds going back to Harnas) encountered some difficulty when I discovered that another woman (a former professor in fact) just published her own, much better-researched book. Soul of a Lion may be purchased through major retail outlets such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders.

I’m meanwhile headed back to Harnas, where things will be dramatically different. The young lions have outgrown human contact: they are now living in distant enclosures where they are poised for release into the quasi-wild lifeline. The cheetahs, too, have moved on. Pride, the semi-tame cheetah who slept alongside me and the other volunteers for years, now lives on her own in the lifeline where she regularly makes successful kills.

My trip also includes stints at the Cheetah Conservation Fund and Africat, two extremely valuable organizations devoted to big cat conservation. I return from Africa in just over a month, when I'll be absolutely saturated...with new insights, photos, stories and (hopefully) a few scars.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Observations from Outside--Texas Trip

My inner chameleon has shown itself again, prompting me to exit the government in search of the next adventure. I head to London shortly, where I will immediately feel a bittersweet sense of homecoming. It happens every time, from the second I arrive to the dusty South Kensington tube stop, heavy bags in tow. Up the Old Brompton Road I go, meandering towards Queen’s Gate, the location of my first London residence. Nostalgia overwhelms me, smacks me like a rude double decker bus.

I’m happy and tormented by these trips back to London, when I want to dig my boots into Hyde Park and never leave, peacefully contented by the cloak of gray. But I will, foreshadowed by a prior post. I’m off to Africa in November, to visit my favorite cheetahs and glimpse the lions, now-grown, who stole my attention last summer and a focus for "real life" that's yet to return.

A recent trip to Texas whetted my appetite for the open range, and the wildlife that so perfectly inhabits it. The similarity between the terrain at my family’s ranch and that of Namibia is uncanny.
My first trip to Africa caused me to remark, “The Namibian bushlands that envelop the Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary eerily resemble the Edward's Plateau in central Texas. Rust-colored dust blankets the earth, its expanse broken only by acacia trees and straw brush, replete with menacing thorns. Open spaces as far as the eye can see. An expanse of blue sky that provides the illusion of a flat, wide earth. These images tie together memories of the ranch with my initial sights in Namibia. It seemed as though I'd traveled many miles to an unknown place just to find myself back home, except that armadillos and alligator gars had been replaced by larger, more interesting creatures: lions, cheetahs and baboons, to name a few.”

The ranch is greener this time, thanks to heavy summer rains. Light shimmers across the lake, where my Mom and I kayak in tandem and absolute silence. Like Namibia, the quiet nature of Texas ranchlands silences you, leaving us to nothing more than a constant buzz of grasshopper chatter. And they are everywhere.
Leaping from spot to spot, crispy little things that are easily mistaken for leaves, except for their constant mobility. My enthusiasm for wildlife is well-served by this quick weekend trip and the cool fall weather. The exotic pasture, home to various African game, teems with energy. On walks and game drives, we encounter oryx and zebras, including a young foal, maybe 4 months old, human like in its shy attachment to its mother.
I immediately picture two people: my grandfather, the African game enthusiast responsible for bringing these animals here, and Frikkie, the man who mentored me and my fellow volunteers in Namibia last summer. Two completely distinct characters, one a sophisticated storyteller, and the other a stoic man who held no interest in conversation.

And then I think of the animals, those native to Africa. I’ll next see them on their turf, and I’ll be the captive.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Observations from Outside--the Dupont Dog Park

I grew up in a comically rich menagerie, with pet birds, cats, dogs, rabbits, and other creatures wandering freely throughout my childhood home. Even our parrots were allowed to go as they pleased, resulting in at least one escape that was followed, days later, by a miraculous reunion several miles from our house. When I went off to college, I missed animals terribly, causing me to behave like a madwoman whenever I saw one. I lured one stray cat into my freshman dorm on multiple occasions, before being reprimanded by my roommate and, well, everyone. I approached dog owners and their pets without caution or tact and have been known to position myself alongside a sleeping dog on the ground and, on one occasion, in a dog bed in the lobby of a luxurious Colorado hotel. I was 24: my Dad was not the least bit amused.

This innate love for animals leads me to my neighborhood dog park, a small triangular patch of Astroturf north of Dupont Circle. My relationship to this place is tangential at best, not being a current canine owner. I don’t know the rules of the dog park or of city dog owners, but a rumbling in my gut assures me that I’m definitely intruding. I purse my lips and take a few steps forward, clinging to my cell phone in case I need a reason to bolt. Little balls of color whisk to and fro, causing much delight among the parents. They, so proud and collectively bound, ask one another the usual questions: “What’s his name? How old is he?”

And here I am, standing several inches from the outer gates, a lone observer with no stake in this venue who has begun to feel like Jack the Ripper in a darkened London alleyway. I’m lurking and shuffling, feeling  uncertain of my social position here. Click, click.

I jump, startled.

The heavy black gate opens and slams shut beside me, shuttling in several newcomers who are warmly greeted by the cast of lucky characters to whom this park belongs. I’m acutely aware of my absurdity but can’t bring myself to go in. If this were a therapy session, I would hereby declare (after several long gulps), that I’m a …Pet-a-phile.

I scuttle off to my apartment, to my unfriendly cat and her clearly delineated social rules (ignore me, or I’ll kill you).

Several weeks later, I return with my friend Erin after a casual stroll through my neighborhood, a place that always offers new sights and smells. Orange and tanned leaves crunch beneath my boots. Red brick buildings of varying heights, all reasonably low to the ground, predominate; among them are several more interesting brownstones, some painted in playful pastel shades. Others display elaborate balconies and spires, relics from some ancient time and place.

Erin is a fellow wannabe dog owner, so she joins me on my weekend petaphilia stalk. Like before, we hover with trepidation outside of the park, wondering whether anyone notices us, curious misfits that we are. Eventually we feel emboldened, and decide to enter despite the fact that we do so sans dog. Amazingly, no one seems to notice; as soon as we arrive into the green pastures of canine enthusiasm we realize that owners and pets separate. Dogs distractedly run around in circles, befriending and playing with one another, and owners stand by awkwardly. We can do that! Awkward is my middle name.

The next few minutes proceed smoothly, until I start playing fetch with a scruffy mutt and one very sticky tennis ball, neither of which belongs to me. Owners begin to look at me skeptically, no doubt wondering what’s brought me here. I grab Erin and we exit briskly.

A year has gone by and I am meeting my friend Scott (“Diva”) for coffee. He is dog-sitting for the weekend, which is his Shangri-la. I too am pleased, because I finally have a dog, a real one, to get me into my favorite park like some sought after golden ticket. This golden ticket, a gorgeous golden retriever, is everything a dog should be (the opposite, I might add, of my cat).

She’s joyous about EVERYTHING, social with EVERYONE, and painfully delightful. If I weren’t such a jaded skeptic I might even allow her optimism to rub off on me.

We meet at Starbucks, where I have the pleasure of watching my friend Diva and his canine companion bounce (Diva bounces when he walks) across the busy intersection. He and the dog are at ease with one another: their movements comprise a series of snapshots, any one of which could grace the cover of Land’s End or even J. Crew.

“Diiiiiiiva,” he yells (he calls me Diva, too, even though I’m not one). “You wouldn’t believe our morning. Riley and I headed out of the house to come meet you, and we were met on the street by these two bitchy Bichon Frice twins. They were TERRIFYING.” I wonder: how can a small poof of white terrify a grown man and large dog, much less a mouse?

And then it begins. “Avance!” and “ArrĂȘte.” Diva is commanding the golden retriever in French. I shouldn’t be surprised, this coming from DIVA, but I can’t help but chuckle. “Oh, I can’t wait to have a French-speaking dog,” he declares.

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” I warn, but you never know with this one.

Off we go, into the park, where I finally—sigh of relief—feel remotely at home. We soon discover that we’re more than welcome. We have the most attractive, graceful dog in the park, making us proud parents indeed. We show her off (even though she’s not ours), whisper quietly about less attractive dogs and generally feel very pleased with ourselves.

Triumph. Petaphilia no more!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Observations from Within--Worst Meeting Ever

I have decided to quit my government position, unconventionally leaving an enjoyable, steady job for a series of question marks. A traditional type-A planner, I’ve steered left over the years, completing what I consider a Freaky Friday swap with my brother Jeff. Five years ago, I was working through law school with focus and ambition while Jeff drove idly through the southwestern United States like some lone intellectual wolf. I worried at the time that he might never return, or fall victim to his heavy crates of philosophy books like some alternate ending to Into the Wild.

These days, we’ve swapped: Jeff is happily married, moving into his first home, and about to start working for a judge in Atlanta. I, on the other hand, can’t seem to sit still and want nothing more than to embark on my own journey of self-reflection. I may not come to life at Walden Pond, but I know a pretty magnificent alternative: the Blue Ridge Mountains. October will be spent there, and in London, where cool air and fall foliage will no doubt inspire me and lend focus to my many wandering ideas.

Before I go, I have the painful task of wrapping things up at work. Finding a replacement. Handing over my portfolio. These verbs conjure up fun rainy-day games, or parents preparing for a child’s birthday, misleadingly describing the task before me. I am eager, distracted and stressed, and—did I mention—naturally impatient?

At 2:39, my colleague approaches my desk and asks me if I’m coming to the meeting. What meeting? I’m too busy planning my weekend in New York and writing an article about Costa Rica to even remember that I occasionally have to attend meetings. Perplexed, I grab a pen and yellow legal pad and follow him to the conference room outside our office.

Through the glass slats is a small cast of familiar characters, sporting some of my favorite dated hairdos.

One, whose short hair always matches the color of her long fake nails, both an impeccably consistent auburn tint that foreshadows a feisty personality. I’ll soon discover that her typical grumpiness is sky high today.

Another, who has recently joined our ranks. Her petite tanned body and general physical appearance scream Florida, where she may one day be, sipping iced tea by the beach and playing mah-jongg with friends. For now, she’s here with us, fighting old battles, and orchestrating new ones.

The rest of the motley crew merits a more limited introduction. They sit around the conference room table quietly, an occasional spin of the chair or blackberry click called upon for innocent distraction. I’m more old-school when it comes to entertaining my self: I discreetly draw cubes on my notebook, still flustered that I haven’t mastered the art after some 20 years of practice. “Look, this one is good,” I seem to say to my colleague with a slow raise of an eyebrow. He’s bored enough to grin, now that our briefing has commenced.

We hear everything about nothing, this being Washington’s torturous way. Constant chit-chat, negotiation, networking and faux-action. When you stop to think about it, or attempt to deconstruct the alleged efforts, you discovery nothing more than hollow, longwinded speak.

I’ve moved on to my second activity—daydreaming—and am getting pretty excited about the prospect of starting every fall morning with a dip in a picturesque mountain lake. Will I need a wetsuit? What if I get a cramp? Are they even real, or just part of a cautionary tale parents tell their children to prevent them from having any real adventure.

All of a sudden, the fiery red-head steps up to her metaphorical podium, feeling the need, as she always does, to ask questions for the sake of engagement.

A normal person might say, “What’s the status of [X],” but a lawyer can’t resist posturing and puffing, particularly in the presence of other lawyers: “I know that we’ve discussed this already, but I wanted to bring it to your attention again. We are wondering when we might see a list of the issues in the document, or a summary. Either one would be great. Actually, could you just send us the document directly? My boss would really like to read it…”

Her second phase begins, “Back when I was a newspaper reporter” and I am pinching myself beneath the table to keep myself awake. This meeting should have finished twenty minutes ago, but it’s lingering and we’re all becoming antsy.

Bored, frustrated and tired faces appear around the circular space, some demonstrating a level of focus particularly difficult to attain in moments like these. They seem to say, “I am interested. I am paying attention. I promise!” I know this face very well, having mastered it myself.

Others appear to drift into their own dreamy states, places I would rather not visit. One woman, whose hair sits atop her head like a dark, soft bird’s nest, scrunches her face into a peculiar, chipmunk-like position, in a desperate attempt to understand what the red-head is going on about.
All of a sudden, the podium-hog/gunner breaks into a rampage, directly slandering a colleague who isn’t present today, “Honestly, don’t even get me started on her (Too late. Also, no one asked). She can’t write. She doesn’t get it. She’s an idiot.” The fury is unleashed. Randomly directed insults, visible anger, and a severe tapping of her long fake nails on the table. I’m worried for my safety: should I twirl my chair around and scoot for the nearest exit?
Some time and many blank stares later, she digresses to yesterday’s primary elections, one that dethroned the current DC mayor. “Any person who voted for that man is a stupid idiot. Honestly, he’s just terrible. He lost this primary all by himself.”

I’m shrinking into my chair. Although I never pretend to know much about politics, and forgot to vote this go round, I did recently meet Mayor Fenty, when he happened upon a daytime party I was attending while soliciting door-to-door votes. He was friendly, attractive, and fun enough to stop by a daytime picnic on a random summer afternoon. I didn’t vote, but I would have voted for him (I even have a sticker of support somewhere). These shallow criteria are the sort I draw upon when making important decisions.

This is obviously not going to fly as a defense if grilled by the lunatic beside me, so I continue to avert her gaze until someone else has the decency to change our meeting’s topic. It’s a welcome change, too, when the other firecracker politely turns to me and my colleague, “So how are you two doing? Just wanted to check in.”

Phew. An easy question with some easy answers. I am seconds away from discussing my recent trip to Costa Rica and an upcoming weekend in New York. Brad has two young children at home and football season frenzy, all of which make for amusing chatter.

We aren’t easily deceived, and pause before answering. These people can’t legitimately care about our personal lives. This is DC. We work in the government. We comprise a giant, heartless, political beast.

“I just wondered when you’d vote that item” she finally offers.

We stumble for an answer, eventually submit one, and continue to draw circles, cubes and notes until the painful hour comes to a close. Next time I’m bringing my blackberry—classic mistake—I’ve been meaning to hone my brick-breaker skills. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the...Football

I awake to a classic summer day, one filled with chirping birds, cloudless skies, and a very aggressive hangover.

Memories of the prior evening stream through my mind: the 45-year old doctor who wanted to take me out for Greek food near L'Enfant Plaza; a chaotic stroll through the carnival of Adam's Morgan; my self-restraint at 2am. Jumbo Slice called, and I didn't answer.

Amidst these recollections comes an extremely disturbing epiphany: Sunday, July 11, is not a typical trial in surviving the Sunday Blues. It is something infinitely more challenging. A test of the weakest of all my skills: my ability to feign interest in sports.

For yesterday marked an epic World Cup Championship match between Spain and the Netherlands, with extreme sportsmanship traditionally reserved for our international brethren. And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, Americans have joined the fan base. This is surely some cruel joke, or a feature on http://www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/.

Until now, I have managed to avoid watching, championing, or discussing the World Cup during my residence in the United States. While living abroad, I had to pretend to care about soccer, but I was able to ignore American football in a blissful trade-off that I presumed would operate in a parallel fashion when I returned to the Big-Gulp-loving USA.

I scroll through my phone, confident that at least one of my friends will boycott soccer in favor of Scrabble, coffee and a movie. Aha! A light bulb illuminates as I gaze out the window. I live in Dupont Circle, in the heart of the gayborhood, where show tunes and shopping consistently trump sports. This task will be easy.

Now grinning, and sipping my first cup of coffee, I reach for my phone and dial Scott, affectionately listed as "Diva" in my blackberry. He picks up. He's available, hungry and seemingly ambivalent about the course of the afternoon.

After a leisurely brunch and a stroll through our neighborhood, we turn towards 14th Street, where I aim to get gelato and inspired ideas from furniture stores that I can't afford, but Scott directs me towards U Street, where he plans to meet a friend. I'm naively anticipating a third shopping companion, someone whose attention to detail will far surpass mine and make my decorating project that much easier.  Little do I know, Scott is leading me towards a sports bar, where the 2:30 start time, and incredibly attractive clientele, have many a sports fan drooling.

From the oustide, Nelly's is just another run of the mill bar. Sports paraphernalia lines the windows and spacious rooftop terrace, and the sounds of boisterous fans emanate from within.

Upon entry, the scene is starkly different from the sticky-floored bars of my weekend ventures. As we make our way through the crowded downstairs of Nelly's, I realize that this is nothing like the testosterone-fuelled mayhem that one finds at a Texas football game. The men here are thinner, with decidedly better hair and accessories.  They--immaculately dressed and mannered--will never meet my gaze, unless it's to inquire about my eye makeup.

I should be elated to discover such a handsome group of men gathered in one convenient location, like a crisp, colorful box of French macaroons ceremoniously delivered, but eye candy is a fleeting pleasure. Particularly when there's no possibility of realization.

On closer inspection, I take note of myself, the odd misfit juxtaposed against the pretty boys. I'm sporting the wrinkled Ann Taylor dress that I wore to work last Friday. My scraggly hair sits in a low, messy ponytail. I lick my lips and realize they're devoid of lipstick.

No, no, no. This simply will not do. The image of me, dressed like this, exhausted from the night before, would be fine were it to appear within the confines of my messy little apartment, but my presence here does a disservice to the image of "fabulous" single women everywhere.

With a few air-kisses, and one last saturating look around the crowded terrace, I exit. Gelato awaits.

Friday, July 9, 2010

College Student Asks Crush Out Over the Phone

Georgia Tech student Mark Steeples is spending the summer at home in Atlanta, Georgia, where he’s lifeguarding at the resident country club. Steeples had hoped to work for his Congressman in Washington, D.C. but was unable to secure the highly-coveted unpaid internship. Like so many undergraduates, Steeples has become one of the recession’s many unintended victims.

He explained, “I really thought I’d get [the internship]. I mean, my Dad knows the Congressman, and he’s been to our beach house a couple of times, but I guess no one's that interested in a college history major with a B- average.” Steeples went on to say, “I think they hired a Harvard law student instead.”

Initially disappointed with his lifeguarding job, Steeples’ ambivalent attitude turned a corner when he noticed his high school crush hanging out at the country club pool. Sally Beasley, a fellow sophomore at UGA, is also spending the summer at home in Atlanta.

At first glance, Steeples was intimidated by her—“She’s filled out since high school. She looks pretty hot now. I think she might even be a B cup…”—but finally got up the nerve to talk to her from his lifeguard post. The two chatted about the weather and traded gossip (Beasley just got a “pretty legit” fake ID) and he eventually became courageous enough to add her on Facebook after 2 and a half weeks of spontaneous poolside interactions.

His search, coupled with extensive Google stalking, failed to return an exact match. He tried again, hoping in vain that her profile was hidden among those of overweight, 50+ women. Steeples became increasingly desperate, and started searching for her through friends and friends of friends, but he eventually concluded that Beasley is one of the few people his age who refuses to partake in social networking sites.

“I mean, it’s kind of cool, I guess. But I don’t really know where to go from here. She’s not on Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn.” Steeples sought advice from his older brother, who recommended that he ask for her number. The idea seemed old-fashioned, but Steeples concluded that he had no other way of moving the relationship forward.

Steeples asked Beasley for her digits, and she obliged. He waited roughly 5 days before reaching out via text, having seen “Swingers” a few times with an older cousin, but was surprised to discover that Beasley wouldn't write him back. Steeples began with “Hey, what’s up?” and ramped up his efforts by asking her, “What are you doing this wkd?” Neither of his texts received a response.

Steeples became nervous but refused to give up all hope: their in-person conversations suggested that she was at least interested enough to meet up at a party, and possibly to make out. He asked his friends, fraternity big brother, and parents, several of whom proposed that he call her to invite her for a date.

More persuasion ensued, and the now-very reluctant Steeples decided to do it. He’d call her, just once, to see whether she had an explanation for not responding to his text messages. At the very least, he’d know that he had properly entered her number into his iPhone.

Steeples planned it out perfectly. He came home from lifeguarding on Thursday night and snuck into his parents’ liquor cabinet. He poured himself “about 3 vodka shots” and enjoyed two Heinekens before picking up the phone.

He scrolled through his contacts and clicked on Sa-mantha. SH*T. He was fumbling. He tried again and this time got it right.

“Hello?” answered Sally, in her sweet Southern drawl.

“Something took over from there,” explains Steeples, “I didn’t really know what to do, but it came pretty natural, I guess. We talked for about 10 minutes and planned to meet up the following night at my friend Andy's party.”

The two have been hooking up ever since, although Steeples still hasn't been able to convince Beasley to try Facebook.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trend Alert: Voluntary Relaxation Rehab

Travel Agent Melissa Newman has received some rather bizarre inquiries of late. According to Newman and others in her field, people have begun inquiring about rehabilitation facilities when planning their vacations.

One of Newman’s first clients to make the unconventional request explains, “I wanted to take a relaxing getaway to Florida or the Caribbean, somewhere on the ocean. But the thought of going anywhere with my family really stressed me out. They are no walk in the park, trust me.”

Newman responded by suggesting that her client take her loved ones on a family-oriented cruise, where children are often immersed in daily activities, thus allowing the parents to have time on their own. She also talked to her client about the possibility of sending the children to regional summer camps. None of the options placated her client’s intense vacation anxiety.

Newman began to dig deeper in her research and found a few vacation venues offering “extended relaxation therapy.” Follow-up conversations with her client eventually led to the perfectly planned vacation.

“When you think about it,” says Newman, “it makes a good deal of sense. These [rehab] facilities are luxurious, quiet, and located in stunning physical settings. They are admittedly expensive, but the traveler’s vacation costs include meals, housing, fun activities and intense one-on-one therapy sessions.” The promise of focused, daily therapy usually seals the deal for uncertain travelers.

And it’s not just families who are taking advantage of these therapeutic getaways. They are fast becoming popular among young professionals who struggle to find time within the work day to seek counseling. One added bonus? Most mental health patients are single.

A number of mental health professionals have questioned the wisdom of sending healthy patients to facilities reserved for those individuals facing depression, substance abuse, or other, more extreme mental health problems. Dr. Pagoda, head psychologist at Happy Endings in Tucson, Arizona, warned that “average persons” who are merely experiencing “marginal stress” could end up compromising the important work being done for the “real” patients at his treatment center.

When asked for further information on this effect—given that all patients are treated individually—Dr. Pagoda offered, “I’m not at liberty to discuss the private actions of our patients, but, well…there have been a number of alcohol-related relapses over the past few months.”

Despite his and others’ warnings, several online travel companies, including Orbitz and Expedia, are planning to incorporate “mental health getaways” in their vacation offerings.

Brangelina to Adopt a Scandinavian Child

Angelina Jolie and long-time partner Brad Pitt are reportedly planning to add a 7th child to their ever-expanding brood despite perpetual tabloid reports of marital discord.

Adoption rumors have been sparked by Jolie’s personal comments and prolonged visits to a number of foreign orphanages. Jolie recently stated, “I can see further additions to the family — both adopted and our own.”

Initial reports indicated that the couple was looking in Syria or Haiti, the latter country having garnered Jolie’s attention after her visit following the recent earthquake. Other sources report that she’s contemplating adopting from Africa; she would like to give Ethiopian-born Zahara a cultural companion.

In recent months, adoption rumors have swirled elsewhere. Pitt has reportedly convinced Jolie that if they don’t have another biological child together, he’d prefer to adopt a child from a Scandinavian country. Pitt apparently feels that the couple has focused too much on Africa and Asia. They need, in his opinion, to bring some attention to Scandinavia, a region that is often overlooked in the mainstream media.

Sarah Henry, Vice President of the Scandinavian-American Alliance explains, “No one really thinks much about Sweden, Norway and Denmark, although I suppose Norway is on people’s radar because of Elin Woods.” Such countries generally enjoy high GDPs and standards of living, despite the intensely dark winter months that cause seasonal effective disorder (“SAD”).

In addition to raising interest in the region, and the obstacles its residents face, Pitt believes that a Scandinavian child would make his first biological daughter feel more at home in the Pitt-Jolie household. Shiloh, with her blond hair, blue eyes, and striking features, could certainly benefit from a kindred spirit.

Brad and Angelina also worry that Shiloh’s tomboy tendencies could be problematic. A source explains, “Brad and Angie believe that a pretty, blond little sister could really help Shi develop into a nice young woman. The twins probably won’t be able to fill that role, because everyone thinks they are starting to resemble their maternal grandfather, John Voight.”

All eyes are on the famous, jetsetting family to see how their latest adoption plan unfolds.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Chameleon's Dilemma

Wanderlust has a firm hold on me. I’m one of its timeless, helpless victims, someone who constantly lives in the future and past, both interconnected, neither allowing ample energy for the present.

At night I dream of my family’s farm, a stretch of land outside of San Antonio where horses and cattle roamed freely. I ride my bicycle up the gravel road to the white gated entrance, and swirl around the circular drive several times before meandering into the house. That front room was one of my grandparents’ finest creations. Behind the sublime wooden dining room table—one big enough to seat practically the entire family—were colorful etchings. Willowy branches crawled along the wall and up to the ceiling. Delicately placed among them were a few, bright birds nests.

I daily fantasize about returning to London, where I easily navigate its cobbled streets, pausing frequently to reflect on magnificent architecture under a low, gray sky. If I were to return today, I’d begin on the Knightsbridge end of Walton Street, my favorite in the city, and enjoy my first sojourn at Battersea or Hyde Park.

Hours, months or years later, I’d turn my thoughts elsewhere. I’d tire of the sprawling metropolis, leafy parks and all. I’d board a flight for Namibia, race by whatever means possible towards Harnas and spend that first evening alone, lulled to sleep by an unusual symphony of African night sounds, most prominent being the lion’s epic roar.

Romantic in theory and on paper, these mental travels are by all accounts equally counterproductive. I grasp at them, and wonder if and when I’ll be able to recreate them, knowing full well that no experience can be properly replicated.

In the meantime, I’ll be content to contemplate the next stopover, all the while worrying that I might become a cliche. I did, after all, read “Eat, Pray, Love.” Perhaps I overrate originality and undervalue the power of tried formulas. In any event, I aim to sit still for a little while longer, at least...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Observations from Within

I recently moved from London to Washington, simultaneously making a dramatic professional transition. From private practice—at one of the world’s largest law firms—to the federal government, where I’m fast learning that the pace is a hell of a lot slower.

There’s no yelling, running through the halls, or panicky late nights barely made sane by caffeine and cigarette breaks. As you’d expect, the work-life balance is—shall we say—decidedly improved on this side of the coin. I picked up my car at the office last Sunday and the guards practically arrested me, evidence enough that few, if any, of my colleagues venture to the office after Friday at 4pm.

Along with my utter delight at this improved schedule comes the amusing revelation that I am now working alongside characters from the Office. Creed, Toby, Michael, Kelly and Dwight. They’re all here, in some form or fashion.

My boss often bemoans “Parks and Recreation” for having preempted what could have been a much better sitcom about life at our agency. I for one haven’t given up hope on writing it. In the meantime, I’ll be content to share a few of the more absurd anecdotes from my "Office."

Despite inventive pranks and myriad hilarious antics, my immediate office-mates and I typically avoid the jaw-dropping awkwardness featured herein.

Such episodes primarily stem from the occasional journeys beyond my comfort zone, when I wander throughout dimly-lit halls like a confused mouse.

On one such occasion, I found myself seeking a conference room that I had reserved for a meeting. After a few missed turns, I arrived at B-504. I could see from outside that the lights were off, so I opened the door.

Much to my surprise, the room I had reserved was otherwise occupied...by very important people engaged in very important activities: soap operas and fried chicken.

The large conference room was scattered with empty KFC boxes and crumbs. A few savory bites were still being enjoyed, but the women in the room were primarily focused on a much more important task: catching the last few minutes of their daily soap.

This combination undoubtedly has its place (a nursing home circa 1992?). I for one went through a General Hospital phase during the early 90s, but I kicked the habit soon after Jagger left, just before I entered the 9th grade.

Still startled, but not wanting to seem like the resident agency policeman, I began, “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. I, err, reserved this room for a meeting, starting at 3pm.”

At this point, one would anticipate embarrassed, perhaps even apologetic behavior, but my hands-in-the-cookie-jar colleagues were not the least bit distressed.

No apologies. No quick flipping of the remote power button. Just a simple “We’re almost done.”

If only they’d taken the lingering scent of fried chicken with them when they left; it made for an extremely distracting meeting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Dreams Always Die

February 2, 2005, Austin, Texas

In the heart of Austin sits a proud, established law school that perpetually ranks among the US News & World Report’s best, despite the lack of ivy adorning its outer walls. This outstanding institution draws students from around the world, enticing them to faded books and lackluster halls with an impressive academic reputation and social promise that leaves even the most composed young 20-somethings drooling.

Wise students, however, aren’t fooled by word of mouth and conveniently jovial accepted student day; these “skeptics” enter law school with expectations lower than the GPAs they are destined to receive at the close of first semester. Anticipating the worst, they arrive for orientation dressed like slobs, notebooks in hand, and a study schedule prematurely devised. Yet, midway through the first day of orientation, a surprising event occurs. The polluted Texas sky opens for a brief moment, allowing now-dusty brochure images to metamorphose into reality, teasing each new student with a bright picture for the future. Attractive and well-dressed youths glide into the auditorium, smiles flashing, with nothing but a cup of coffee in hand.

“You’re all shining stars,” a cheerful, preppy, and honest-faced Dean assures the room full of 1L students, “You are all going to succeed. We are so very proud to have each and every one of you.” To the continuous surprise of the skeptics, this paternalistic approach continues throughout the first semester. Keg parties at professors’ homes. Candy scattered across student desks during torts class. The incredible absence of Friday class. These rituals, combined with the relaxation of the Socratic Method and the homogenous feel of the first year (not to mention student lockers), splash the entire 1L experience with an elementary-school feel. The quarters may be close, but at least the ill-prepared students feel safe as they down pitchers of Miller Light at the Posse East.

Gossiping, dating, studying, partying, gossiping and complaining. These activities keep the herd occupied until finals in December, at which point the sections undergo a painful fortnight of exam-taking that threatens to annihilate the pleasant sentiments acquired since August.

“Finals suck!” reports a student from Section 1 (names have since been eliminated along with all traces of personal identity), “But at least I had my flask with me during my Civ Pro exam.”

Students utilize the subsequent Christmas vacation to rekindle friendships with non-law school friends, suck up to established legal minds (i.e. fathers), attend job interviews for jobs they will almost certainly forfeit to that one attractive Stanford Law student from Houston, and attempt to reintroduce some element of diversity into their daily lives. Several students accomplish this task by traveling to Europe; others simply prostitute themselves in South Austin.

Against this relaxed backdrop, the dispersed 1L team desperately clings to one common thread: the need to constantly check grades online.

This twitch, and its companion of checking email inboxes for notices from potential employers, brings vacationing 1Ls to the computer at unprecedented frequencies. Some students admit to checking grades and inboxes “as much as possible, even if it means waking up several times during the middle of the night.”

And suddenly, the thunderous skies open again.

But this time, the Texas sky splits, creating what seems like a permanent rift among a prideful class of students. The grades are posted, and the commission of secret interviews commence. The lucky ones thank the library and willing professors for having received their sexual advances. The unlucky ones wonder about the anonymity of the grading system and reconsider whether “law school was for them” or whether, according to their parents’ suggestions, they are better suited for “that opening at McDonald’s.”

Despite the seemingly harsh grade distributions, professors seek to remind their students that they are in fact the cozy parental figures they initially promised to be. In an effort to comfort students, and reinforce their connected status, professors send out emails such as this one:
“I needn’t tell you again that you are, by far, the most diligent and impressive body of students to enter the UT Law School. Despite this fact, I am incredibly disappointed in your performance on the exam. It was shameful. I suppose you can’t all be “shining stars.”

This magnificent gesture is only rivaled by the following institutional mandates:
1. Every first year course will begin at 8:15am, or alternatively, at 8:13am.
2. The vending machines will not, under any circumstances, provide cold beverages.
3. God will cause it to rain every day, and we will not, as an administration, contest this policy.
4. All first year professors will take a mandatory course in circular reasoning & lecturing methods and will continuously use such tactics during lectures.
5. No national holiday will be recognized after MLK Jr. Day, except that we will allow the students a week-long spring break (that must be sufficiently close to final exams so as to deter students from going on vacation).
6. Professors must no longer articulate specific assignment schedules to their students; rather the students must eternally “read ahead.”
7. And any other torture device that a professor sees fit.

This memorandum was distributed to the UT Faculty during the Christmas break and was not intended to reach student hands. Fortunately for all students, the Student Bar Association discovered one of the top-secret leaflets and plans to make use of it as soon as the SBA representatives finish their current project of locking and un-locking the SBA office at all times.

In the meantime, other students may catch wind of the controversy, but circumstances suggest that they may also be too busy (feeling bitter about grades and thinking about “that opening at McDonald’s”) to report grievances to the administration or seek legal relief.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Efficiency in Lieu of Sanity? The Rise of the Cubicle.

Nearly ten years ago, directors of mental asylums nationwide felt compelled to explore tactics to increase patient numbers. “People aren’t so crazy these days,” said Abdullah Halsey, Director of The Clearview Institute, during the meeting’s opening remarks, “I blame the increasing availability of illegal drugs… Our services are becoming obsolete.”

Halsey expressed a view held by many of his peers, “Without a healthy, sizeable patient population, institutions experience diminishing revenues.” This certainly proved to be the case during the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, the quality of life within many “havens of health” was called into question. Satellite TV. Weekly pizza dinners. Trips to local skating rinks. These are the types of services that, when sacrificed, lead to infuriation and near chaos among patients and employees.

At the historic meeting held during January of 2001, employees from 213 national asylums spent a weekend brainstorming methods of recruiting new patients. During those exhaustive meetings, an idea emerged that has proven successful for a plethora of world-wide organizations: mass popularization of the cubicle.

The cubicle is cheap. It’s small and easy to construct. It matches the fluorescent lighting that decorates so many offices. It gives employees a bit of space--- not enough to provide a particularly private atmosphere--- but enough to minimize foul play and cut costs without causing irrevocable damage to a person’s mental health.

Lacking the ability to effectively shut out co-workers, employees are often fearful of pursuing activities that could endanger their employment. Infidelity spurred by steamy work relations, along with various unethical practices, has decreased significantly. One young paralegal stated, “After watching American Psycho and the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza ritually sleeps underneath his desk, I was inspired to try some crazy stuff at work. But there wasn’t enough privacy within my cubicle to really express myself. I had to let go of my dreams. I felt cheated.”

Businesses have drastically cut office-related expenses (not to mention ethical hiccups) and enjoyed impressively high turnover rates, while asylums are instituting waiting lists to accommodate an uncharted level of demand.

The most notable success of this story, however, is found in a bright restaurant in New York’s West Village. Amidst the clatter of dishes and youthful banter, a young woman sits alone in an orange leather booth near the window. After spending nearly six months (an impressively long haul) surrounded by the maroon walls of her Sullivan & Foster LLP cubicle, with nothing beyond staples and push-pins to give life to her work-space, Millie Kerr decided to take some time “off.” Inspired by her older brothers and practically commanded by her roommate, Kerr came to the increasingly popular conclusion that a short visit to an asylum would in fact prove preferable to the monotony of office life.

Kerr recalls, “It wasn’t really the size of the cubicle. It was the fact that I stared directly into the hinged edge of its two sides. That little corner reminded me of hell. Incidentally, I also suffered from staple wounds all over my hands. And I just can’t afford that type of danger.”

Kerr, whose long-term career plan involves hand-modelling and starring on Saturday Night Live, let go of her symbolic red stapler to submit to her secret desire to spend several lazy months in an institution. “I really felt like Anthony in Bottle Rocket--- I departed the asylum refreshed. I also met great people there. It was a nice change after spending my whole life surrounded by success and sanity.”

Content in the warm atmosphere provided by the neighborhood cafe, Kerr stares out the window to the busy street beyond.