Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Month Reflection

Saturday will be my VISTA six month mark, and I think that warrants some reflection. I don't know if this is the most important thing I've learned so far, but I've been thinking a lot lately about how to stop treating potential recipients of donations as hypothetical people.

I used to say that everyone at some point should be required to work some awful job in the service industry, maybe even with periodic temporary reminder sessions, so that nobody forgets that people behind counters are real people, too. I'd like to add that everyone should spend at least a day processing charitable donations, because a donation bin is not a dumpster with less guilt. I've treated it that way, and I'm going to stop and think before I donate. There are real live people who receive these things, and real, live people who handle every item.

1) I'm going to stop donating unwearable, unrepairable clothes to Goodwill. Somebody who sorts that stuff will throw it out if I don't. Their dumpster is no better than mine, and it's not like I don't know a million ways to recycle a pair of jeans.

2) Furthermore, I'm going to give thought to where my donations go. I know a VISTA whose position was designed partly because disorganized Katrina relief meant that in response to requests for clothes, several truckloads of winter coats made their way to the Gulf Coast. This was way more than a mere inconvenience for volunteers and recipients.

3) I'm going to follow the rules and write something worth reading when writing letters and greetings through some kind of service. I sorted a ton of Holiday Cards for Heroes yesterday, which involves reading every message on every card, blacking out contact information and sorting out questionable messages. Programs like this is not an appropriate venue for shameless promotion of your youTube channel or fanatic proselytizing. On the other hand, write more than just your name. What would you want to read from a stranger if you were in Iraq?

4) I will never again designate a cash donation. It is not easy to earn unrestricted funds of any kind, and the indirect operating costs (salaries, building utilities) are just as essential as direct expenses (program materials). If I trust and admire an organization enough to donate in the first place, it makes no sense to decide that I know more about what is needed than the people who actually work there.

That's it for now, I guess. Charitable donations can be neither when they're poorly planned, and it's too bad that telling donors that is such a sensitive issue. If you've never waited tables, you may not realize that it's easier to deal with an even $5.00 than a tip for $5.34 (at least in my opinion). If you've never had hundreds of completely useless magazines from the seventies crowding your office, of course you won't think about what happens after you drop off all the stuff you found in the attic of your relative with the hoarding problem. Philanthropy is no good without some logic behind it, and more people need to start thinking about what they don't know.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pre-SOP: Macbeth was my Star Wars

So, I've decided to go to graduate school. I feel like Dr. Hibbert should hand me an informative pamphlet. Bah.

Anyway, even before Statements of Purpose started looming in the back of my mind, it occurred to me that I don't really know how I got here. Five years ago, I was fairly certain that I would spend my life teaching high school students about literature. Now I am drooling over grad course titles like Inferential Statistics II. WTF? I preach (constantly, to the irritation of my supervisors) that it is important to understand the past to make a good plan for the future. The time has come for me to fix this hypocrisy in myself.

Whittled down, my story is this: Macbeth was my Star Wars.

Or, if you've never seen the engineers on The History Channel's Star Wars Tech gush about how the Light Sabers inspired a generation to start dissembling VCR's, Macbeth was my Vietnam War. Bear with. My sister once interviewed our neighbor, a camera operator at a local TV station, for a Girl Scout badge related to media careers. An astute young interviewer, she asked him how he decided he wanted this job. He said that he was fascinated by television since childhood, but wasn't interested in being a journalist or actor.

He then talked about watching the evening news as a teenager. A reporter was standing in waist-high grass, bracing himself against wind coming off of departing helicopters. My neighbor lamented his shyness. He was missing the adventure. And then it occurred to him that the reporter was not alone. There was someone holding that camera, and he was in on the excitement but out of frame. So my neighbor became a camera operator, and loves it to this day. My story is the same basic structure.

I loved literature classes in high school. The Writers and Readers Advisory Panel was the center of my extracurricular world. I basically lived in the library. I idolized my favorite English teacher.

And yet, I changed my major before I took a single English or Education class. All it took was a 10 minute conversation with an assistant anthropology prof assigned to the unfortunate task of scheduling incoming freshmen. By the time I took a creative writing class as a sophomore, I found writing fiction almost joyless. But that was not the epiphany.

Epiphany is the wrong word, anyway.

I hated that writing class because -- brace yourself -- it was about improving writing techniques! My poor professor fought a constant battle against my attempt to turn the class discussion from subjects like listing technique in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried to topics more interesting to me. I mean, could and archaeologist analyze those lists as artifacts in lieu of digging for material culture? (Seriously, that poor man. My fiction sucked and I was a constant distraction. How he didn't murder/fail me is beyond my understanding.)

In hindsight I started drifting off target in English classes long before that. I mostly blame my junior year combined American Literature and American History block class. So we would read things like The Red Badge of Courage during the Civil War unit and The Wizard of Oz while covering Populism. After that, I was subjected to plain old Brit Lit by a teacher I liked much less.

And I pick Macbeth as my point of no return simply because I remember it best. I was sick to death of talking about rhyme schemes and iambic pentameter. But I do remember sitting in that class, probably waiting for my best friend to write me a note, and feeling awash with this visceral awe because I realized how ignorant I was of my own language until I properly learned Shakespeare. I didn't want to talk about the structural differences between comedies and tragedies. I wanted to trace "double, double, toil and trouble" through history! I could have spent the whole Macbeth unit talking about Lady Macbeth and what Shakespeare thought about women. Oh Lord, I could have spent the whole semester musing on Lady Macbeth.

I like this analogy. In Contact, a young Eleanor Arroway dissembles a broken radio and marvels at the tubes. She grows up to be a radio astronomer. As a young woman, I dissembled Macbeth and marveled at the social power plays. I'm becoming a social scientist.

I'm still working on articulating what this means for my future. In the meantime, where do YOU come from?