16 September 2010

photos.

We went on an adventure last night and strolled around the Old Course. Gorgeous!

As a bonus - photos from last month's trip to the South of France.

13 September 2010

scotland.

Well, it's been a month. I've found a job, spent a week and a half in France (tres delicious!), started work, changed my computer to a UK dictionary, officially registered as a student, and started running (?!) again. And I love it. St. Andrews is rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities (okay, towns) in the world. The people are incredibly friendly, even if I'm not entirely sure what they're saying (a major challenge when taking drink orders in a loud, crowded pub), they're as nuts for dogs as I am, and the scenery is breathtaking. My running path takes me along the Old Course (near the hole with the cute little stone bridge), then along the cliffs to the castle ruins, past the old church and cemetery, through the harbour, on the path above the "beach," and back home through a quaint residential neighbourhood and town centre. (There are many, many words with screwy British spelling. This is going to be tricky). I'm going to take photos this week, I promise. The beach is especially amusing. The weather's been gorgeous for Scotland - 65 and sunny - which isn't exactly sunbathing weather. But, that's still a beautiful day, so families venture out to the beach in coats and the kids splash along the shore in rubber boots while their parents drink coffee on the sand.

This feels like a newly liberated phase of my life. After a spontaneous decision to confess long-repressed feelings before leaving the states (and a second follow-up weeks later, just for good measure), I've realised that certainty is more valuable than hope. And the hope was just a lingering vestige from a time and place long since gone by. Let's just hope I haven't also torpedoed a valued friendship in the process. I'm staying out here on this emotional limb - it feels good. I'm in love.

As for this blog, I'm going to try to keep it up while I'm here, but am still working out some sort of theme to keep me on track. I'm too poor (and uncultured) to review all the whiskeys on offer here and I think my grades might suffer if I venture onto a "try every pub in town" project, but I'll think of something. In the meantime, happy college football season to everyone. I've already met my first Gator here (the Gator Nation is everywhere!).

26 July 2010

Gone, but not forgotten.

It's been almost eight months since I left Ethiopia and not a day has gone by where I don't think about my time there. It's virtually impossible to articulate what Assela means to me, but suffice it to say that it's never far from my thoughts. (Admittedly superficial) case in point: yesterday's near-tornado weather has left us without power for nearly a day and a half, but I'm still fixated on the fact that I got a ride out to Maryland so we could work today, during which I also charged my computer and am now amusing myself with Netflix. The fact that my neighbor, who's within wireless router distance, appears to have power, is an issue for another day. I, unlike many of my neighbors, am fully-prepared for two evenings of no power. I was in desperate need of an occasion to catch up on my knitting.

But returning to my original point - Ethiopia. I only spent a brief week or so with Chris and Jess, the lovely couple who took my place in Assela, but that was enough to be certain they were good people. One of my final projects was an attempt to find funding for a disabled cooperative that wanted to start a poultry farm. A Finnish NGO that I approached has apparently dropped the ball on actually paying out their grants, so Jess and Chris took matters in their own hands and have submitted an application to Peace Corps Partners, a grant program that enables PCVs to fundraise for projects outside of their assigned sector. If you're looking for a noble, worthy charitable cause to which to donate, then look no further than Abdiin Halaalissuu. I met them at the perfect time in my service - shortly after my herb garden project fell apart when the women discovered they'd have to work - and AH restored my faith in Ethiopia. They were so positive, and yet so realistic about the project. They incorporated as an organization and applied for a permit for land entirely on their own before they ever approached me about help finding start up funds.

The fact that the Finnish funding never came through during my tenure was one of my big regrets from Ethiopia and I'm so grateful that Chris and Jess have stayed involved with AH. Please read up on their project here. Every little bit helps - when dealing in birr, even 10 dollars is more than most families have to spend in a week. Aside from initial chicken and feed purchase, the majority of the funds will go towards building a proper chicken coop with a fence so that the group can raise chickens and harvest eggs en masse without risk of their chickens escaping or being eaten by local hyenas. The disabled have few rights in Ethiopia and are often sheltered or exploited by their families. The thirty people in AH who had the courage to come together and attempt to support themselves deserve a fighting chance. Every little bit helps, so please consider donating.

Donate Here

If you have any questions about the project, please don't hesitate to email me at jducey(at)gmail(dot)com. Thanks for your support!

24 June 2010

the world cup.

Being here in DC for the World Cup is a strange sensation. Despite the age-old stereotype that Americans couldn't care less about soccer, people here are interested - bars were packed for the USA v England game, crowds gathered in Dupont Circle to watch on an outdoor screen (someone bothered to get the permits for that. Sure, he was an immigrant, but still - he expected enough people to turn up to make it worth his while). My personal favorite was the gang of men dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms marching through the circle and waving a giant flag.

But the best part? All the psuedo-political discussions of this rising trend in American interest in soccer and where it's going. Why we don't like soccer as a nation is an old topic (my personal theory: draws). Americans like dramatic, at-the-buzzer victories (like Donovan's goal), winners, and gloating. We'll happily sit through long, boring games with only fleeting moments of action (baseball, anyone?) or fast-paced/limited scoring sports (hockey?) as long as we can taunt our friends afterward. Otherwise, what's the point?

But as to why we're on board today and whether or not we'll be after the finals...here's an excerpt from Slate's "Dispatch from the US's Amazing World Cup Win over Algeria:"

Soccer may be the only sport left that allows us to be exuberantly and guiltlessly patriotic, which is perhaps why some progressives have trouble supporting the U.S. team. We can get away with such outpourings of nationalism because, in soccer, we're not a superpower. Imagine dressing up like Captain America and screaming your head off at a USA-Algeria basketball game. Not cool. But American soccer fans do scream. They bedeck themselves in flags and elaborate costumes. A national team game now looks like a cross between Carnival and a Revolutionary War re-enactment. And, thanks to Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and the rest of the U.S. national team, this wacky party will roll through South Africa for at least a few more days.
This is why I love the Olympics - unbridled, good-natured patriotism. Even Foreign Policy is in on the fun, suggesting that our attitude towards new sports is based on how well our team is doing. The Olympics are a great example - how many people cared about competitive swimming before Michael Phelps started collecting gold medals like discarded pennies? It's a bandwagon phenomenon - sure, no one knew Landon Donovan's name on Monday, but that doesn't make his goal any less thrilling or the victory any less sweet.
In this approach, the casual sports fan is using a strategy of "rational ignorance" -- i.e., not caring until the team is sufficiently successful. This is the kind of thing that political scientists tend to understand, but sports and politics junkies reject as somehow not representing true fandom. But it is how most people think about most things in life most of the time.
So true. But back to work for now. Despite not watching a single qualifying match leading up to this game, I'll be in a bar on Saturday afternoon, decked out in red, white, and blue and cheering for my country.

01 June 2010

Freedom, compassion, adventure, and "Africa."

I remember the first time I saw African dance. I was a freshmen at the University of Florida, taking a modern dance class on a whim. Our guest teacher spoke only French, and I'll never forget her standing in the center of the room, doing the same movement over and over while each of us placed our hands on her sternum and back to feel how her breath flowed with the movement. Even without a language barrier, words cannot describe the fluidity of dance. I didn't dance much after that semester, instead dedicating my spare credit hours to mastering Arabic, but that moment stayed with me.

Four and a half years later, I found myself in the banquet hall of a government hotel long past its days of questionable glory in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Nine months of paperwork and planning had led to my arrival in Ethiopia in October 2007 as one of 43 Peace Corps Volunteers working in HIV/AIDS prevention and control. The first volunteers in the country since the late 1990s and the first health volunteers in the program's history, we were bursting with idealism and excitement about diving into a new culture. Twenty minutes into our orientation, after discovering that the Amharic alphabet has 231 letters and "thank you" has seven or eight syllables, depending on how formal you want to be, we wondered if we'd ever be able to communicate, let alone begin to understand this new home of ours.

But then the dancing started. Ethiopia is home to some 80 tribes, each with their own languages and dances, but the eskista seems to span ethnic divides. Done almost exclusively with the shoulders, it lacks the spirited leaping I later found in Uganda and the lightening fast feet of West Africa. Instead, it is an organic motion that looks simple until you realize you've never isolated your shoulders like that before. But it is in this deceptive simplicity and repetition that you find eskista's charm. Anyone can do it (albeit with varying degrees of skill). One by one, all 43 of us tentatively joined the circle, mimicking our language teachers' motions. As they smiled and nodded their encouragement, we caught each other's glances across the room, shrugged, and threw ourselves into it. Suddenly, Ethiopia didn't feel so foreign. So what if we couldn't pronounce half the alphabet or read a street sign? We could dance!



Dance remained a stabilizing force throughout my two years of service. Sure, I eventually learned to read the language and eat with my hands without looking like the rejected aftermath of a Jackson Pollock studio session. But dance was always there to build a bridge when words only widened the cultural barriers, whether smoothing over the inevitable awkward moments when discussing my marital status (or lack thereof) or when making friends on an isolated island in southern Uganda. Like the chocolate cakes that became my trademark, dance brought me closer to my community, creating common ground when my atheism, independent streak, and disinterest in domestic bliss and motherhood brought only bewildered stares.

Bushara Island, Lake Bunyoni, Uganda

For a ballerina raised in a carefully planned suburban community, African dance was a window to a new world where passion abounds and "wrong" answers are in short supply. To me, African dance is about freedom. Freedom to dance as you see fit, to let out a ululation or shout if so moved, to embrace your body for what it can do, not what it looks like. The perfectionist in me still loves ballet - that sense of constantly striving towards a goal, the concrete rewards for improvement, a tangible, measurable standard by which to be "the best." But African dance is something else entirely - the drum circle is like a diary, a place for dancers to pour their emotions without judgment.

Today, that's what African dance means to me. A place to tell my story, whether joyful or sad, without the added burden of words. I may or may not have stumbled into love in the Arsi Mountains, but I certainly found compassion and an unwavering patriotism for the American values I hold dear. The complicated emotions Ethiopia provokes in me defy rational or verbal explanation. I'm still resentful of the adjective "African" to describe anything but a landmass. The "African" dance I've experienced here at Dance Place bears no resemblance to the eskista of my Ethiopian days. But the spirit remains the same. It's a way to commiserate with others, to dance united despite our different paths to the circle. A place where participation matters more than skill. But most of all, African dance is a trip down memory lane, to the life I led, the friends I made, and the lessons I learned in a small mountain town in Ethiopia.

Meskel (finding of the true cross) celebration, Assela, Ethiopia

25 May 2010

11 March 2010

fondue pong.

If it turns out I'm wrong and there is an afterlife, I hope it's like this (Swiss segment starts around 2 minutes, fondue pong around 3 minutes).

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Olympic International Houses
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

04 March 2010

like a bird stealing bread.

My life is just less interesting when I'm not abroad. Or at least less entertaining. Snowpocalypse, despite the cabin fever, was not enough to destroy my infatuation with DC and winter. I love this city. I drifted off for a moment on the bus home from the grocery store last weekend and accidentally shouted "waraj ale" (the Amharic for "stop the bus") as we approached my stop. An Ethiopian guy on the bus recovered from his bewilderment in time to pull the cord for me. I repeat, I love this city. I can't see myself settling anywhere else. I mean, where else can you find random snow sculptures in front of phallic monuments?

In the last month, I've been promoted to a full-time staff member at Dance Place, so I'm in the process of leaving NARAL Pro-Choice America. But don't worry, you'll still get your fill of news on reproductive rights and sex education. (Kudos to the Department of Defense for finally providing emergency contraception to soldiers at overseas bases!).

As part of my new position at Dance Place, I'm overseeing the revival of the organization's blog. Check it out for interviews with artists performing at our theater and other news from the DC dance community. I'm especially excited about this weekend's performance from Tiffany Mills. Based on descriptions and her interview, it's the sort of dance I'd like to be doing if I wasn't so afraid of failing as an artist. However, after a recent conversation with an old college mentor, I'm recommitting to that hazy notion I've always had of venturing into the field of travel writing. Seems spending my days surrounded by artists is a good influence for chasing distant pipe dreams.

I've also started spending a few hours a week in our theater shadowing Technical Director Ben Levine and learning about the wonders of light and sound. Talk about an under-appreciated job! When watching a production, most audience members don't realize how much went into those dramatic lights that accentuate every movement. We spent four hours today rigging lights for a simple show in a small space. Every single light is individually hung, positioned, focused, and wired into the light board that allows the tech director to control them all during a performance. Most also get color gels, frosts, or templates added. Since they're positioned overhead, this involves rolling a twenty foot ladder around the stage and climbing up to adjust every light. So next time you're watching something on stage (concert, play, dance production - anything), take a moment to think about how those lights all got there.

In other news, I found a flat in St. Andrews - two bedrooms, right in the heart of the town, five minutes from virtually everything (If I'm willing to pay, I might also have it all to myself in the summer, so start planning your trip now!). The more time I put into preparing to move to Scotland, the more excited I get. Everyone has only the most positive things to say about the Scots and their country (weather and food excepted, but I can subsist on tikka masala, so I'm prepared for British food), and my experiences have done nothing to shake that warm, friendly image.

And finally, because everyone loves puppies...



It's not actually slow motion video - it's a series of stills from a marvelously high-tech digital camera.

Ridiculous.

09 February 2010

snowed in.

I've been snowed in since Friday afternoon and the novelty is wearing off. It's beautiful to look at and two days off of work is never terrible, but I'm getting cabin fever. But the Metro's back today, even though the federal government's not, so I'm going to wander around the Mall and take photos. Anything to get out of the house. Especially considering that more snow is coming tonight...

In other news, the much-anticipated Tebow/Focus on the Family commercial aired. It was worth absolutely none of the hype, but the FoF marketing team gets a prize for creating controversy and guaranteeing everyone watched that ad (but then they get their prize revoked for spreading bigotry and inaccurate information). If they hadn't, it would have been one more ad in the mix, and not even a particularly interesting one. If you weren't familiar with Focus on the Family (which I'd bet a sizable portion of Superbowl-watchers weren't before the media hype began), it would have been just one more reason to make fun of Tim Tebow for bringing emotions into the manly sport of football. (Don't get me wrong, I'm a Gator and love the boy's football skills, but I think he should keep his politics out of the game. Raise money for the foundation and your values on your own time. Capitalizing on his celebrity is fine, everyone does it, but not on the job.) Epic fail for the women's groups who protested the ad and raised its profile and epic fail for FoF for blowing 2.5 million (est.) dollars on thirty seconds when there are families who could use real support. If I were them, I would have rode the publicity bandwagon leading up to the Superbowl, leaked the ad so it would end up on Youtube, and hence on the news, and just reveled in the free media. Good thing they didn't ask me.

One perk to being back in a country with no state-controlled internet: PostSecret. I also think flowers are for people who don't know what the industry does to the environment and water supplies in the developing world. Some grain field in Ethiopia is drying up because water went to the flower farms instead. I don't mean to sound preachy, I just feel really strongly about unnecessary waste.

Happy National Condom Week/Valentine's Day! This year, tell someone how much you love them in your own words and actions. It'll mean more to them, even if it's less poetic.

21 January 2010

trust women.

Today is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court Decision that established a woman's right to privacy and safe, legal abortion. Why should you care? Right now, opening statements are underway in the trial of Scott Roeder, accused of murdering Dr. George Tiller, a long-time abortion provider in Kansas, last May. Despite a 1993 attempt on his life, Dr. Tiller continued to offer a vital service to women in need until he was fatally shot while serving as an usher at his church. He famously wore a button that said simply "Trust women." This is all I am asking you to do.

What does it mean to be "pro-choice?"

We believe that individual women know more about their own unique situations than politicians or religious leaders. We believe that every child deserves to enter this world into the arms of parents who are prepared to give him/her all the love, care, and support s/he needs. We believe that women are intelligent enough to make informed decisions about their reproductive health in consultation with their doctors, partners, families, and anyone else they choose to include. Choose. That's what trusting women is about. The pro-choice movement is not pro-abortion. This is patently absurd. No one wants a woman to have an abortion and we certainly don't advocate the procedure as a means of birth control. But the choice must exist so we can ensure that all the other options are also available.

I'm pro-choice because I believe in education. Given accurate information, women (and their partners) can and should be trusted to make educated decisions about their own lives. Given accurate information, abortion should become a moot issue. If children are raised in an open, caring environment where they are comfortable asking questions about sex and sexuality, if schools present accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive information about abstinence, contraception, and reproductive health, if women and men have universal, affordable, and reliable access to contraception and healthcare, if emergency contraception is available in hospitals and over the counter, then we can create a society where every child is wanted and loved. At the end of the day, isn't that what both sides of this issue want?

I'd like to think so, but it's simply not true. The anti-choice (or "pro-life," as they call themselves) movement continues to oppose comprehensive sex education programs despite mounting evidence that abstinence-only programs are not effective. Studies of peer-reviewed, published research show that abstinence-only programs do nothing to delay sexual debut or reduce rates of STIs and pregnancy. Comprehensive or "abstinence-plus" education programs, on the other hand, consistently achieve positive behavior change, lower STI rates, and do not encourage young people to have sex earlier or with more partners. Abstinence is a personal choice that we are all free to make (and I encourage delaying sex until both partners are ready for the emotional commitment of sex and are fully educated about the possible risks and consequences). Learning about contraception and protection from STIs doesn't interfere with abstinence; it only ensures that those who eventually choose to become sexually active have the knowledge to do so safely. Where's the harm in learning how to protect oneself?

More than 85% of parents want schools to cover sex education topics like HIV, STIs, and contraception. Maybe it's just because they were raised in a generation that eschewed all talk of sex and want to pass the buck, but let's embrace the opportunity to give kids accurate information that could save their lives one day (and possibly ensure they raise children who feel comfortable talking about sex). Perhaps more importantly, 84% of parents believe (correctly) that giving kids information about contraception doesn't increase promiscuity. As I'm fond of saying, just because I distribute condoms and have, at one time or another, stored several thousand in my home, doesn't mean that I feel compelled to rush out and use them. I'm typing this post across from a room filled with condoms, and here I sit, urging restraint and informed decision-making. Only 39% of high schools taught their students how to correctly use a condom in 2006. Ten years ago, it was 50%. Do you know how to correctly use a condom? Do your teenagers?

Currently, almost half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. Of those, the two thirds of women who use contraception regularly account for only 5% of unplanned pregnanies. Access to contraception works. Knowledge about contraception works. Although the US teen pregnancy rate has declined by more than 50% since 1990, it is still double the rate in the UK and Canada and eight times the rate in the Netherlands. For a country that strives to be a gloabl leader, this is unacceptable. A quarter of women who use contraception get it from publicly-funded family planning clinics, and that number is rising due to the recession and increasing unemployment. The average cost of an abortion is $413 dollars. A year of birth control costs around $200 at a clinic like Planned Parenthood, even less with insurance or at clinics with sliding scales. Condoms are even cheaper and are commonly available free from health clinics, college campuses, and other locations. We cannot allow debate about abortion to interfere with funding for these vital contraceptive services.

Don't like abortion? Then do something to make it less necessary. Support affordable access to birth control. Lobby your state to end inaccurate and incomplete "abstinence-only" sex education programs and instead enact comprehensive sex education in schools. Tell your legislators to preserve or increaes public funding for contraception (and while you're at it, mention that servicewomen deserve the same access to emergency contraception that civilians enjoy). We shouldn't, as a country, be arguing about whether or not to make abortion legal (Criminalization does nothing to change abortion rates - they are roughly the same worldwide, regardless of legality. The only difference is safety). We should instead be working together to build a society where abortion is rarely necessary.

End the fight. Support comprehensive access and education.

Trust women.

---

Want to get more involved in pro-choice advocacy and comprehensive sex education? Sign up for action alerts at NARAL Pro-Choice America for quick and easy ways to support pro-choice legislation and policies nationally and in your state.

For more information on contraceptive services and education programs, visit your local Planned Parenthood.

All statistics are from the Guttmacher Institute. Become a fan of Guttmacher on Facebook for more facts like these every day.

13 January 2010

a heart just can't contain all of that empty space.

So I was wrong. Being home finally got to me. The excitement and freedom started to wear off and I'm now nostalgic for the simplicity of Ethiopia. It started with the consumerism of the holidays and the announcement that the city of Orlando had, in a gesture of empathy for those laid off and unemployed this year, decided not to put up its $30,00 (ish - I can't remember the exact amount) holiday light display. Then, a "generous" businessman stepped in and offered to front the bill. For at least as long as I've lived in the state, we've had a teacher shortage and one of the nation's poorest-performing school systems. Why does it not occur to anyone to donate that money to a teacher's salary or textbooks instead?

It was all downhill from there...seeing the time and money we spend on decorations, on gifts selected and given out of obligation, not love. Are people really happier receiving a gift they don't particularly want or need than simply spending time with the person who gave it? I know I'm hardly innocent of spending money on superfluous things - I could have just as easily posted this from a free computer at the library instead of on the expensive laptop I'm currently using. I still intend to eventually own a dog and spoil it in the American tradition. I don't need an iPod or a digital camera or any of the other expensive electronics I own, but a starving kid in the Congo certainly could have benefited from that money. I'm not claiming any false sense of superiority here, just venting. But everything in moderation, right? I don't need these things, but they're at least useful, in a sense. Maybe we should have our major family gatherings around days that would allow us to just celebrate our relationships instead of trying to express them in material things - Independence Day or Thanksgiving, anyone?

What's more depressing is the realization that Americans aren't unique in this, we just have the means to take it to extremes. The vast majority of the world would follow in our footsteps - or at least the spirit thereof - given just a dash of disposable income. I saw it even in Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations in the world. I suppose I should find solace in the fact that maybe this is an inherent part of human nature, but I'm just sad. I desperately don't want to be one of those people who's seen "real poverty" and is forever a sanctimonious jerk to everyone she knows, but I have to say it once here because I can't just ignore it anymore. I'll spare you in the future.

This all spiraled out of control into my sobbing profusely cleaning out my closet for the first time since early high school and seeing firsthand how much I've wasted in the last decade. Seeing how far a dollar goes outside of the US just makes realizing my own selfish waste that much more disgusting (not to mention going through clothes that are a painful reminder of how much thinner I once was). Writing about it is incredibly cathartic, so thank you for reading.

In another shocking development, I had a sudden craving for shiro wat. I thought it would take a lot longer than that to miss Ethiopian food, but here I am in DC, evaluating reviews of Ethiopian restaurants online. I think John, a group 2 volunteer, summed up beautifully the hold Ethiopia eventually had on all of us:

As of late, I have been falling in love with Ethiopia. It’s stubborn, ungracious, dirty, dangerous and I absolutely love it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not going to move out here, but I definitely feel that Ethiopia will always have a special spot in my heart.


***

Friends, family, and readers of this blog have been asking me "what's next?" After two months bumming on the couch at home, I moved to Washington, DC, where I'm working for Dance Place in the development office and NARAL Pro-Choice America's organizing and affiliate office. So far, both jobs are going well. I'm particularly enjoying being surrounded by young, motivated, and socially conscious women at NARAL after two years of working almost exclusively with men. And I'm looking forward to free dance classes! My cab driver from the airport was an Ethiopian, so I was able to shock him with a few basic greetings and then we discussed Meles' merits (or lack thereof). I love this city.

As for what's next... After the Marshall scholarship debacle, I went ahead and applied direct to St. Andrews University in Scotland and hope to be studying for a master's degree in international security studies next September. I'll continue posting here as I come across interesting things, but probably less prolifically for a while. Thanks to everyone who's followed this blog for the last few years!