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Something special happens from time to time in a Galway pub. It begins with a few taps of a pint glass; then a chorus of “shhhhhhhhh” builds; then an eerie silence; then, from the corner of the bar someone – usually an older gentleman or lady, but often a young person as well – begins to sing.

The choice of songs range – I’ve heard everything from Danny Boy to Proud Mary. The quality ranges as well. But each time nearly everyone chooses to listen in silent reflection.

The most interesting thing about this phenomenon for me is not the particular songs that are sung or their entertainment value, but the informal rules that govern the process.

It seems quite difficult to compel people to do just about anything in a pub. Drinking, by nature, releases inhibitions and makes people particularly unruly – and loud. So, to compel complete strangers, most of whom are inebriated, to sit in silence for several minutes would seem to require a great deal of force. Clearly, it would seem, we would need to declare a rule to this effect and back it up with the requisite enforcement capability.

But, exactly the opposite is true. There is no posted rule telling us to be quiet when someone sings. And there is no one threatening to compel us to follow the rule if we choose to be deviant. Instead, time after time, it just works.

Granted, the explanation for this could just be that people are conformers. If we see most people do something, then we’ll just follow along. Another explanation could just be our desire to be respectful. If someone asks for our attention, whatever the reason, we feel compelled to give it. But I think there is more at play than a mere desire to conform or be respectful. If people tried to quiet the room to express something of less meaning – to make a fart sound or tell a tasteless joke – I think people would be far less compelled to remain silent…our need to conform or pay respect would not be as strong. In these cases, we would need a rule and perhaps some enforcement to remain silent.

I think what keeps everyone quiet is the recognition that something authentically and deeply felt is being expressed. We see that the person has something of meaning to share, and as a result, we feel compelled to pay homage. In this way it becomes wrong to prevent someone from expressing this deeply valued feeling. This explains why it feels wrong when someone in the bar continues to talk during a solo. You can see it in people’s eyes…they sense injustice.

Thus, there seems to be something right about expressing ourselves deeply, honestly…vulnerably. It seems to be something we need to, and should, do as humans. And, when we see someone else make the choice to do so, it seems right to pay our respects, if only because witnessing such an act  stirs something deep within us as well.

Or maybe that’s just the Guinness talking.

There have been two especially popular topics in the world of development/aid blogs this week.

The first is this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, which I insist you watch.

Adichie’s “single story” framework resonated strongly with me and she does a great job of describing how harmful the single story can really be.

The second hot topic is Nick Kristof’s Sunday column in the New York Times, in which he aims to tell a “blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous.”  Kristof goes on to highlight the problem of poor people in Africa spending money on alcohol, cigarettes, and other items instead of spending it on their children’s education.  Kristof lays out this problem as if the entire continent is choosing alcohol over education, and doesn’t stop to consider the nuance that’s inevitable here.  Wronging Rights does an excellent take-down of this article, picking apart a number of his arguments.  In essence, they remind us that 1) education is often a public good, and family spending on education (depending on where you are) may be very low; and 2) although spending on alcohol, cell phones, and elaborate parties may take money away from other parts of a family’s budget, it is nearsighted to think of them as luxury items.  All of the above are usually associated with close community relationships, and social capital is acknowledged as an important element of raising oneself out of poverty.

But what I want to highlight here is the serendipity of the two topics being published around the same time.  Kristof, trying to tell a new story about Africa that does not “romanticize poverty” (as he claims aid workers tend to do), ends up retelling the Single Story about Africa.  In this story, the Poor African Father is unable to think long-term, is childlike and self-centered in prioritizing his desire for a drink ahead of his children’s education, and is in fact the reason why his family will remain poor.  Nevermind the fact that alcoholism is an often unacknowledged, heartbreaking, and ubiqutous problem all over the world – the Poor African Father is especially guilty of harm because he is poor.

Meanwhile, Adichie reminds us that telling these Single Stories not only flattens reality, but is dangerous.  In presenting drunken dads and miserible, uneducated children as the norm of African life, Kristof teaches his fellow Americans to pity and look down on anyone from Africa and to assume that war, disease, and poverty are inevitable there.  If you’ve spent any time engaging in other stories about Africa, you will probably come away with another conclusion.  I certainly have.

Bill and I getting ready for a rollercoaster ride in Bremen, Germany. October 2009.

The Mitchell Scholars’ third set of reflections about our time in Ireland has been posted.  I’m re-posting mine here, but you should definitely check out the other scholars’ writing too!

***

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that you are asked a thousand times as a child, and with less frequency as an adult. At various points in my life, I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to be (in no particular order): an archaeologist, journalist, Broadway actress, Vanna White, neonatologist, gymnast, explorer, or rainforest researcher. I’ve been asking the question to myself lately, trying to decide what my next step should be in my quest to become someone who does international development work for a living. But as I ponder what I hope to become, I can’t help but think about who I want to become. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The what is about profession and the who is about character.

My time in Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar has introduced me to a number of people that give me insight and inspiration into what and who I want to be. I’ve encountered them at Mitchell events, in my program here at NUI Galway, and in my daily life in and around this beautiful country.

Let’s start with someone pretty easy, and fairly obvious: George Mitchell. Although I haven’t met him, this year has given me a lot of exposure to his life and work. The sheer number of roles that Senator Mitchell has taken on is inspiring – judge, Senator, peace broker, Chancellor of Queens University Belfast… the list goes on. Although I could probably write a dissertation-length essay about how Senator Mitchell inspires me professionally, I’ll just highlight one point here. After a life filled to the brim with public service, Senator Mitchell has certainly earned a relaxing retirement on the golf course in Arizona. Instead, he said yes when he was asked to take on arguably today’s most challenging issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His life-long commitment to service is something I will always strive to emulate in my own career.

Another person that I have taken career inspiration from is Naila Kabeer. Dr. Kabeer is one of the preeminent scholars on women’s employment and empowerment in the Global South. My department hosted her for a public lecture last week, and she also facilitated a private session with my classmates and me earlier in the day. Dr. Kabeer has spent her career trying to understand how women are able to make decisions in their lives, and her research directly impacts what development agencies do on the ground. Dr. Kabeer’s explicit link between academia and the lived experience of marginalized people is something I hope to be able to bring to my career as well, no matter what role I am in.

While Senator Mitchell and Dr. Kabeer have taught me a lot about what I want to be professionally, others I have met in Ireland have reminded me of how I want to live my life. Of course, it goes without saying that I am constantly learning from the other Mitchell Scholars and taking inspiration from them. I still cannot get over how energetic and ready to learn the group is – constantly open to new experiences and new ideas. And I could extol their virtues for another dissertation-length essay. I will spare you the mushy stuff, this time, but please know that the Mitchells are a well of perpetual inspiration for me.

My Irish friend Bill has been a model for me in terms of the kind of person I want to be, as he is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Hospitality may seem a minor thing – that is, until you are lost and alone in a new place and don’t know who to turn to for help. Michael met Bill right at the start of the year and introduced Jon and me to him several days after we arrived in Galway. From the start, Bill has been warm, welcoming, and helpful. Anytime we have had a stupid question about Irish life, we’ve known that Bill is the person to ask. He always gives great advice and doesn’t make you feel like a fool for asking about the tipping protocol at a café or where to find reasonably priced office supplies. Bill’s ability to take in total strangers and treat them as equals and friends is something I would like to practice in my own life. Although I think that Irish people generally do welcoming and hospitality quite well as a culture, I still think that Bill wins an award for the best!

If you’ve been reading the other Mitchell scholar’s entries already, I have a feeling you’ve stumbled across a character known to us fondly as Sir John. Sir John is a 94-year-old aristocrat from Monaghan and a man who has lived a very full life. Growing up in Castle Leslie, a glorious estate on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Sir John led an exceptional life from the beginning. He went on to fight in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war. Sir John later traveled the globe, and settled for 40 years in Rome, rehabilitating old buildings to their former splendor. When he returned to Ireland 15 years ago, Sir John decided to focus his energy on something new: dancing. Not just old time Irish step dancing, but clubbing. Weekly, Sir John gets dressed in his Saturday best and hits up his two favorite Monaghan spots, the Squealing Pig pub and the Forum club. We were invited for a night out with Sir John during our midyear retreat at Castle Leslie and danced alongside him while he jumped enthusiastically to Lady Gaga. It really was a sight to behold. After meeting Sir John, I have taken a new approach to thinking about aging. Now, I don’t want to age gracefully, but I want to age the way that he has: with reckless abandon and complete joy.

These examples represent just a handful of those I’ve taken inspiration from this year. I know that I will always look back to my year as a Mitchell Scholar as hugely formative – not just professionally, but personally as well.

For some reason, I have a hard time admitting to people that I’m currently studying philosophy. When people ask what I’m doing in Ireland while Lauren completes her Mitchell scholarship, I usually mention my work for an Evanston-based law firm, my pathetic attempts to learn some French and grow some herbs and vegetables, and then, with eyes down and voice trailing off, add that I’m also doing a course in philosophy.

I suppose this is true for a few reasons.  For one, I’m not very sure myself what philosophy actually is. Thus, if/when pressed to elaborate, I get nervous and ramble off incoherent platitudes and unassertive evasions. Also, I struggle internally about the wisdom of taking on debt to do a graduate degree in a subject that doesn’t have direct career implications while staring down a forthcoming job search in the worst economy in a generation. (I guess philosophy teaches you to think about wisdom, but not to practice it…)

But, I suppose the key reason for my hesitance is that I know how philosophers are often perceived by people (including myself). They are those peculiar folks that have an air of arrogance and aloofness. They can write hundreds of pages about single words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, and ‘happiness’ but they can’t give you a straight answer about anything. They lack any applied skills that can actually make a measurable difference to people’s lives here and now like engineers or teachers or doctors do. At best, they can give someone a few different ways to think about a particular question. At worst, they can only ask a question in a needlessly confusing way.

I suppose this is why I took such joy in a recent article by Simon Critchley posted in a new New York Times blog on philosophy called The Stone. In it Critchley asks the question, What is a Philosopher?

He starts by recalling the story that Socrates tells in his dialogue Theaetetus about Thales. Thales – perhaps the world’s first philosopher – falls into a well while concentrating on the stars with curious awe. A servant girl then passes by and comments that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky, Thales forgot what was going on right in front of his face.

This story reminded me of the time during my freshmen year at Northwestern that I crashed my bike into a car stopped at a stoplight while riding to a political theory class where we were reading Rosseau’s Social Contract. In class I wanted to ask the professor whether Rosseau intended the social contract to be a literal activity that societies undertake, or if it is more of a hypothetical device to explain how states derive their legitimacy. If we are literally supposed to come together at some time and place and form a contract, what happens when new members enter the community later – like immigrants. Are they part of the social contract? Are they outside it? Does the contract evolve? Or do the newcomers have to change to assimilate into pre-existing contractual agreements? Steeped in thought, I veered right and, in the middle of Sheridan Road just outside of the Kellogg School of Management and in front of at least a few hundred students rushing to class, I crashed. Quietly, I later paid the car’s owner a few hundred dollars I didn’t have for door panel damage and rode my bike with crooked handle bars for the rest of the year.

But, could there be value behind the philosopher’s seeming absent-mindedness and lack of acute skill? Critchley thinks so, and so does Socrates. Critchley writes,

“Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ”bent and stunted” and they are compelled “to do crooked things. The pettifogger is undoubtedly successful, wealthy and extraordinarily honey-tongued, but, Socrates adds, “small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster.” The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.”

And,

“Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.”

Thus, at his or her best, the philosopher pursues questions that go unasked in contexts where the next news cycle, election, or quarterly profit report are the only outcomes that matter (even if this means falling into a well or crashing a bike from time to time). And, the philosopher engages others in this pursuit, approaching anyone, no matter the size of their bank account, the color of their skin, or the number of SAT vocab words they can rattle off, with the same genuine desire to listen, to learn, and to dialogue.

I’m still pretty sure I don’t want to be a full-time philosopher when I grow up. Too much of a desire to be in-the-world working on practical problems. But, at least now  I might be able to look someone in the eye when they ask me what I’m doing this year.

I awoke this morning to an email from the people at Andrew Sullivan – a photo I took in Donegal and submitted was the View from Your Window yesterday! Check it out. 🙂

We visited the gorgeous Ross Strand beach while driving the Ring of Kerry with my dad and uncle.  I love the red in the sand and mountains and the blue sea and sky!  It was a gorgeous day.

Two weeks ago, Jon and I were in Bray, just south of Dublin, for our friend Laura’s birthday celebration.  It rained like crazy while we took the commuter train down to Bray, and we waited out the last couple minutes of the storm in the train station.  As soon as the rain let up, the sun started shining through the clouds, and Jon and I knew we were in rainbow territory. It only took a minute to find one forming in the sky, in the direction of the beach.  We rushed towards it, hoping to enjoy it before it disappeared.

This was the biggest, brightest rainbow I’ve ever had the chance to see.  We spent the next 15 minutes admiring, snapping photos, and walking along the beach.

The reflection in the puddles was pretty cool.

A stunning look at the Irish sea looking north towards Dublin, and then south towards Bray Head.

More cool reflections.

And shot of us together before the rainbow vanished.

No pot of gold – the rainbow was treasure enough!

If we haven’t posted in some time (and we haven’t), it’s because we’ve been busybusybusy.

Busy working on our dissertations.

Busy tending to our little garden.

And most recently, busy bouncing around all over Ireland with our visitors, my Dad and Uncle Cliff.

Cliff in Howth, Co. Dublin

Dad in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Dad and Jon at Carrick-a-Rede, Northern Ireland

Jon, Dad, and Cliff at Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland.

More photos to come from the trip.

But now, back to busily working away on dissertation stuff!

welcome…

Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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