24 December 2007

I cannot be played in record player X


I'm trying so hard, honestly. It's just that complications are so tempting and ingrained. I'm king at fretting over trivial decisions. I figure I should eliminate the decisions entirely.

I used to live in the most beautiful place in the world. I grew up there. Funny how I had to move away before I could understand. I'm visiting home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, now. I go for walks at night. It's so cold and clear and dark and crisp, I try to burn the mountains into my mind, and the snowy piñon-shadowed hills into my veins. The only sound is the muffled crunch of my boots in the snow until I stop and then I'm left alone with my heartbeat and the wind drifting through the trees.

This is where I find contentment. I don't need anything. I don't want anything. My hands and face are so cold they hurt, but they're part of the scene, part of the landscape. I could walk for hours here, where there is more sky and stars than land and lights, I could walk the rest of my life here.

It's so calm. It's not happiness, it's space. Remembering for a moment how to take a breath in a whirlwind. Why shouldn't I spend the rest of my nights walking, breathing? La Llorona, wandering the hills, arroyos, and dirt roads...but I wouldn't be crying, I would just be there. I wouldn't need anything else. No other contact. No other adventures. No challenges, triumphs, failures, or trivialities. Just space.

Simplify. Is that why some people become monks and nuns? To spend the days meditating or praying, to strip away layer by layer to find bare contentment?

If I decided to, I think I could do it. Walk through the nights and eat just enough and sleep just enough in the day that I could continue walking.

Funny how I'm not wired that way. Funny how it's always such a struggle to get myself out the door, to jam my feet into boots and throw on a coat. It's cold and wet outside. Why would I want to tear myself away from this warm couch and warm computer where I atrophy and worry and decay and agonize and and bloat and stitch myself into a pile of discontent? Funny how I never stay walking for long because there are other things I must do, projects that are calling, obligations I must answer. I wasn't wired to mildly step out of everything. Humans weren't wired to be content. We have to keep moving, we have to try new things, find new niches, anything we achieve is forgotten as the next patch of greener grass comes into view. We weren't wired to stand still and catch our breath. Evolution marches on. Our genes march on. Our memes march on. They won't propagate if we remove ourselves from everything to find bare contentment. I'm here because none of my ancestors removed themselves, they kept marching. And by marching, I mean thrashing wildly at the world, life is never ordered.

One day, when I'm old enough, and wise enough, and strong enough, I'll step away and spend my life walking nights. But now I'm young and foolish and brash, and I can't shake the feeling that maybe there's something I should be doing, that maybe I can change something, that maybe someone needs me, that maybe I'm wasting everything by just walking.

Oh man, and in the meantime, sometime soon I'd better spend an entire night walking, just as a nice little reality check to knock some sense back into my head. Or knock it out.

24 October 2007


Dear World,

I love my job.

31 August 2007


Just returned from Mwape. 4 hours on a bus, then 2 hours on a dirt road in the Chieftainess' Land Rover. Jess has done this 5 times before, so it's all old hat for her. The Chief is a modern woman, seems lonely. I think she was reluctant to become Chief when her family unanimously nominated her four years ago. She used to be an assistant accountant at Zesco, Zambia's only electric company. She gave the paychecks out to the workers.

Mwape == remote. A teacher told us he bikes 43 km on the dirt road and climbs a particular tree to find cellphone reception to call home. No electricity in the entire village, except 3 solar panels: one at the school, 2 at the Chief's palace. So dark. But at night, you can always hear children laughing and shouting. Sounds like they're just over the next hill or down the road. One morning I awoke before it was light and heard a chorus of voices singing. Lay in bed and listened for a while, then got up and wandered down the dark dusty path to find them. Walked a long way and they stopped when the sun rose, so I walked back.

The children call out and follow when we walk by. Most know Jess's name already and they shout it when we pass. So many kids. I went to watch a soccer game on my own, and a crowd of 25ish children accumulated around me, quietly watching me as I looked over their heads and pretended to focus on the soccer players. A woman looked at the swarm of kids, then laughed and with a mischievous grin and told me in English her son was sick, could I touch his head and heal him? I never considered myself a "kid person," but here they smile at me and laugh with delight if I smile back and I just want to scoop them up in my arms and take them home with me. One of the Mwape reports says 48.8% of the population is under 15.

Soccer game was awesome. Fans stood on the sides of the dusty pitch and sang as players raced past. Each time someone scored a goal, everyone ran onto the field yelling and cheering. The soccer uniforms sure looked spiffy for a place where people battle with malnourishment and bilharzias. One of the most incredible sights I've seen: when the game ended, all the fans ran onto the field singing--the colors on their clothes swirled through the clouds of dust on the field as the sun set.

Mwape has so many problems. The basic school is gypped out of the textbooks it's supposed to receive from the government. There isn't enough classroom space, because there’s a teacher living in a classroom, because there’s not enough teacher housing, so they cut the classroom time for the kids. Drinking water is contaminated, it's hard to get chlorine, virtually no one uses soap and the place is so friggin remote that farmers can't sell extra crops for income because transport is so hard. But the community feels vibrant, even when kids have distended, malnourished little bellies. Haha. We’re so ridiculous. D-Lab is only here twice a year, well-meaning muzungus intruding. We don’t have a clue.

21 August 2007

One five pin

Tomorrow, we are going to Mwape. They have problems every season with elephants trampling and eating crops. Not in Kansas anymore.

Yesterday, back to the Hospital to meet some friends and another dean. We found a Zambian medical student who will travel with us to translate in Mwape. Walked through a ward. Nightmarish. Zambian doctors are brave, strong people. Haha, highlight, looking up in a developing world hospital and seeing a sign with an arrow: "<-- Biomedical Engineering Department" I smiled really hard.

Back to Disacare. More smiles. Lunch in the back, sitting in the dirt, talking to the mechanics, scooping scathing hot nshima with my fingers.

Out to Chilanga again to talk to the nuns at the Hospice. Peter/ Kayhana starting talking to me in the street and followed me on the bus there and back. Explicitly told him he couldn't follow me home. Nice guy...or crafty social engineer. Still looking over my shoulder and hoping he's not there. Eh, in any case, taught me a little more Nyanga. Hospice clinic is a little slice of heaven compared to hospital. Clean, bright, and full of nuns. What could be better?

20 August 2007

Split tilpS

I'm flying high on Zambia. Jess and I went back out to Chilanga, Freedom compound to see Leonard to arrange some plans for D-Lab. He was in the middle of running a soccer game to raise awareness for AIDS. It was so cool, I don't have the words. In the middle of an up-and-coming squatter's community, watching a soccer game, surrounded by curious ragtag children, watching Lenny walk around the soccer field and talk to people individually about AIDS. Those kids. I had a little posse of girls following me around, they must have been 4-5 years old, imitating what I did, sometimes we had little conversations with broken Nyanga and English, but mostly with smiles. I wanted to sweep them all up in my arms and take them home with me. And I don't even like kids.

19 August 2007


It hit home today that I'm in the middle of southern Africa. The previous few days have been hectic, I haven't had much time to let it sink in--running from meeting to meeting around Lusaka with deans and more deans...at the University of Zambia, the Dean of Agriculture, the Dean of Engineering, another dean...then to the hospital to meet with the Dean of Medicine, and medical students there who have helped with D-Lab in the past. They have bars on the doors of all the offices in the University. Feels kind of like a prison at first glance, but heh heh heh, unlocking padlocks is waaay more satisfying than huffing at the stupid card reader at MIT that never recognizes my card.

My favorite so far was visiting Disacare -- a Zambian organization where various people with disabilities build wheelchairs for other Zambians. It is where Jess has been working to design and build bicycle ambulances. (Jess has been here 5 times before and she's showing me the ropes.) Saw a few Zambulances being welded together, met the workers, got a marriage proposal--great place.

But today, we took a bus (*they pack the busses full full, no room for aisles, packed right between the businessman and the potatoes) out to Chilanga, spent 1.5 hours waiting to meet up with people. (Transportation is especially unpredictably inefficient because all the presidents in southern Africa are meeting in Zambia this week, and they keep closing random roads.) It gave me the chance to sit by the side of the road and just watch people. Little kids always smile and wave back. Women carrying babies will usually smile and wave back, too, although a little more shyly. A soldier stopped and talked to me. He grinned and asked if I was "relazzing." Yeah, I said, I was relaxing.

Eventually, Jess and I met up with Leonard, who was running an AIDS training workshop at a church at a compound called Freedom. Every bench was filled with dark smiling faces, carefully taking notes about the immune system. Then we ran back to the main road to catch a bus over to the Hospice Clinic. We talked to a nun there about working with D-lab and checked in on the bike ambulance they have. The nun told us to come back on Monday when they're less busy, and the bike ambulance was broken--and looked as if it were never used. We agreed to take it off their hands, repair it and give it to the community of Linda nearby that had a bike ambulance already that they use regularly. Then we jumped in Kenny's (from Disacare) truck bed (woah, truck beds open on all sides here, not just the back!) with the bike ambulance, picked up a few hitchikers who jumped in the bed with us, and drove to Linda to meet Johnny, guardian angel of Linda. He runs a community center where we saw him teaching a class on clean drinking water to a room full of women and their babies. Sat and talked to some of the women who work at the center for a long time. Bussed back home again, more bussing for groceries, then home again and Emmanuel gave us an impromptu Nyanja language lesson. (Professor Emmanuel Matsika attended IDDS and is now hosting us in his home across the street from the University of Zambia.)

The astounding moment when it all finally set in was when I looked at my hand and was shocked by its paleness. The only other muzungus (whiteys) I've seen here were at the shopping block and the nuns at Hospice. You know you're in Africa when you forget you're white.

14 August 2007

Robodog takes town

I'm going to Zambia tomorrow.

I am the luckiest girl in the whole entire world, so just tell me that when I come back with malarial polio-infested yellow fever.

Among other things...
Objective #1: Find a new not-so-remote village that D-Lab students can work with during the rainy season
Objective #2: Touch base with contacts in Mwape, current remote village, and get updates on ongoing projects

A year ago, I decided my dream job was working for Amy Smith and traveling to the D-Lab sites. I'm going to lead trips to Zambia over the next year.

Someone pinch me.

Right on the heels of IDDS. I just had a few days buffer time to pack my room, move my stuff to my apartment, and pack for Zambia. This is insane. And [grin] wonderful.

18 July 2007

IDDS -- a month of Fridays

I think...we're finally through the valley of death [knockonwood knockonwood]. The last four days have been killer. All the organizers have literally been working 18+ hour days...and I'm fucking tired, but very very very content. Today, official day #2, was not so bad, and hopefully, tomorrow will be better. I've been so worried about the participants, worried about their flights, making sure they arrive safely here, have food to eat, sheets on their beds, pans in their kitchens...hahaha...latest fiasco -- scholarship checks. We have stipends for living expenses for a few participants while they're here. They are in check form. I started passing out a few checks and got a lot of blank stares. It seems many had never seen a check before. Makes sense in retrospect--why would you need checks if you live in a village in Tanzania? Here I was, I had written out these nice set of instructions with a map about where to cash the check, and suddenly it felt very very dangerous to hand this precious slip of paper to someone and have them try to cash it on their own. Especially when they would need the money for buying food. Great, I thought, I just organize a little field trip to the bank and we can all go together. Haha. The IDDS schedule is so bloody packed it's been infuriatingly impossible to find a time to take people over. Must try again tomorrow, not a complete disaster because we've been feeding them three meals a day so far.

Not to mention that I'm now locked out of my dorm because our keynote speaker, Paul Polak, has my room key, Amy Smith's room key, and my MIT ID card that I use to swipe into the dorm. And now he's in New York. I drove him to the airport, and he borrowed it (it was all on the same keychain) to get his bag out of Amy's room. We both forgot he had it and now it's far away. He's supposed to mail it to me, but I just discovered Tim sent me a postcard weeks ago to my address, and it's lost...meaning that the keys and such are likely to get lost too. WOOHOO! Bring it on. Besides, Paul Polak is an appropriate technology god, and in some twisted way, it's kind of cool that I lost my stuff to him.

Anyway, today was splendid. This really is a magnificent event. The energy is overwhelming. Tonight we had a mind smashingly awesome presentation from Peter Girguis, a professor at Harvard that harnesses microbes in dirt to make electricity. Seriously. And Shawn Frayne, D-Lab alum, who's inventing a revolutionary, deceptively simple, micro wind generator that uses a vibrating membrane. Kind of like the Tacoma Narrows bridge on a small scale. Bloody amazing.

...AND I LEARNED HOW TO SAY THANK YOU IN TIBETAN. (sounds kind of like "qua-gin-ch")

15 July 2007

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

My life is exploding.

Cee, being the badass she is, brought me THAI CURRY PASTE! red and green curry!! From THAILAND!!! She bought it fresh in the market and bravely smuggled it through customs and airport security from Bangkok to Boston. Came all wrapped up in little bags with a rubber bands. [sigh] Just like everything in Thailand is wrapped up in little bags with rubber bands. [sigh] One whiff of the stuff and I nearly died from happiness convulsions. Which brings me to my shameless plug: Cee knows Thai food really well. If you're interested in making authentic Thai food, check out the recipes and scintillating photos on her website: www.realthairecipes.com. It's breathtaking.

IDDS starts on Monday. 29 hours. I've been thinking about this for years, and working on it for the last 9 months. I'm helping Amy Smith organize the International Development Design Summit. Hahaha. It's really a mouthful. This is crazy crunch time. between trying to make sure everything's ready for the kick off on Monday, and getting 40 people with different flights from the airport to here including all the hazards of international, delayed, and missed flights, to making sure everyone's suite has cookware (totally underestimated the effort on that one) to dealing with sheets and check in mistakes, not to mention interacting with the intense documentary crew that's here to film every fiasco, I'd say every organizer of this event (there's about a dozen of us) has had a harrowing, jam packed day. And I'm having the time of my life. And the event hasn't even bloody officially started yet.

Life has entered the surreal zone. A few days ago, TIME magazine did a photo shoot of Amy in D-Lab (because she does great things and everyone loves her). And there I was, fly on the wall, puttering about, trying to tie up more loose ends for the summit. I can't believe I'm doing this. I can't believe I'm here. Other adventures include transforming a rat infested room into a shiny machine shop, cold talking to restaurant managers for donations [shiver, shiver], and meeting people from Tibet, Zambia, Haiti, Guatemala, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Brazil, Tanzania... as they trickle from the airport into the dorms. These are the people I'm going to be working with for the next month. I can't believe this is happening.

(and I held my own in a Spanish conversation with Carlos who just a few days ago was working with my man Gavin Boggs at MayaPedal in Guatemala! ...this is the summer my Spanish is going to get much, much better because there will be so many people to practice with...)

"Sometimes I sneak in at night and blast things."
Two wishes instead of plastic flowers.

It's hard and fun and boring and chaotic and goofy and disorganized and challenging and happening.

And just in case I've somehow missed you with my waves of emails, check out www.iddsummit.org. Come to the public events! Especially our keynote speaker, Paul Polak, this Monday, July 16th. He's a HUGE player in the appropriate technology realm...he founded International Development Enterprises (IDE). An example of IDE ingenuity: producing a Bollywood film to promote and advertise their treadle pump. It should be an incredible talk.

06 July 2007

Round and round

Hahahahahahahahaha! How amusing! Apparently, "I've been thinking a lot about happiness" for a while...it seems to be the common thread running through all my disparate posts in the past few months. Humdrum...my mind's running the same track over and over...

Breathing faster

Best Fourth of July I ever had. Spent the day helping to build a raft out of some plywood lashed to a pair of old windsurfing boards with used bike inner tubes. We launched it on the Charles at Magazine beach about 8 pm, it stayed afloat beautifully. Three of us with 2 very tiny paddles and a paddle improvised with wood, screws, more bike inner tube. Rafted down the river about a mile, under the BU bridge, under the Mass Ave bridge. Lots of grins and comments from kayakers, canoers, and motor boaters who passed us on the way. It was dark by the time we reached the fireworks barge. Boston, being one of those patriotic revolutionary cities, always throws a grand fireworks spectacle from a barge in the middle of the Charles River. People crowd the edges of the riverbank and the tops of buildings, but we were in the front lines, floating on the water, as close as we could get to the barge without drawing attention of the Coast Guard. It was so surreal, surrounded by glinting sky scrapers that echoed and fractured the music from speakers along the river, we floated silently on the dark water between gleaming yachts and kayaks that darted between them. It was kind of raining, but we were already wet, and the water was warm. The fireworks were so close…every cell in my body shook, and the explosions reflected off the skyscrapers… There were other MIT kids with homemade rafts, but I think we were the only ones that didn’t get kicked off the river…

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness recently. It seems like I should be able to dissect its elements and engineer a state of being happy all the time, right? [snicker snicker] That’s how I approach problems. Like a scientific experiment. This is very sad, but a few days ago I started an excel chart to track my happiness. I’m convinced it comes and goes in periodic waves…and proving that to myself will somehow make everything better, right? Hahahahaha…I really should run away and lock myself in a monastery. I’m chasing all the wrong things.

27 June 2007

Vintage whine

I feel so stagnant. Something needs to change. I have to change something. I want to cut my hair short again. I’ve been looking at photos from Thailand, I like my hair short. Even though I know at the time, I just wanted it to be longer again. It’d also be a kind of “fuck you, world” statement. Ha ha. Just another cliché. I need to go to another country. Someplace else. Anywhere but Boston. I need more adventures, memories that stick out because they’re so odd. Even though I know, at the time, such adventures are AWKWARD and UNCOMFORTABLE.

Happiness is a bike. racing down mass ave at 3 am. random choice encounters. but only in small quantities.

[Hums] “I never loved nobody fully. Always kept one foot on the ground.”

Contentment is pulling myself out of sludge and WORKING on things. Making them done. And it’s not the DONE that’s happy, it’s the MAKING.

I like building things. Just like I like learning Spanish. Or Thai. It’s hard, but I should do it because it makes me happy. Instead of rotting into a soft sludge puddle of apathy.

I’ve been eating Boston too long. It’s that stomach ache rumble from too much candy. I didn’t think 3 summers was too much. Restless.

29 March 2007

"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." --Mae West

10 February 2007

More Whine

My lungs feel like they’re size of a tea cup. I thought indulging in some self pity might be therapeutic.

Last week began with a few days of coughing and dull chest pain…which became sharp chest pain…became much worse…and then clima into a field trip to the ER. I napped on a comfy stretcher and floated in and out of consciousness between bouts of a flurry of different tests and blood samples. Highlights include the x-ray and the CAT scan. And the forensics magazine in the ER waiting room that was full of cheesy, melodramatic articles about assessing corpses. Some of them cited Wikipedia.

Finally, “You just have really bad pneumonia in both lungs.”

Great. My lungs are now inflamed sacks of fluid, which explains the pain. They sent me home with a prescription for antibiotics, lots of ibuprofen, and a warning to come back if I couldn’t breathe again.

Funny thing was that I felt fantastic immediately after coming back from the ER. Better than I had in weeks. It even felt as if I had been somehow profoundly changed by the experience. I wanted to run around and shake people and say, “Look! See? I’m changed! I’m a different person!”

My coughing decreased, the chest pain disappeared, and I thought I was going to make a record recovery. It stayed that way for a few days, and I was religiously careful about taking my antibiotics, drinking lots of fluids, and bundling up to protect my lungs from the freeze-dried New England air.

Then, night before last, the sharp chest pain reappeared. This time, it wasn’t enough to impede breathing…but enough to take 10 minutes of tears and grunts to get out of bed and grab my bottle of ibuprofen.


And now, a new development--yesterday I was winded after just walking down the hall. I guess all that fluid and inflammation doesn’t leave a lot of room for oxygen. Makes it hard to laugh.

If nothing else, it’s given me a good dose of empathy for people who deal with hidden pain on a daily basis. There’s not much I can do about my pain except pop a few more ibuprofen and sit it out. I feel strangely trapped. I can’t express to people when I’m in pain because it would worry them and there’s nothing they can do either. And there’s also this irrational shame that if I had taken better care of myself or done something different, I wouldn’t have pneumonia.

But I don’t want sympathy or empathy. I want it to go away. What really stings is to have felt like I was recovering so fast, and then crash down to a worse place than before. Clearly, I fucked up somewhere. Maybe it was last Friday night. Walking through that cold, damp, soccer field, and staying so long out there was not a smart move. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t been drinking as much fluids the past few days. Or I really should have taken the time off classes to just stay in my room and rest. Or spent more time searching for a voodoo doll in Tim’s room.

[Insert rose-colored glasses.]

Blessing count:

  1. I’m young. If I were old or really young, this would kill me.
  2. I had almost a week of feeling pretty awesome.
  3. I’ve never ridden in an ambulance before. Great experience. Hope it never happens again.
  4. Olin is full of really nice people. Probably couldn't have picked a better place to have pneumonia. A big thanks to Andrew Coats, Tim Hanna, Jessie Lin, and Ryan Hubbard for their help.
  5. I will get better. Be a low pass filter. In a few months, this will all seem really funny and I’ll have loads of oxygen to laugh hard about it.