And I’m Back…. (or Why I ET’ed)

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.  I’ve been back in the States for about a month and a half now, and I guess I’ve just been pre-occupying myself with other things.  It’ll be a little strange to readers to see a jump between contacting me in Ethiopia and the dreaded ‘ETing’ post. I actually wrote several posts while I was at site, had almost no Internet access in country.  When I did, it was limited and slow, so I spent most of my Internet time checking my email or facebook.  If I wasn’t doing this, then I was trying to catch up on a month’s worth of news as I also had very little access to English language news stations.  I’ve debated putting some of these posts up after the fact. I may still do it, but for now I guess I owe you all an explanation for why I find myself back home.

ETing is never an easy decision; you put so much into the process of getting into Peace Corps from the months of desperately waiting by the phone or inbox (or both), to getting ready to leave, and everything in between.  For me, the hardest part was just getting on the damn plane in Atlanta.  When you’re waiting around in the American airport, knowing that this is the last time for a long time that you’ll be on American soil, it all hits home: the gravity of what you’re about to do. You’re leaving everything that you know and love behind.  Standing in this place that has no other purpose but transition, you call everyone you know and hear their voices for what feels like the last time.  Then you hope to pass out on the plane.  When you wake up, you’re in a new place and the transition has really begun.

But this post isn’t about a plane flight.  It just starts there.  What happened next was exhilarating and frustrating; painful, and amazing.  I made wonderful friends along the way and got to do some crazy things, but at the end of the day I was drowning.  This could be a very long post, as there was no single thing that drove me home.  There were many things that pilled on each other that made staying impossible.  I’ll give you all a few examples, though, and explain why I made the decision to leave.

A lot of it started with training.  I was going through my own set of problems; problems that are common to many PCV’s.  I wasn’t unique, though for some reason I was treated that way by the office.  I cried in public once or twice, which again wasn’t unusual.  I had left a boyfriend that I loved, and I was having some problems with other volunteers. This was compounded with the sheer stress of moving to a place like Ethiopia.  It would get overwhelming at times.

The first incident happened on the Fourth of July when I spent the night at a volunteer’s house rather than going home to my host family.  I had told them days in advance and they were totally fine with it.  I didn’t realize that though Peace Corps had been telling us to not go home by ourselves after dark, this only applies to volunteers, _not_ trainees.  It got back to my PST Coordinator, and he pulled me out of my language class to basically threaten me with sending me home.  I had no idea that what I had done was wrong.  In fact, I thought I was doing the responsible thing as my host family lived 1.5 miles away, and we had a lot of hyenas on our street.  Fun fact: hyenas are man-eaters!  Yeah… so this was part of the reason that I didn’t want to go home by myself in the dark.  I explained this to my PST Coordinator and told him that had I known that I wasn’t supposed to do this, I would’ve gone home instead of spending the night at the PCV’s.  I was so shocked that I was a little teary-eyed about it.  He accepted my apology and told me that if something like this happened again, he’d have to write a report and send it to the Country Director to “make a decision,” which was a veiled threat.

All of this got back to my PCMO, so he decided to have a little sit-down with me.  I was exhausted that day because I hadn’t slept for a few nights due to the dog barking directly outside my window night after night.  The stupid animal had this uncanny ability to know right when I was drifting back to sleep and right at that moment he would start barking again, scaring the shit out of me.  So, when my PCMO found me to have our talk, I had my head down on a table taking a nap while everyone else was out having lunch.  This is apparently super odd in Ethiopian culture, so he thought I was depressed rather than sleeping.  I think that was the first 20 minutes of solid sleep that I had had in 3 nights, too.

We start talking, and he asks me if I’m doing OK.  I told him that aside from the cold I was dealing with and the lack of sleep, I felt like I was doing fine.  He then tells me that he’s had a few reports about me crying in public (which is totally taboo in Ethiopian culture – also didn’t know this until that moment), and he was concerned about it.  I told him, yeah, I was stressed about some of the stuff that I had been dealing with, but it’s nothing to be concerned about. The next thing that he said was incredibly shocking and painful.  He said, “You don’t have any friends!  Doesn’t that bother you??”

I didn’t really know what to say.  First off, I did have a lot of friends, they just happened to be at other host family sites.  Second, just because of the way that I’m built, I know that there are some people that I have a hard time getting along with.  It’s not that I get into fights with these people, I just don’t really know what to say to them.  These also happened to be the majority of the 10 PCT’s at my host family site.  To me, that is not a problem as, like I said, there were plenty of other people in our group that I got along with really well.  Finally, I was more successful in integrating into the Ethiopian culture at my host family site than any of the other PCT’s.  I had a lot of Ethiopian friends.  I literally couldn’t walk down the street without bumping into a few people that I knew really well, which wasn’t the case for anyone else at my host family site.  So to me, I was succeeding in my job.

I explained this to my PCMO, and told him that I’m comfortable with my friend situation.  He seemed to be cool with this, and told me that he just wanted to talk to me about it before someone else with decision-making power came up to me to let me know I wasn’t going to be sworn in. He also mentioned that a few people in the office had been trying to figure out if I should be sworn in at all.  Honestly, I didn’t understand what has happening, and why we were having this conversation.  I was shocked, exhausted and deeply hurt.  I still don’t know why I was singled out in this way, as I was not doing anything wrong, nor was I acting any different than any other volunteer.  That night I got a raging stomach ache due to the stress of it all, and spent most of the night on the phone with friends and my APCD.

I would like to note here that my APCD was an amazing person.  She talked to me well into the night, and she was equally shocked that this was happening to me, as no one had talked to her about it.  To her mind, I was acting no different then any other volunteer, and she didn’t know why I was being singled out, either.  She told me to keep her informed and if I needed any help, I could contact her at any time.  It was a very hard night.

Fast-forward two months.  I made it to swearing in, despite spending the night at an Ethiopian hospital a day before with a very bad case of dysentery.  I made it to site, and was welcomed by my counterpart’s girlfriend and everyone else on the compound (my counterpart was off in another town for about a month or two going to classes).  I got along with everyone on my compound very well.  I honestly thought they were amazing people, and my counterpart’s girlfriend quickly became my best friend in town.  However, I was living in a truck-stop town in a region that is notoriously guarded against outsiders.  Integrating into life there was much more difficult than at my host family site.  Almost right away I was dealing with physical harassment.  We were warned during training that we would deal with a lot of verbal harassment, and I had already dealt with some of that at my host family site, but it was the physical harassment that was hard to handle.

There was something new happening every week.  One of the first incidents happened after I’d been at site for a week or two.  I was walking with my counterpart’s girlfriend, Almaz, and her cousin, Helen, to a shop to get wicks for her portable stove.  As we were walking, a guy with a bamboo stick came up behind us and shoved his hand between me and Almaz and started making the universal “give me money” sign.  We told him several times that we didn’t have any money, yet he wouldn’t go away.  He started tapping me on the shoulder and saying “frengi, birr sitching,” – foreigner, give me money.  Again, I told him “birr yellegnem,” – I don’t have any money, but then added “hed! Hed!” -go away! Go away!  He apparently didn’t like this answer, so he smacked me over the head with his bamboo stick and ran.  I chased after him, yelled at him not to touch me, and threw a few swears at him.  A lot of Americans will think this is the wrong reaction, but I had been told more than once by habasha (Ethiopians) that if someone does something to you, then you should humiliate them.  This didn’t work the way I thought it would, and instead of people getting mad at the guy for hitting me with a stick, they all started laughing and mocking me.  After leaving the store, I got several other people coming up to me asking for money and trying to get me to flip out.  It was not fun.

There was another incident where I got groped by an old man.  My town had another PCV that had been there for almost 2 years at that point.  When I got to site, she was in the States to see her sister’s wedding, so I spent time with her counterpart, Fatima.  She was walking me down to Samantha’s boy’s home that was under construction when this old man comes up to us and started shacking my hand.  It was a little difficult to tell if he was being friendly or aggressive, as he wasn’t smiling and seemed to have an angry look on his face.  He invited us in for coffee, but Fatima said no, we shouldn’t in because he’s a little crazy.  So we left, saw her boy’s home, and forgot about it.  We were having a lot of fun goofing around on our walk back when the same old guy came back up to us and grab my hand again.  This time he wouldn’t let go, even though I started pulling away.  He was trying to drag us into his house, saying he’d hosted the Chinese and they gave him the weird hat that he was wearing.  It was _very aggressive_, and I felt very threatened.  As I was trying to pull away, he pulled me closer and grabbed my chest.  Hard.  At this point, Fatima shoved herself between the man and me and pushed him off.  She told him that she was going to get the cops.

She then turns me around and we got a Bajaj (a Bajaj is basically a motorized rickshaw).  She told the Bajaj driver what happened and that she wanted to go to the police.  The guy said it really sucked, but the police couldn’t do anything about it because we didn’t grab the guy and bring him down to the station.  Yes, folks, that’s how it works in Ethiopia.  If you’re attacked, you have to grab your attacker, make him stand with you while you wait for a Bajaj, and bring him down to the police station yourself.  Otherwise, well, they didn’t see it, so what are they going to do about it?  So Fatima asked me if I wanted to go back and get him.  My American readers will understand why I said, ah… no.  The last thing I wanted to do was confront this guy again by myself and try to convince him to get in a Bajaj with me to go to the police station.  So we went home instead.

There were several more incidents like this of varying degrees of violence.  I didn’t report any of it to my APCD because I had gotten the impression that if I said anything, I’d be seen as a whiner. After what I’d gone through in training, I didn’t really trust my office either.  So I just sucked it up and told myself that this was just part of life at site, and I was expected to adapt to it.  About two weeks before I decided to leave, I was called to the next town by my APCD since she was going to be there doing site visit for another PCV.  She wanted to give me some invitations to hand out to key people in town for my own site visit the following week.  While the three of us were sitting there having a nice lunch, she asked us point-blank: “how is the harassment in your towns?”  I told her, you know, I have my days were it’s good and nothing happens, and then there are days were people just feel the need to touch me in inappropriate ways.  On my way over to see her I had two separate incidents within an hour span, so I was feeling frustrated.  But again, I thought this was life at site, so I told her “chiger yellem,” – no problem.

No.  Wrong.  This actually is very much a problem, she told me.  Yes, we’re going to have to deal with verbal harassment, but we should feel safe walking down the street.  We had a long conversation about it, and I told her several things that had happened to me, and she told me that I should make a list of each incident so she could talk to some folks next week during my site visit.  She wanted to get a feel for my town and see if she could do anything to change it.  I also got the feeling that she might move me to another site, and though what I was dealing with sucked, I didn’t want to move to another site, either, as I was honestly just tired of moving and starting over again and again.  I spent the weekend thinking about it and writing my list.  It was longer than even I thought it was going to be.  I also spent a lot of time talking to both my good PCV friends and the peer-support network.  They were very supportive, but told me that this happens everywhere in Ethiopia.  It sounds like I was dealing with it more than at other sites, but physical harassment of that sort is actually pretty common.

But there were two other conversations that left me really unsettled.  The first one was with Samantha, who was now back from the States and getting ready to move to another town for her third year extension.  I told her about some of the things that had happened, and about my conversation with my APCD.  She basically told me to have patients, and that they’re just looking for a reaction, so don’t give it to them.  But what left me really unsettled was that she was really pissed when I told her that I had talked to my APCD about it.  She told me not to tell anyone at the office about stuff that happens at site, because it builds a record.  If a site has a record, then they probably wont send someone to replace them once the current PCV leaves.  She didn’t want to see that happen because she really liked the town, and thought it needed the help.  Though I totally understood this, I felt like she was basically telling me to deal with this on my own, and this was more than I could really handle.  It also left me feeling guilty, as if I had ruined all of her hard work just by answering a question honestly.

The next conversation I had was two days later, Monday, with my PCMO.  All of the literature we are given says that if you’re having emotional problems then we should call the PCMO.  I spent the better part of the weekend debating with myself if I should make this call, as I wasn’t sure how he would react.  But I felt like I needed to talk to someone who didn’t have decision-making power, but was still in the office, about what I was dealing with and how to solve the problem.  At this point, all of the stress that I had been repressing from these encounters was boiling to the surface along with the guilt I was feeling about talking to my APCD at all, and the fear of moving to another site.  All of this was mixed in with the memory of my last sit-down with the PCMO when he told me I didn’t have any friends.  It was not an easy phone call to make.

Nor, as it would turn out, was it an easy phone call to have.  It should be noted here that up until this point, I still wasn’t thinking about ETing.  But this phone call did lead to my decision to leave.  I told him what was going on, explaining a few incidents that had happened (the ones outlined above plus the two that I had on my way to see my APCD).  We talked about where some of this happened.  Yes, there was a part of town where it was about 5-10% more likely to happen, but I had had incidents all over the place.  And, it wasn’t like I had no need to go to that part of town, either, as that is where the police station, bus station and the only stationary store in town are.  Not to mention the market and post office.  However, he told me to avoid this area, and anywhere else that it happens, and to avoid the times of day when it happens.  This translated to: since it happens pretty much everywhere, avoid the entire town, and because you live in a truck-stop town, it happens pretty much all day and night, so basically don’t leave your house.  The habasha told me to make sure to go out with an habasha, but all of my friends worked during the day, so it amounted to the same thing.

If this wasn’t hard enough to hear, what he said next left me shell shocked.  He asked me why I was calling him.  Had I talked to other PCV’s in my group about this, or the peer-support network?  And don’t I have a PCV living in my town?  Have I talked to her?  I should get advice from her, why haven’t I done that?  Do I even get along with her?  Again, I was put in the position of defending myself in a situation that should not have been about accusations.  And again, I did not understand why he was suddenly asking me all of this.  I had been talking to other PCV’s and the peer-support network about this, and trying to come up with good solutions.  I had tried to get advice from Samantha, too, but she was often gone, busy finishing her project, or simply not interested in helping me.  Many PCV’s develop an attitude that newbies need to learn to figure this out on their own, and I always got the sense that she had this feeling towards me.  She had been pretty unhelpful.  I think I saw her a grand total of three times the entire time I was at site.

It should also be noted that though Samantha did deal with a lot of things when she first got to site, it was mainly from children.  When I told her that I was dealing with primarily adult men harassing me, and explained some of the things that happened, she was surprised, as she didn’t deal with the same things.  This was mainly for one reason: you could tell by looking at Samantha’s long hair that she was American.  However, to the habasha, I looked Chinese because I have white skin and short hair.  Neither hair and eye color, nor eye shape seemed to mean anything to them.  There are a lot of issues between the Chinese and the habasha, and because of the massive industrialization that China is doing in their country, many Ethiopians _hate_ the Chinese.  So, because of the way I looked, and mistaken identity politics, I was dealing with more and worse harassment than what Samantha had gone through.  She didn’t really have any advice to give.

I hung up the phone with my PCMO feeling more hurt and insecure than when I had first called.  On that beautiful fall day, I picked the phone back up, called a trusted member of the peer-support network and told her what had just happened.  I never talked about wanting to ET, even at this point I hadn’t made that decision yet, but she could hear it in my voice.  She brought it up, and we talked about what it would mean.  We talked a long time about the process of making the decision, if it was right for me, and if I should wait a while, perhaps until after IST, or make the decision sooner than that.  She was perhaps the most helpful person I had talked to about the entire situation that I was in.  She explained that this really is part of Ethiopian culture, and that I would need to decide if I was willing to put up with it, or if it was too much.  Either decision was fine, as I had dealt with perhaps more than my fair share.

I got off the phone with her and it hit like a ton of bricks… I just couldn’t do it anymore.  What it really came down to was not so much that it was part of the culture, but rather that I would always feel like I wouldn’t be able to get the support I needed to make it through this.  Not only had I become annoyed and frustrated with my town, in that I _always_ had to be on my guard, but I also felt like I couldn’t turn to anyone in the office to report what was happening to me.  The reactions were too extreme, either I was being accused of not being able to cope, or I felt like I would be undermining either Samantha’s work or my own in the future.  And the truth was, I wasn’t coping with it.  I was trying really hard to, but it was just too much.  Not to mention the idea of staying in my house all the time was just absurd to me.  I didn’t fly 8,000 miles across the planet to stay in a small 15 x 20 room for two years.  What I wanted was a way to create a solution to the problem, not accusations or being moved.  I was tired.  I didn’t want to be touched again.  I wanted to feel safe, and I wanted to feel like I could move towards solutions.  It’s possible that I could have worked it out, I know that, but I was also at the point were it had happened so many times that I would probably spend the next two years wondering if someone was going to touch me again.  And that’s exhausting.

I told my APCD that day, and went into the capitol the following day.  She gave me a day to hang out and enjoy town (I do love Addis Ababa, so I was really happy about this).  Six days after I told her, I was packed and on a plane heading home.  It was a bit surreal, especially walking down the quite streets of Seattle, but it feels good to be able to walk around without getting harassed.  I don’t regret my decision to leave.  That’s the biggest lie they tell you to keep volunteers from ETing.  It’s not easy, and yes, there are days when I miss my friends out there, PCV’s and habasha alike, but I don’t regret the decision I made.  It was the right one for me, and it’s not like I didn’t try to make it work.  I was there for 5 months, and I felt like I was battling everyday to make it work out.  In the end, it didn’t.  I learned a lot from it, and it has drastically changed the way I view the world, and at the end of the day, that’s a major reason why I joined the Peace Corps.  But there is only so much that one human can take, and I had reached my limit.

But I want to leave you with this: I don’t regret my decision to go to Ethiopia, either.  This is a sad post to write, but I also had many amazing, beautiful moments.  I have an entire family waiting for me out there, people that I will hold in my heart forever.  I did things that most other Americans or Westerners can never dream of doing, and in one town, at least, I became habasha.  I learned about the politics of living in a dictatorship, and how despite everything, people have beautiful, open hearts.  No matter how hard it was, no matter how painful I felt it was, I met people who had dealt with worse and come out stronger.  They are my inspiration, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.

Posted in Life, Peace Corps | 2 Comments

Contacting Me in Ethiopia

Hello All!  Peace Corps sent this letter to us for us to share with you.  Please take a look.  Regarding war stories, well, hell… you know me already so you should be expecting this.  If I’m really concerned I’ll let you know that it’s something that you should call 911 about. ^_-

Dear Families:

Greetings from the Ethiopia Desk in Washington, D.C.  It is with great pleasure that we welcome your family member to Peace Corps.  During the past year we have received many requests from Volunteers and family members alike regarding travel plans, sending money, relaying messages and mail, etc.  As we are unable to involve ourselves in the personal arrangements of Volunteers, we would like to offer you advice and assistance in advance by providing specific examples of situations and how we suggest they be handled.

 

Irregular Communication

The mail service in Ethiopia is not as efficient as the U.S. Postal Service.  Thus, it is important to be patient.  It can take three to four weeks for mail coming from Ethiopia to arrive in the United States via the Ethiopian postal system.  From a Volunteer’s post, mail might take 1-2 months to reach the United States.  Sometimes mail is hand carried to the States by a traveler and then mailed through the US postal system.  This leg of the trip can take another several weeks, as it is also dependent on the frequency of travelers to the U.S.

We suggest that in your first letters, you ask your Volunteer family member to give an estimate of how long it takes for him/her to receive your letters and then try to establish a predictable pattern of how often you will write to each other.  Volunteers have had good success in receiving their mail in this form.  Also, try numbering your letters so that the Volunteer knows if he/she has missed one.  Postcards should be sent in envelopes–otherwise they may be found on the wall of the local post office!

Volunteers often enjoy telling their “war” stories when they write home.  Letters might describe recent illnesses, lack of good food, isolation, etc.  While the subject matter is good reading material, it is often misinterpreted on the home front.  Please do not assume that if your family member has been ill that he or she has been unattended.  Peace Corps has a doctor and physician’s assistant on staff in Addis Ababa.  Through regular contact, they monitor the health of the Volunteers.  In the event of a serious illness, the Volunteer comes to Addis Ababa and is cared for by our medical staff.  If the Volunteer requires medical care that is not available in Ethiopia, he/she will be medically evacuated to Kenya, South Africa or the United States, depending on the medical care required.  Fortunately, these are rare circumstances.

If, for some reason, your communication pattern is broken and you do not hear from your family member for three months, you should contact the Office of Special Services (OSS) at Peace Corps Washington at 1-800-424-8580, extension 1470.  OSS will then contact the Peace Corps Director and ask her/him to check up on the Volunteer.  Also, in the case of an emergency at home (death in the family, sudden illness, etc.), please do not hesitate to call OSS immediately so that the Volunteer will be informed as soon as possible.

 

Telephone Calls

The telephone system in Ethiopia is relatively good.  Service to the United States is somewhat reliable, phones exist in larger towns and Volunteers can often plan to be at a phone on a certain date to receive calls from home on their cell phones.  This usually works, but there are also innumerable factors that can make the best-laid plans fall apart.  When calling Ethiopia you may often get voice recorded messages stating that the person you are calling is “out of the service area”, while this is often true, sometimes it is just a poor network connection which can be remedied by calling again.  It is not uncommon to have to call 5-10 times before getting through.

The Ethiopia Desk communicates with the Peace Corps office in Addis Ababa daily.  However, these calls are reserved for business only and we cannot relay personal messages over the phone.  All communication between family members and the Volunteer must be done via international mail.

 

Sending mail during Pre Service Training (PST)

Kati Wilkins, PCV
P.O. Box 7788
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 

Sending packages

Both parents and Volunteers like to send and receive care packages through the mail.  Unfortunately, sending packages can be a frustrating experience for all involved due to the possible theft and heavy customs taxes.  Please do not send any electronics (cameras, computers, hard drives, etc) as these items have extremely high custom taxes (often times as much if not more than the item itself) and the Volunteer will not have sufficient funds to pay these taxes and the item will have to be shipped back home to you.  You may want to try to send inexpensive items through the mail, but there is no guarantee that these items will arrive.  We do not recommend, however, that costly items be sent through the mail.  Even though Volunteers choose to get local post office boxes, you may use the following address to send letters to your family member at any time during his or her service:

Kati Wilkins, PCV
U.S. Peace Corps
P.O. Box 7788
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 

We recommend that packages be sent in padded envelopes if possible, as boxes tend to be taxed more frequently.  Custom fees can be quite expensive.  For lightweight but important items (e.g. airline tickets), several services such as DHL, FedEx, TNT, and UPS operate in Ethiopia.  These services however, are very expensive, and can cost as much as $70 for a letter.  If you do choose to send items through them, you must address the package to the Country Director, c/o US Peace Corps, Nifas Silk Lafto Kifle Ketema, Kebele 04, House # 453, Sarbet Road, P.O. Box 7788, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Sending airplane tickets and/or cash is not recommended.  Certain airlines will allow you to buy a pre-paid ticket in the States; they will telex their Addis Ababa office to have the ticket ready.  Unfortunately, this system is not always reliable.  Several carriers fly to Ethiopia.  Please call the airline of your choice for more information. You could also send tickets via mail services as mentioned previously.  However, Peace Corps will assume no liability in the event of a lost/stolen airline ticket.

Trying to send cash or checks is very risky and is discouraged.  If your Volunteer family member requests money from you, it is his/her responsibility to arrange for its receipt.  There is Western Union service available in Addis Ababa, although there are many charges involved in the sending and exchange of money.  Bear in mind that Volunteers will be aware of people visiting the States and can request that they call the Volunteers’ families when they arrive in the States should airline tickets or cash need to be sent back to Ethiopia.

We hope this information is helpful to you during the time your family member is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia.  We understand how frustrating communication difficulties can be when your family member is overseas and we appreciate your using this information as a guide.  Please feel free to contact us at the Ethiopia Desk in Washington, D.C. if you have any further questions.  Our phone number is 1-800-424-8580, ext. 2329/2307 or locally, 202-692-2329/2307.

Sincerely,

Carey Jolie

Ethiopia Country Desk


Posted in Life, Peace Corps | 2 Comments

Goodbye San Francisco

Ah… so I got back from San Francisco/California last Wednesday night, and it was a blast.  It’s really strange because this was the first time I’ve set foot in San Francisco since leaving 3 years ago and felt like it wasn’t home.  The City had changed, or I had changed, or both, but we were no longer connected in the same way.  It had the wonderful feeling of a past lover, someone special in your heart, remembered fondly, but now distinctly a part of the past.  I think many moons ago I would’ve been really sad about this, but now that my future has this big, new shiny adventure in it, feeling slightly disconnected from San Francisco is very much OK with me.  Walking around my old neighborhood, my best friend Louis said it perfectly: “sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the difference between a sense of place and the sense of the time you spend there.”  What I had been missing, and now have moved on from, was simply that, the time I was going to art school and considered myself a student.  I simply don’t consider myself a student anymore, and that’s an amazing feeling.

*Cough* But my time in the Bay Area wasn’t all so introspective, I did get to hang out with some really good friends and made some new ones.  Louis and I hung out for a few days at his place while he worked and I played with cats.  In the evening we went out to dinner, or down to San Jose to visit my good friend, Brian.  Ah, man… Brian was so sweet, too!  Poor guy just had surgery on his Achilles tendon and yet he still finds enough strength to take me out to dinner and get me a going away cake!  I almost started crying because I was not expecting it at all!  We had a very fun, mellow evening, but both of us felt like it wasn’t enough… so we met up in Santa Cruz two days later!  We had dinner at an amazing restaurant called Red, and I had literally the best Mac ‘n Cheese in the country.  And hot damn! it deserved that title!!  Next we went to the beach and there were literally no clouds in the sky.  Brian was telling me it was the calmest and clearest he’s ever seen it; this was clearly a good omen of things to come.  It was simply amazing to see, very beautiful.  During all of this, I got a text message from the bush of Africa from Tija telling me to enjoy it while I can, and she can’t wait until I get to Ethiopia to share the experience of being a PCT.  Ah, man!  It totally felt like my future self sending my present self a message, kinda cool!

Next it was on to Auburn to visit Dustin.  All my friends have moved away from The City!!  Anyways… um, that was a crazy couple of days!!  We made new lifelong friends with the bartender our first night.  Seriously.  She saw us walking to the bus stop on my last day there and stopped the car so she could give me a sending off hug.  Amazing!!  We ran away from his crazy roommate, which got us stuck in Sacramento, saw a good art show about domestic violence which has totally inspired me to create an instillation type piece while I’m in Africa, and started the moving out process for Dustin.  Ah, throw in playing the Lady Gaga song on Dance Party with a couple of Goth kids, and an awesome Chinese body and foot massage, and it was totally an event filled three days!  But that’s chillen’ with Dustin for you, something crazy always happens.  All in all it was a great trip.

As I was riding the BART to the airport, I had Yeasayer playing on my iPhone and this song popped up.  It beautifully summarized my feelings at the moment.  The first part of the song is atmospheric, a cacophony of sound and lyrics that blends together culminating in the final few verses.  Somehow, this is how I view life and friendship – a collection of random events and conversations that at some undefined point come together to create a whole.  And I am lucky to have the friends and family I do.  There are so many people who have come in and out of my life, so many that have stayed a part, and everyone has left an important mark.  Thank you.

Yeasayer – Red Cave

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The Need to Pack

I’m officially at 50 days before departing for Ethiopia and it has finally hit me that I really need to think about and work on packing.  I have an odd relationship with packing.  Most of my colleagues who are at the same stage I’m at seem to be really excited about it. They have planned out, or are working on, their packing lists already.  This really should be an exciting time for all of us, and it is.  But regardless of how excited I am about going to Ethiopia and joining the Peace Corps, I hate packing, especially for a move.  I tend to avoid it, I don’t really like thinking about it, and it makes me want to nest down deep.  There is a perfectly logical reason for this, which, unfortunately makes digging into packing much more difficult.

You see, I move on average roughly every 2 years.  Somehow this has been the course of my life.  I sat down one day and counted all of the moves I’ve done, wither they’ve been across town or across the country, and it comes out to 13 moves over the course of 26 years (not including Ethiopia).  I’ve lived an exciting life, and had a chance to do some really amazing things, and I’m not done yet (clearly!).  But after a lifetime of moving, regardless of how excited you are to get to where ever you’re going, it does get tiring.  I know by heart the roller coaster of emotions I’m about to delve into.  This time will be harder because I’m moving into a totally different culture with a different language and different standards of living.  I’m expecting, and am prepared for, the emotions that I feel during a move to be multiplied.  This is perhaps helpful because I have a lifetime of experience to build off of, and I know what I need to do to alleviate some of it.  Knowing this doesn’t make leaving a life that I’ve grown to really love, and people I truly love and enjoy, any easier.

And packing is the symbol of leaving.  As an artist, symbols hold great weight for me.  So interacting with the packing process is both exciting and painful, as it means I’m off to new adventures, but there is a point in the near future where I will be leaving my loved ones behind.  My wonderful step-mom gave me a card for my high school graduation with the quote:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anais Nin

This has become something of a motto for my life, as it acknowledges that great gains are not achieved without sacrifice, and that sacrifice is often painful, but the end results tend to be better than remaining the same.  I have done this enough to understand exactly what I’m about to do – and all of the uncertainty that entails.  I know I sound pessimistic.  This, too, is part of my process.  Do not confuse my melancholy with lack of desire to do the Peace Corps, because that’s not what’s happening.  I have simply spent the last 7 months hyper focused on getting the invitation, and not allowing myself to have any negative emotions (aside from RAS, lol!) about this decision.  Allowing negatives into the build-up process could have cut it short.  Now that I have achieved this milestone, I’m simply reflecting on the full scope of the ramifications of this decision.  I still believe 100% that this is the right move for me at this time, but it is still a hard decision, none-the-less.  Simply put, I am coming to realize that I am ending this chapter of my life, the one that revolved around art school and getting my first job, and in less than two months I will be starting a totally new chapter.  I just hope that some of the main characters stay the same.

But in order to do that, I have to pack.

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And the Invite Goes to…

ETHIOPIA!!!  Just like I thought.  I will be serving as a Health Organization Development volunteer leaving on May 23rd.  Ho man, there’s a lot to sink in…  This is equal parts exciting, scary and releving all at once!  I don’t really know what to do with myself right now.  Part of me wants to kick back, relax with a nice beer and find a documentury about Ethiopia on Netflix.  The other part of me wants to dive head first into the paperwork.  I don’t know why, but I can’t stand having unfinished paperwork lying around.  I like checking boxes, I guess?  Craig is off at a soccer game, so no dancing around for joy with him, but it’s all good.  There’s so much reading and research to do now!  And I should probably find that packing list.

Actually, I’m more interested in heady stuff, I’ve got several weeks to think about packing, and can’t do anything about it right now, so I might as well do research.  Wow.  BIRTHPLACE OF COFFEE HERE I COME!!

YAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAY!!!!

Maybe in a week it’ll all sink in that I’m actually leaving…

Oh, and I sent my acceptance email.  I actually found the Ethiopia Welcome Book online over the weekend and was reading it without knowing that I would be required to.  So I get a head-start on all the stuff I need to read before accepting the invitation!  Yay to that, too!

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“I’d like to send you an invitation,” spilled from her mouth!

Anyone who read my blog on Tuesday got a strange combination of very specific and very vague information.  As I mentioned, I was doing that on purpose, so thank you for bearing with me, I will now reveal what I was trying not to.  I was only being vague because nothing was set in stone, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much by writing it out on the blog.

So this is what happened.  During the emails exchanged with my Placement Specialist on Tuesday morning, she told me that it might be a few more weeks before she had a chance to look at my application and do the final review.  I asked her then if she thought I might be placed in April through June or July through August, letting her know that I had some clients that were asking, and I’m no longer on my parent’s health insurance.  After a few minutes, she sent me an email saying that she doesn’t normally do this, but she was going to try and speed up my final assessment, and asked me what my availability is for Thursday and Friday.  I’m not joking, I started shaking right there, I was not expecting that at all!  And it was super cool that she sped up the final review, too.  My application had been sitting on her desk for almost 4 months, so I think I’ve been pretty patient.  After letting her know what my availability was, radio silence until 7:39 am this morning when the much anticipated “(202)” number showed up on my phone.  Actually, I thought at first it might be someone else, because I was expecting her to send me an email with a specific time.  Peace Corps apparently doesn’t operate like the rest of DC with set schedules and the like.

The call lasted for about 40 minutes, and she asked me a lot of the same things I was asked in the original interview, as many other PCJ’s have reported.  We also talked about the 20/20 Special, which I hadn’t watched because I spend a lot of time researching media bias and sensationalism.  She actually seemed to appreciate this, and told me that one of the things that PC is being accused of, mainly not talking about the security situation and the agency’s openness, is blatantly false.  Apparently the PC director sat down with ABC and talked to them for 2 and a half hours about the situation, and only 2.5 minutes made it into the show.  You can go into quite a bit of depth in 2.5 hours, and frankly, I’ve never really trusted ABC News as far as I can throw them.  Anyways, she gave me a lot great info, then the words I’d been hoping to hear:

“Well, I’d like to send you an invitation!”  She didn’t know it, but I totally did a happy dance with her on the phone!  I am over the moon excited right now!!  She told me I’m being invited to serve in Sub-Sahara Africa doing NGO Advising leaving May 23rd!!  So, besides the departure date, my nomination has held.  I’m stoked, really flipping stoked!!

My original nomination was for April, which could only mean Botswana.  Now, with a little Internet sleuthing, I think I’m heading to Ethiopia.  Dude.  Dude.  Seriously.  Birthplace of coffee.  <- It’s like the most amazing thing I could ever think of _ever_!!!  My Handpresso will be right at home in Ethiopia!!  Now I need to find out more about the country besides that, lol!

I should get the invitation in the next 5-7 business days!  I feel so happy and relieved right now!  I think the best part is… not stalking my inbox anymore.  Seriously that was getting really tiring, lol!  Now I just have to wait for the invitation to come!  This doesn’t really bother me, as I know things are moving, and I know when I’m leaving.  I can get a lot of stuff done without it.  Sigh… Yay!

Now off to some Ethiopian food with Craig to celebrate!

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Conversation with the Placement Office

I’ve noticed that every Peace Corps applicant seems to have their own mini-crisis that makes the application process seem to take longer or become more difficult than we originally expected.  More often than not this happens during the medical review, but it’s just as likely to happen during the placement process, as well.  My personal logjam has been with the Placement Office.  But I think there’s finally a break, and things are starting to flow a little again!

Before I get into detail, I want to apologize before hand because I’m going to be purposefully vague.  Nothing is set in stone yet, and frankly, I don’t want to jinks anything, so I’m going to give what details I can and will update with solid news as I get it, hopefully soon!

Frequent readers of my blog know that I’ve been medically cleared since mid-November.  After having a conversation with my reviewing nurse, my application was sent to my Placement Assistant the same day, and within hours she sent me an email asking for an updated resume.  I sent it to her about 2 hours later, and she sent me an email the next morning letting me know that my application has been moved forward to my Placement Specialist.  Medical and the first contact from Placement happened so quickly that I honestly expected to get an invitation by New Year’s at the absolute latest.  This was not to pass, however.  Since November I’ve been playing the “please give me more information” game with the placement office.  After not hearing anything from them for over a month, I contacted my Placement Specialist in late January to see what was going on.  She had told me that she’d try to take a look at my application in early January, so I didn’t think this was a big deal.  She got back to me the same day to let me know that it would still be another 2 weeks before she was able to get to my application.  That was 6 weeks ago.

In the time between sending a second updated resume in December, I’ve taken on a few more jobs that I thought would be applicable to my application, so this morning I decided to send her the update.  I spent quite some time crafting the email, as honestly, Placement has a tough job, and I didn’t want to sound pushy.  I let her know what I’ve been doing, and that I’m always looking for new ways to be competitive.  I also asked her if I was still being considered for April.  She got back to me within a couple of hours to thank me for the update, and to let me know that there has been a lot of structural changes which has slowed down the placement process on their end.  She sounded pretty apologetic, and for the first time invited me to contact her if I have any other questions at this time.  Let me point out now that I’ve been told by her a few times to continue to have patience, so seeing an open invite to ask questions about my application without a request that I continue to be patient was huge!  She also told me that though I’m still being considered for placement between April and June, it’s possible that they may not be able to find an appropriate placement until July through August, and it’ll probably still be another few weeks before she gets to my application.

Yes, I was slightly disappointed by the news that I might have to wait another few weeks before hearing back from her.  We exchanged another couple of emails where I thanked her for all her help, and asked what my chances are that I’d be placed in April through June vs. July through August.  I need to let my clients know, and need to find health insurance, as I’m no longer on my parents.  I’m not going to go into the rest; I just want to say that my Placement Specialist is a rock star.  I’m still waiting for one key email, but let’s just say that there is some movement right now.  Like I said, it’s not set in stone, so I don’t want to spell it out right now, but the email exchange ended on a high note, and I’m feeling really good right now!

I guess the take away from all of this is that even if it seems like there’s no movement on your application, there is a lot that’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t see.  Our Placement Specialists are very busy people and they are trying to get to our applications as quickly as possible, but even they are dealing with restraints that make things more difficult and time consuming.  Just keep pushing along, things happen.

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Revisiting ‘A Tweet Heard Round the World’

In 2009 during the so-called Green Revolution in Iran, I wrote an article for my company’s newsletter about the use of social media as a tool for spreading dissent.  Focusing on Iran as my prime example, my original prediction was that social media would be used to create both domestic and international pressure to secure democracy.  However, one of my bosses asked me to change my premise to focus more on how the media will change, fearing that IAF would come off as supporting and championing revolutions.  Though I did as I was asked, I always felt that the original premise was the more powerful and profound change that we would see.  I projected the internet revolutions to be common by 2019, so to see what’s happening in the Middle East today, in 2011, is astonishing to me.  I felt I needed to revisit this article.  This draft was never published, nor is it endorsed by my former employers.  The thoughts and ideas are mine alone.

A Tweet Heard Round the World

By 2019, through the use of social networking sites, future revolutions will go viral, drawing not only global viewership, but also global participation.  Social media will become a cross-cultural tool which creates personal connections without media or government filters, and elicit global participation in order to exert pressure on local and international governments.  We are witnessing the beginnings of this shift as Western news agencies and reporters are being expelled from Iran and the government is imposing a virtual lock-down on all communications in and out of the country.  Despite this, what some are calling the ‘geek class’ has found a number of ways to bypass control and get their messages out to the world using social networking sites such as Twitter and YouTube.  The ‘geek class’ of Iran has created an international stir, forcing outside observers to take a closer look at the Iranian elections, raising serious questions about their legitimacy and putting the Iranian government on the defensive.

In the future, street protests will merge with online social networks, creating a two-layered system of resistance which relies heavily on both ‘boots on the ground’ and a sustained global public interest.   To accomplish this, opposition movements will act as ‘citizen journalists,’ recording what is happening on the streets, and creating a buzz online through well-executed pages on social networking platforms.  This buzz will help bring more people out to the streets should they agree with the cause, creating more news for the ‘citizen journalists’ to cover.  Meanwhile, many news agencies will depend much less on professional reporters, and rely on these domestic, ‘citizen-journalists’ to gather the raw information on situations where the media has been blacked out.  Instead of reporters being sent to cover opposition movements, they will work out of multi-media offices monitoring social networking feeds, scouring them for the latest news, and acting as fact checkers.  This will create a positive feedback loop that provides multiple outlets for scrutinizing a corrupt government.

The protests in Iran are the first indications of a new model for citizen participation that will impact not only Iran, but also the Western world.  Online videos, pictures and blogs are eliciting shared feelings of kinship from Western observers from all sides of the political spectrum.  One of the most prominent examples is the 40-second clip (warning: the clip is highly graphic) of Neda Soltani, a young female observer who was shot and killed during a demonstration.  In another popular video, a large group of protesters approach a smaller group of anti-protest guards, quickly overwhelming them.  When the citizens of the West look at what is taking place in Iran, through the unfiltered screen of in-person storytelling, they see a group of people fighting for the basic rights that are often taken for granted in established democracies.

The protests in Iran are showing that revolutions of the future, while still intensely local in focus, will be international in scope.  The protesters are asking, to their government and to the world, ‘where’s my vote?’  The leaders of the Iranian protestors have been very vocal about not wanting or accepting help from foreign governments, but they have been consciously courting a global audience through the language of globally accepted concepts of democracy and human rights.  Many international leaders, President Barack Obama among them, are aware of this, and have walked a fine line between non-involvement and pointing out humanitarian abuses.  There are a number of Twitter users, including Mir Hussian Mousavi, who are tweeting or blogging (as many tweets often link to their own blogs) in either English or in both English and Farsi.  This multi-language uprising, playing out on the international stage, has brought many everyday citizens around the world into the story and has created both internal and external pressure for more transparency.

We have seen the beginnings of this trend elsewhere, but the movement remained largely within national borders.  In Pakistan, for example, during the so-called ‘Pakistan Emergency,’ of March 2007 through February 2008, the nation’s government imposed a state of emergency, suspended its constitution, and imposed media censorship after the President suspended the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Old and New Media: Converging During the Pakistan Emergency).  During this national crackdown, local citizens used a combination of SMS text messaging and blogs to inform others within the country where street fights were taking place, and to organize demonstrations.  To get the message out to the rest of the world, Pakistani bloggers worked with Americans and others to post their videos to YouTube, where they were eventually picked up by CNN and other international news agencies.

In the future, as social networks and the tools to connect to them become more powerful and integrated, large swaths of the population will be able to act as journalists.  Through the use of social media, an uprising in the Middle East can become a worldwide uprising in which everyone can take part.  The videos and feeds appearing on YouTube, Twitter and similar platforms will provide an important outlet for raw information unfiltered by the lens of governments, media or other agencies.  In the West, we are now capable of instantly showing our support with the content provider, and the rest of the world.  The revolutions of the future will no longer be isolated affairs, but global revolutions drawing support from both the people on the street and their ‘virtual compatriots’ on the web.

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Phone Call with Placement Assistant

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, and I thought I should probably update my blog.  Sorry to all my readers for the irregularity, I tend to post more when I’ve got news to update rather than on a regular schedule.  I know this can be topsy-turvy, but thank you for reading anyways!

First some good news: when I was checking my stats I noticed that I’m getting referrals from Peace Corps Journal’s Top Most Read Stories of 2010.  Apparently my post Interview with Peace Corps Yesterday made number 48 of 50!  Yay!!  I had no idea that they were doing this, but it’s kind of exciting to see that I made the top 50 list.  Thank you dear readers, I’m glad you enjoyed!

On to Peace Corps news.  A few weeks ago, Tija and I were shooting emails back and forth and getting ourselves excited about a possible contact from our mutual placement officer.  Two applicants in the exact same stage of the process communicating back and forth amp excitement to the nth degree, lol!  Well, the lovely Miss Tija got the long awaited for email, then phone interview and invitation.  I honestly could not be more excited for her.  That is totally huge, and she’s going where she wants to go, so rock on to that!  During this process, I had contacted my placement officer because it had been about a month since she said she was going to get back to me in two weeks.  She sent me an email explaining that she’s very busy, and that it would likely be another two weeks before she’s able to get to my file.  I’m not going to lie; I was a bit disappointed by this.  I also understood that this hasn’t been a stellar month for Peace Corps, it’s the end of the year, and there is also a lot of stuff going on in the world that directly or indirectly affects the safety of volunteers already in the field.  HQ has a lot to negotiate, and it’s never as simple as those of us on the outside would believe.  So, reminding myself of all of this, I sent my PO a thank you for the update note and tried to keep Positive Mental Attitude (yay for buzz word attitudes, lol!).

Almost three weeks went by and I still hadn’t heard anything from my PO, so I decided to call my Placement Assistant to see if she knew anything.  We chatted for about 5 minutes, and she reassured me that my PO would get to my file soon, hopefully this week.  I was starting to get concerned because the 8 week cut off for my nomination has come and passed, so I asked her if she knew if I was still being considered for an April departure.  She sounded a bit surprised, and told me that it’s unlikely because she thinks all of the April programs have been filed.  I’m probably looking at either a May or June departure at this point, she informed me, but continued to say she can’t be sure, only my PO would know this. I thanked her for all her help and hung up.

You know, I thought I’d be more disappointed, but the news was strangely relieving.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but just hearing that little bit of information totally calmed my nerves.  Though I was totally looking forward to the idea of going to Botswana, especially now that I know someone who would be going with me, I have no idea what’s going on with my application and it’s sort of freeing.  I don’t know if I’m still being considered for the same region, or possibly for a different assignment (as I mentioned in my Interview post, I was also initially being considered for the Health Extension program which I’m pretty sure I’m still a good fit for) and region all together.  I don’t really know when I’ll be leaving.  It’s kind of like being at the beginning all over again, but having all of the hard parts taken care of.  I know to a lot of people that would be totally discouraging, but to me it looks like a whole bunch of potential.  I get to go back to the drawing board, look at the PCWiki again, but rather than limiting it to a region, I get to look at the non-romance language world.  I know I’d be a good fit for both NGO Advising, and Health Extension, so I can widen the view even broader, try on different roles and imagine myself in a wide verity of different places.  My PO is the only person who really knows what’s going on with my application, so if she ever read this, she would be the only one to know if I’m being totally silly or not.

What I also like is that it puts some cold regions back on the table, too, including Asia.  I _love_ snow, and I _love_ winter.  I also love Asian culture, so even if I’m not being considered for this region it’s fun to toy with in my head.  I think it’s because I went to art school, I learned to fall in love with possibilities and new ideas.  Exploring new regions also allows me to think about new work and puts me back into the conceptualization space.  Conceptualizing and executing are my two favorite parts of making work, wither it be art or professional work.  This is a nice place to be.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still anxious to hear from my Placement Officer, but something has shifted.  My feeling is much more in the realm of wanting to bounce ideas off of someone in the know than wanting to get through the next step, the former being a very happy and excited feeling, while the later is a bit painful.  So the waiting continues, but in the meantime I get to do research on a bunch of different places!

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Best Birthday Ever!

It’s been a little bit since I’ve updated, so I thought I’d throw up something about my birthday because there’s no news yet from Peace Corps.  Saturday was my 26th birthday, and because two of my friends have birthdays within a week of mine, we decided to have a three-person joint birthday party, which also made it huge!  However, for me, the party started on Friday night when a couple of Craig’s close friends came over to play Risk: Gods Storm.  We’ve been playing Risk with this crew for the last month or so, so it was a lot of fun, and we’re all getting better at our strategies.  I had asked the guys to come over on Friday to cheer Craig up as he had found out that he wasn’t getting the job he really wanted.  He didn’t take it very well, so Risk with the crew was a great way of putting him in a better mood.  We had a lot of fun, and then afterwards, at 1:30 am, we went out for a birthday drink since it was officially my birthday.

But the best part came the next day.  Craig started the day off by making me French toast and buying me flowers, which were beautiful.  We relaxed for a little bit, then got ready to go to the party: an hour of jumping at Sky High Sports, which is a _huge_ indoor trampoline room!!   This place is crazy!  It’s basically an old warehouse that has trampolines for floors and walls, complete with two dodge ball courts and a foam pit.  30 some odd friends joined us, and we all had a blast!!  If there’s one near you, I _highly_ recommend going!!

Next we made our way to a local Indian restaurant, where the wonderful host had set up a buffet for us.  The food was amazing, the company wonderful, and the host bought all of the birthday folks drinks.  After dinner, as the large group broke off to head home, eight of us decided to go out for drinks.  Mike and Edina had a sitter until 12, so they wanted to make the most of their time out, so we headed to downtown Bellevue to see what was going on.  We popped into a couple of bars, but they were all packed, so wandering around we found… Red Robin’s.  It was the only place not packed on a Saturday night… So, what is any group of self-respecting child-adults to do but head in, right?  And in we go, mocking ourselves the entire time.

Edina found all of this too funny, so she insisted on getting me the birthday song, sundae and balloon.  Were my cheeks red?? Oh hells yeah they were!!!  I think I’ve had the birthday song done to me once, and I was super embarrassed then, too.  But I guess it only makes sense after spending the first part of the evening playing on trampolines!  The whole evening was filled with mocking, laughs and lots of fun, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the night.

But Russell had plans for more fun to come the next day!  Sunday started with breakfast at Portage Bay, an amazing breakfast place here in Seattle that is always packed on Sunday mornings.  We managed to avoid the crowd by about 15 minutes, though.  After breakfast, Craig and I headed back to the condo to take a nap before heading over to Chad’s place for a small Super Bowl gathering.  The game was fun, but I think we all enjoyed the commercials more.  Um, did anyone else notice that this year’s theme was throwing things at people?  We counted at least 8 commercials where something was thrown at someone’s face or genitals, and that’s not including movie trailers!  Yay needless violence with inanimate objects! O_o

So overall, this weekend was amazing.  I had an incredible birthday!  Thank you to everyone who joined in the fun, I can honestly say I this has been perhaps my best birthday ever.  To all of you who couldn’t make it, you were missed.  What a great way to start a new year of life!!

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