Determination: 2 Girls, 1 Hill, 1 Tree, and 1 Ladder

As children, my friends and I spent hours wandering the woods. We lived in rural Vermont in the middle of hills covered with sugar maples. One of my best friend’s families made maple syrup as part of their living—they collected their sap using draft horses. And it is with that friend that this adventure took place.

Far up on one of the hills behind her house, maybe a 40-minute hike across a river and bushwhacking through the sugar bush, was a monstrous tree. It was a Pippi Longstocking tree, a tree of wonder and stories. It was the most perfect tree for a tree fort you can imagine…and the branches didn’t start until 20 feet above the ground.

Those high branches spread out in such a way as to almost make a floor. My friend and I thought that if only we could reach those branches it would be the best thing in the world. We dreamed of hanging a hammock from those taunting limbs and eating a picnic up in the canopy. We thought about our future tree fortress on many occasions, staring up from the ground, until one day we contrived a plan.

Her father had a very tall ladder—one of those aluminum ones that has two sliding parts so it can get even longer than it appears at first.

We started in the morning. She took one end of the ladder and I the other. Those ladders, though hollow, are not light. We discovered this not long after crossing the river and starting up the hill. We also realized that zigzagging through trees was a lot harder when you are attached to another person by an 8-foot, stiff ladder.

We stopped occasionally. We argued about the best way to go through the trees. We sweated and got scratched by brayers.

And, after what seemed eons, we reached the tree. We lay the ladder against it, expanding it to its full length. We observed the ladder. We were scared. It was so tall and the ground wasn’t even. Surely, we’d fall if we climbed it. Surely, if we fell we’d die. We talked about climbing the ladder. About falling. About how amazing it probably was up there. “Fine, hold the ladder,” I said. And I put my foot on the first rung. I was shaky. It was high. My heart pounded. I got about 6 feet above the ground. I paused. The ladder felt wobbly. I wasn’t sure if I should keep going.

Slowly, carefully I reached the top rung. The branches were still overhead. I’d have to grab them and then swing my legs up and hang sloth-style to get up in the tree. I stood at the top of the ladder a long time. My friend first shouted up that if I wasn’t going to do it I should come down so she could. Then she suggested that we not do it at all.

I grabbed the branch and I swung up. “This is awesome!” I said, sitting and staring down at her on the ground. She joined me, with the greatest care because the ladder was unsteady, especially without someone holding it.

We sat up in the tree until we got hungry. The only reason we ever left the woods was because we were starved.

Some people will tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t bother with them. Someone else will help you carry a ladder.

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Old Haunts

I stared at the metro station that had been my home stop for several years as the train doors binged open and closed. That day I had no reason to get off there. I tried to remember what I had thought about all those times after interning, working, volunteering, and adventuring when I got off on that platform and observed the name written in white on a brown pole, “Cleveland Park.” Too many different thoughts to remember. Feelings arose—that of being too hot or tired from a long day at the office, but those were more sensations than memories.

It had been over three years since I’d visited DC—three years, but a lifetime of learning. The trouble with my recollection wasn’t so much that I didn’t remember all the good and bad things that had happened while I was in our Nation’s capital. The marathon training runs through Rock Creek Park when the sun glistened through the trees as I padded along the winding creek dodging bikers and baby strollers. I remember the roly-poly red pandas who I visited many weekends. The tart and sweet of frozen yogurt and mango. The smell of coffee emanating from my clothes after a shift at Starbucks—you can’t escape that scent, and coffee smells different when it’s associated with work, rich and bitter at the same time. I remembered the night I drank my first energy drink, my only all-nighter of college, so I could walk down to Obama’s first inauguration. I had tickets! I remember the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves reflecting in the pool at Jefferson’s feet. The flags on the Vietnam memorial stark against the black stone. The quiet white lines of tombs at Arlington—so many lost. The smelly humidity of the metro before a marathon. The chili fries at National’s stadium—Harper, Zimmerman, Gonzales…the presidents racing. The long night walks in the neighborhood when families strolled and the smells of different restaurants wafted across the sidewalk. The Greek deli where I got my college graduation lunch.

The trouble, though hardly that, was that the feelings of weariness and frustration that had laced my time in DC were gone. Completely gone and only the happy memories of my old haunts remained. The Kennedy Center at dusk. The strange winding of the canal through Georgetown. The roses. Roses in almost every garden. The long walks to the grocery store and the strolls past embassies. It was strange to think of embassies now. I’d been an expat. I knew what it was like to visit your country’s stronghold in a strange land. Oddly not comforting considering the comparison between American politics and the warmth of Paraguay.

I watched the people rushing out of the metro. I was sure not to esca-left—unforgiveable. I’d forgotten about all the fancy men’s shoes and checkered shirts, but seeing them I realized how unchanged cloud DC was. Suits of a cut only seen on the Hill and in old boys’ clubs abounded. I smiled. Funny to think those young men, dreaming of great titles and accomplishments, where not as unique as they imagined. As for the women, the boring shirts and sensible skirts. Even below the Mason-Dixon line so many folks lacked the flare that the south brings out if you let it. “Not far enough south,” I guessed. Of course, these folks were more complex than their clothes, but they’d lead you to believe their clothes were an expression of themselves. Hard to say, not knowing them.

Wandering the streets made me feel the freedmen of disengagement. This was not my home and could very well never be my home again. It was an easy thought. Whether the metro ran on time or late mattered little—it was no longer my metro. And besides, I’d waited hours in the hot sun for buses a fraction as nice as the dirtiest DC metro car.

Old haunts. They weren’t haunts at all, really. Just little snapshots into the past. But I no longer saw any of the scenes as I did then. No. They all had a different filter. And this time, the view was bright as the afternoon, January sun in Paraguayan. The vignette lens that had once allowed the shadows to creep in around the edges of my old stomping ground had been replace by a softening and brightening filter. I noticed the sidewalks, their cracks had been filled. The sidewalks were new just like my path. And the corners of my mouth creeped up all on their own. If my positive outlook, adopted from Paraguay, could endure the city where politicians were trying to put our country forty years behind in education, rights, and healthcare, then it was safe to say I’d come to visit just at the right time. The right time to prove that rain and sun are different sides of the same sky. I saw the sun.

Pulling Up the Bootstraps

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the anxiety, anger, and sadness I’ve felt since the 45th president of the US took office. It blows my mind how quick he began attacking:

  • Women: protection against discrimination, protection against violence, access to health care, freedom of choice
  • Everyone who needs health care and isn’t floating in money (aka most people): affordable health insurance, access to health care, security for those most in need of care
  • Immigrants: melting pot
  • Native Americans: protection of their land, respect of their culture
  • Americans living abroad: ambassadors, protection of foreign service officers abroad and American expatriates
  • The media: transparency, truth
  • Science: climate change (um, like come on…must we really repeat the “Earth is round” history?)…

…the list grows with each passing hour.

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier on January 21. It was inspiring to see so many people energized to fight for human rights. But, I wondered, “Are we too late? Where were we between August and November 2016?”

The answer came in a common phrase:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

America has never been perfect. We were founded by people who were fleeing oppression, who in turn stole land from the people already here. We won independence proclaiming high ideals, but enslaved millions of people, conquered others, and fought dirty wars with our southern neighbors and across the globe. We ended up a world power, but we still fell short of our ideals—all people in this country do not have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imperfect America has always strived to be better. We eliminated slavery, we changed legislation to give all citizens the right to vote, we’ve made net improvements in the rights of all minorities and women in this country, we’ve made progress protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA community; we’ve achieved many other wonderful things. But what we’ve done is not enough.

After much contemplation, I am certain that we are not too late. Perhaps Trump’s election was a necessary evil. It made me fall to dark places. And in the dark, I saw so clearly what had been easy to ignore in the gloom of modern America. In recent times, I and many people like me have been lethargic. We plodded along accepting what is even though it is not good enough.

The 2017 inauguration woke me. I saw the stars. And I’ve joined the struggle to improve this Nation. Regretfully, like a large mass starting from rest, I’m off to a slow start. I’m still not entirely sure what my role is and will be, but I know I have one.

On one hand, I’m already doing good work. I’m forging along on the Doctorhood Quest because my vision of delivering primary care services to underserved populations only becomes more vivid as the days pass. I will not let a man with disregard for the life and wellbeing of others allow millions of people to be cut off from the health care services they need and deserve. Also, in my current professional life, I help ensure that homeless young adults and at risk youth have the resources they need to build their own success. On the other hand, I know that I must do more than just study and work.

I have some ideas for action. Small stepping stones. I do not know where exactly I’ll end up or how my rejuvenated commitment to improving my country will unfold. All I know is that America has never chosen the easy path, but we are brave. I’m brave. It’s time to pull up those bootstraps, not just to elevate myself, but also as many as will come with me.

I’m proud that the momentum of the Women’s March has, thus far, translated into sustained action to fight for human rights. Let us stay together and be strong. Let us not leave anyone behind or push anyone who is part of us down. Let us continue to not only talk, but also do. As Margret Mead put it:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So my question, what are you going to do?

Photo credit: Carolyn Enz Hack

Convenience

“How is being back in the States?” friends and family have been asking since I got back from Paraguay. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer…just as I couldn’t explain what is was like to live in Paraguay when I first moved there. However, despite my general inability to describe my transition back to the USA, there is one thing that stands out to me about living in America: life logistics are incredibly simple. What I mean to say by “life logistics” is all the things we do to make sure our lives function properly— such as bathing, traveling between activities, and controlling house temperature.

In my new US home, I make up reasons to stay in the hot shower longer. It’s such a treat compared to my Paraguayan bathing ritual. In Paraguay, I stored water in a basin because for hours, many days, we didn’t have running water. Even when I did have water the pressure usually wasn’t enough to push water out of the shower head. And, because of this annoying water-flow problem I did not invest in a shower head to make hot water. So, 95% of the time I bucket bathed in cold water—using an old, plastic pitcher to dump water over my head. If it was too cold, I boiled several liters of water to add to my basin and bathed quickly. In America, I turn on the shower and the water comes pouring out every single time. The water is as cold or as hot as I want it to be. I don’t need to worry when a storm comes that I won’t have bath water or hesitate before exercising because I forgot to hoard water. In the great land between Canada and Mexico, showers are a given.

When I’m trying to get somewhere new by bus in Vermont, I type point A and point B into my smartphone. Then, Google tells me where and when to wait for the bus. The bus comes when Google says it will, and the fare costs exactly what the bus website said it would. In Paraguay, when I traveled to a new place by bus I asked 1 to 5 Paraguayans which buses to take, where to wait, and how much the fare costs because none of that information is available online. I asked more than one person to check the information and make sure I had the best route and detailed instructions to help me know where to wait for and get off the bus because there aren’t marked bus stops (usually). If I messed up my transfer in Paraguay, I had to start the process of asking for directions all over again. In Vermont, I can’t really get lost because I can check my travel progress on my phone periodically and then ask someone if I need more help.

It is spring in Vermont. Sometimes it is pleasantly warm and sometimes it is cold. If it’s cold, I turn on the heat. My house is insulated. The windows and doors block the wind. My roof doesn’t leak. My floor is on a foundation so my feet are shielded from the ground’s temperature. When I listen to the beep the thermostat makes as I turn up the heat, I think of my little Paraguayan house. The wind came through the shutter and doors. The walls were made of one layer of hollow bricks. My floor was a cement slab on the good earth. My roof was tile and let in the rain in some places if it was windy. It was always windy when it rained. On cold days in Paraguay, I put on two pairs of pants and all my jackets. Then, fully clothed, I sat under my sleeping bag and drank mate. That was my heat, blankets and hot beverages.

What is it like to live in America? It is comfortable. It is efficient. It is easy. It is sterile. The challenges of life logistics have been replaced with intellectual and trivial quandaries. Should I take a more-than-five-minute shower? Would I be a better person to bike rather than ride the bus? When exactly is it cold enough to turn up the heat rather than putting on another sweater?

Time Passes Before We Know It

It’s been a while since I posted and not because there was nothing to write. The days pass slowly, but afternoon seems to fall before the morning begins. I wake up and it is already Friday. Where did the week go? I ask myself. December 8th marked exactly four months until my days in Paraguay end and a new adventure begins. The ghosts of my service past, service present, and service future have come knocking. They’ve taken me on dream walks to see what I accomplished, what I am doing, and what I will achieve. Unlike the ghosts of Christmas, the service ghosts aren’t here to make me repent. They came to remind me that time passes before we know it, and therefore I should live every second to the max.

People from America, land of the brave, often say that, “It’s the journey that counts” or some phrase that means the same thing. They say this and then grow angry that there is a line at the grocery story, show impatience because there is traffic, or become testy when there are no electronics to amuse them. They say it when they put in long hours on the job and then rush around to the bar, the gym, friends’ houses… And at such hectic times, they say another phrase, “Every moment counts.” And they say that phrase when they refuse to sit quietly, with friends or alone and without the simulation of media or a purpose.

Before my two years in Paraguay, I used those phrases just as “they” do. But now, to me, those sayings have a meaning caught between what the land of the brave believes and how I think Paraguay, the land of time, puts those phrases into practice.

The land of time is hazy and hot. Mangos grow in December, when the land of the brave is dreaming of a white Christmas. Paraguay’s infrastructure is speeding towards better days, but for now the water goes out often and the electricity falters when storms come or too many people use their fans. People have motorcycles and the number of families with cars has skyrocketed since I moved here. However, all personal transport beside, the main staple of commuting remains the buses. One can go almost anywhere on a bus in Paraguay, if one is patient. Some places have a bus only sometimes or on some days and bus schedules are at best a suggestion. Business is accomplished over long meetings that begin with the weather, ease into family, and, at long last, mention the job at hand. It is easy for those from the US to fixate on the inefficiencies of Paraguay. We see the millions of lost moments, moments that could have been spent “doing something productive.”

Time passes before we know it, but in the hours and minutes that have ticked away since I landed in Paraguay I have seen another side of time. On those hot afternoons when the mangos hang overhead, school is out for the summer and many people have vacation. Those days are spent following the shade as it moves across the patio. Families and friends sit and watch the bright sunshine sift through the trees and make patterns of light and dark on the red sand. As families and friends watch the sun move, they talk. They talk about the heat, times shared, what absurdities the neighbors are up to, and the next barbeque. They drink terere. They take siesta. Interspersed among the bouts of sitting are the daily chores. Sometimes an adventure to the river or a party breaks up the listlessness.

The thing about these lazy days of summer when nothing happens, is that my Paraguayan friends waited all year for them to arrive. They got up at four to catch the bus at five to go to work at seven, to work, to get home at seven-eight-nine, to clean and cook and tend the animals, to say “hi” to the children, to sleep, and to get up at four to shower…they did that so their children and grandchildren could have nice clothes and cell phones and study something better. The difference between the land of the brave and the land of time is that in Paraguay, one does not work to work. One works because one has a family. As long as the hours may be, it is not the job itself nor one’s own professional standing that give life meaning, but the people who inspired one to leave the shade of the patio and go forth.

In Paraguay most of time is burned during the journey. Traveling is time consuming. Washing clothes by hand is an afternoon. Cooking with charcoal or wood and also the gas or electric oven are skills that one learns over years of practice. Navigating without power and water when the sun beats down and a shower or a fan would be nice is a test. But every moment counts. In Paraguay the moments are counted not by what one did, but by with whom one was.

Time passes before we know it, and dear reader you might be appalled at the number of moments I spent sitting in the shade of mango trees. I was shocked when I first thought of those seconds given to history at no cost. But, what I have come to see is that quiet instants are not a waste. I will never have the endurance of my señoras. They have given the better part of most years to sitting. But, what I have learned from Paraguay is that there is joy in taking time to do nothing. Peace is found in letting one’s mind wander aimlessly. Of course, too much emptiness is terrible, but my land-of-the-brave upbringing would never let me take too much time for pause. The ghosts of my service have let me face my biggest fear as the reality that I will leave Paraguay comes into focus. I fear that once I leave Paraguay I will never again have time to just be. It is a real possibility that I will descend into the ant hill again, but I hope that I can always carry with me the calm I found here, no matter where I end up. Because, happiness is not found in running from place to place worried about the moments. It is found when one stops and smiles at where the journey has plopped her and takes a moment to laugh with the family and friends around her.

The Dark Side of Tranquilopa

Tranquilopa

One could fall in love with Paraguay for it’s tranquilopa attitude, and many have. “Tranquilopa” is a word that is a mix of Guarani and Spanish and could be translated as “tranquil.” But, the word means a lot more than “tranquility.” It is really a way of saying “life is good,” “I am happy with life,” “I am grateful for what I have and my lot is not bad in the slightest,” and “I am satisfied, fulfilled, calm, peaceful, and enjoying the time given to me.” Tranquilopa means all these things, but it’s not just a saying. The word and its meanings summarize the Paraguayan view on life. Paraguayans are grateful for what they have and they let themselves take time to be happy. They have time for their families, a lot of it. They pass long and short hours with their friends. They always look for the next joke and way to smile. They are laid back, generally calm, and not always searching for the next best thing.

Contrast

As someone who grew up in the hustle and bustle of big dreams, fast and furious work schedules, and endless to-do lists I like the lull of tranquilopa. With practice, I’ve become more patient and accustomed to the slow pace tranquilopa gives to life. I enjoy having time free of an assigned activity in which I can do or not do whatever I want. But, in recent times, I’ve  discovered that tranquilopa has a deep dark side, and it’s not the boredom I sometimes feel drinking terere or chatting and staring into space for hours. I still can’t do nothing as well as my Paraguayan friends, but I’m a lot better at it than when I got here. Doing nothing is an art, and for me it’s a work in progress.

The dark side of tranquilopa is the tendency to turn the other cheek or joke rather than address a negative aspect of life. Tranquilopa sometimes provides an excuse for inaction, and thereby can be a barrier for social change, professional achievement, and project completion. Here are some examples.

Example one

A certain guy is known for being a drunk. He comes to the family party already plastered and drinks more to a point of extreme drunkenness. This man then does one of several things, he could be very rude and hit on whatever women, he could pass out, he could get in a fight, he could piss himself, or he could do something to hurt himself. I’ve seen or heard tell of all these outcomes in Paraguay. With the exception of a stereotypical frat party, most of these actions would be actively addressed in the US, especially because this happened at a party where children were present. But, in Paraguay the most common response is to joke about what happened, and do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Turning problems into a joke is a classic tranquilopa response and is an obstacle in preventing the same thing from happening again.

Example two

Tranquilopa causes one to live in the present, which is good in many ways. Some of us in the US will spend our whole lives overlooking the present, caught in the past and dreaming of the future, until the moment we die and realize that all we wanted was right there in front of us we just forgot to look. But, some things in life require long-term planning to realize. Going to college, getting the career you want (rather than doing just whatever job you can get), starting your own business, completing bigger projects like building a house, saving for larger ticket items like a car or a vacation…the list goes on. And, tranquilopa can deter people from making and following-through on long-term goals. I have found this particularly interesting working with youth. Many of the Paraguayan youth with whom I work struggle to imagine where they will be (in life) in 5 or 10. When I ask what they want to have or do, they give me blank stares. Or, some youth tell me they want to go to college,  but when asked what they want to study, where they want to study, and how they are going to work out the logistics (like paying for it) the students shrug. Tranquilopa creates a sense of security that says, “what is meant to happen will,” and sometimes this idea prevents the efforts necessary to achieve complex goals.

Conclusion

Like most aspects of Paraguayan culture and US culture, I think a half-half mixture of the tranquilopa life philosophy and the US equivalent which I will call “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” would be the ideal for a life of happiness and prosperity. There is no denying the happiness of the people who live by tranquilopa. Paraguayans smile and laugh more than any people I’ve known before, and it’s not because they have it all in term of material goods. But, I also see people in Paraguay suffering more than they have to because tranquilopa is slowing change. Laughing things off rather than fixing them and only thinking about today are good skills, but they must be executed with even-handedness.

Breaking the Mold

Origin: Ponderings on a rainy day in Paraguay.

Subject:  A limited attempt to justify my actions.

You know how when you put water in an ice tray, bag, or anything and then freeze it the water expands? If you’re not careful, the ice will break the container as it freezes or you end up with not-so-aesthetic ice cubes.

I feel like freezing water—the mold trying to keep me in shape will not hold up. I’m already overflowing, just imagine what’s going to happen when I solidify. Living and working abroad is the freezer, I’m the water molecule, and the molds are who I think I am and who I try to be. I often view myself as a homebody, but a homebody that tends to try to live more like a cosmopolite. Thinking about ice cubes made me realize, however, that I don’t fit nicely into the homebody or cosmopolite types.

Familiar. Routine. Known. Planned. Those are all things that I’ve always thought were important, and without which I’m usually harried, uncomfortable, and general miserable. But, at the same time, my fondest memories archive events that arose from spontaneity and going beyond my routine. And, I often do things to leave my routine behind: studying abroad for a time in high school, leaving Vermont to study in Washington, DC for college, and joining the Peace Corps. This juxtaposition in my personality—being comfortable only with the familiar but wanting and taking action to explore the unknown—started to make me wonder if I’m a masochist.

Don’t worry, after a thoroughgoing investigation I can say with certain confidence I am not a masochist. I just misjudged my character. I will explain.

When I left for a semester in Spain my junior year of high school people said it would change my life, and that I’d have amazing memories forever. When I left for college, people said to cherish my time studying because those years would be my best. When I left for the Peace Corps, people justified my leaving by reassuring me that the experience would be profound and the pinnacle in my life. I believed them, and now I think those thoughts were based at least partially on flawed assumptions.

All those times add up to more or less 6 years of my life. I am 25 and I want to live for a while yet. Were people telling me that my best years are now almost over? That might be the greatest tragedy that fate’s devised. I won’t accept that my life is a tragedy. What people meant to say, I think, was that studying abroad, college, and Peace Corps would be awesome because they would change up my routine and make life a fresh adventure.

“A fresh adventure”, that is the point of this rant. I like routine and familiar because they are easy. I periodically leave behind most everything that fits into the known not because I want to torture myself, but because comfort isn’t enough for me. I am on the trail of something else, and if I have to be uncomfortable sometimes to get there, it is a worthy sacrifice.

I do not think I could handle the life of a nomad; I’m just not that flexible. Nor do I think a fresh adventure is based entirely on changing location. However, I am reminded of the quote that pops into my mind more than any other as I go about my doings, “You have more power over your life than you think you do.”

In my heart I know I can not be happy just talking about the old times. Trying to accept the ordinary makes me restless. I am not a great adventurer or the bravest person, but I’m not scared to expand. I don’t want to just remember glory days, I want to be ever on the path of times worth retelling. That’s what I realized. Changing things up is scary, if it were easy everyone would do it. There’s always a chance for a real flop. But, since I can remember my favorite stories have always been those of people who took a leap. There is a beautiful, quaint simplicity to the stories of people who have spent all of their lives in the same place. But, there is something exciting and fantastic about those who can call more than one place home and who can say they’ve dabbled in many things. Molds are a way of setting a baseline. They’re a suggestion. As all expectations, molds are something to be surpassed.

 

Tea bags: Preening

I think all tea bags should have quotes. Why? Because quotes are awesome and tea is awesome—so they’re obviously a perfect pair. Okay, seriously, I like pondering a quote as I start my cup of tea. Tea puts the mind in a contemplative state.

Today’s topic is based on the tea bag quote, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” brought to me by Lao Tzu. And the topic? Beauty and how that shapes the female experience. Sounds like a sociology thesis, but it’s just some observations.

Warning, I will be talking in generalizations. As with all generalizations, they are an average. They are a way of summarizing data and are not true for all individuals in the data set. Okay, we are going to talk about free time pastimes by gender in Paraguay. But, first I’d just like to say that family, terere, parties, and mate are cross-gender pastimes.

Paraguayan men have a common set of free time pastimes: soccer, volleyball, drinking alcohol, barbecuing, playing cards, and wooing ladies. Of course not all Paraguayan men do all these things and some do other things, but this list is the baseline.

Paraguayan women have a different set of pastimes: praying, watching TV, and looking pretty. There are others, but they are not as common (according to my observation). I want to talk about the umbrella category “looking pretty.” This category includes: selecting clothes and shoes, doing hair, painting nails, putting on makeup, and being in places where one can be seen.

As a general rule, Paraguayan women look impeccable. I’ve often wondered how they do it. I don’t know how they beat the humidity, but I’ve gained a better understanding of how they do it in general. Paraguayan women dedicate a great deal of time and energy to their look. The hours men use playing or watching sports (and cards), women spend on preening. That is a lot of time—maybe 30 and up to 70 percent of all waking free time. Women chat over manicures and pedicures, men chat over cards or on a playing field. Women gossip while straightening each others’ hair, if men gossip (I don’t know) they do it over beer.

I used to wonder why I sometimes felt disconnected from my young, female, Paraguayan friends. But, I finally figured it out, as best as I can at least. I am not a preener. I know how to dress well, contrary to my mother and sister’s beliefs. I know what hairstyles look good on me, how to do makeup, and match my accessories even though my Paraguayan friends might not believe it if you told them. But, I don’t do those things everyday. If fact, I only do those things when I have to—like when I’m going to a wedding, an interview, or that time I had a job where it really mattered.

I feel pressure to step up my game when I’m hanging around my Paraguayan friends. I feel like I’m constantly going to an interview. Well, I felt that way until I stopped caring and started wondering what it implies that a large portion of women’s free time is spent on preening. It was harsh when I realized to keep up with Paraguayan women how much time I’d need to primp. Not happening. I’d rather do…well, almost anything else.

The thing about time is that it passes and once it’s gone there’s no getting it back. We can choose to do whatever we want each moment, but we can’t earn back what we’ve already spent. Many women enjoy pedicures and manicures. Great, awesome for them. But, I’ve come to wonder what it says about us, women, if a lot of our free time is spent doing stuff to impress others.

Some say that women dress to impress other women. Perhaps. But, the point is still that time spent on preening is mostly to influence the thoughts of others, and only partly done out of self-interest or for personal amusement. It starts to become clear why gender lines are so clear in Paraguay, when so much effort is burned (by women) on maintaining the image of beauty generally accepted by society. Girls wear earrings. Girls do their hair. Girls wear pink. Girls wear uncomfortable shoes. Girls do not climb trees…

Free time is free time and individuals should spend it how they wish. But, what about when maintaining an image of beauty starts to get in the way of other aspects of women’s lives? I am specifically thinking about my female, eighth grade students. Should they spend much of their class time applying makeup, peering into mirrors, taking selfies, and doing each others’ hair? I don’t know, but math, language, and history seem a little more pressing.

My claim is straightforward. As long as women spend much of their free time doing activities related to their look, they will remain disempowered. To rise up women must find a way to value themselves by their actions and using their own rubric—not by hoping to fulfil someone else’s definition of beauty.

Bad Habits

Paraguayan skyWhy is the knowledge that something is bad for you not enough to make you stop doing it?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently. When I tell Paraguayans that I’m in Paraguay to teach about health they jump right in and tell me how bad the Paraguayan diet is. Paraguayans tell me their food “has a lot of fat” or that the food “is heavy.” They tell me that there are a lot of people who are overweight, have diabetes, or have high blood pressure.

Next, Paraguayans ask if I like their traditional foods like sopa paraguaya, tortillas, and mandioca. They tell me they want to lose weight, but then put three tablespoons of sugar in the milk they are going to drink with bread. They ask, already knowing the answer, if they should eat fewer carbohydrates if they want to lose weight. They explain how they don’t exercise or eat vegetables.

I don’t know if the people I talk to know that different foods have different nutrients or that balancing calorie intake and calorie burn is the center to weight control, but it’s clear they know what they are consuming isn’t the healthiest option.

If they know it’s bad for them, why aren’t they trying to change it?

  • Is it habit?
  • Is it that they don’t know how to cook different foods?
  • Is it taste preference?
  • Is it cost?
  • Is it cultural heritage?
  • Is it a lack of information or understanding about what makes food healthy or unhealthy?
  • Is it something I’m not seeing?

In the past, I wrote about developing public health programs that encourage change by focusing on the out-of-box-experience. But, as I work in Paraguay, it’s daunting. Clearly, a lack of knowledge isn’t the only thing at work here. But what can I do other than provide information?

Getting Ready for Departure – DC Chapter

I’ve been thinking a lot about finishing chapters, saying goodbye, and opening new doors. In twelve days I leave DC, perhaps for good. I’ve lived in DC for over five years, and I’ve enjoyed it. But, I’m not sad to leave. The truth is I’ve never been sad to leave anywhere.

Departure is often charged with foreboding. It signals a change from the way things have been to something else unknown. Often departure brings with it a sense of discomfort and sadness. Moving away from your family or friends means you won’t see them as much as you did. It means your habits and routines are going to change and so to will the habits and routines of your friends, family, and coworkers.

Change is hard; it inherently bucks the status quo. But change—taking the leap, trying something new—is the only way I’ve ever found you can truly push yourself to the next level. Maybe it’s just that I like to test myself, but I am always drawn to the things that challenge me most. I often pursue the next steps that are so difficult and different for me that they are scary. Yet, I’m a cautious person. I ask a lot of questions. I think about scenarios. I make contingency plans for those scenarios and for the likely event that those scenarios won’t occur.

I don’t think goodbye is the end. We often place a lot of value in geography—mostly proximity. And while living close to where you work makes sense, and perhaps is necessary for your sanity, living close to the people you care about is not a requirement. I’d say it’s a luxury. If you care about someone you will make time for them. Today there are so many ways to make time for people that don’t require you to be in the same room all the time. I won’t list them, but here’s a hint—Internet and telecommunications. Don’t get me wrong, face time is important. But just because I move doesn’t mean I forget about you. For me, our friendship is more than convenience.

I don’t know what the next step, going to Paraguay, is going to bring. As a planner this drives me crazy. But, I also trust my gut. My gut tells me this is the right thing, and my gut has never been wrong. Sometimes I don’t listen to my gut feelings; sometimes I ignore them. But in the end, I usually come around and realize that things would have been a lot simpler if I had listened to them in the first place.

I’m excited to leave. I can’t wait. I will miss you, everyone who has made DC amazing. I won’t miss you in a pining way or in a sad way. But I will think about you often, what you said and the times we shared together. I’m not so foolish as to think things will be the same once I leave—but, I do think our friendship will continue to grow. Thanks for supporting me as I cross this new threshold; it’s going to be hard and I need you.

Next stop is Vermont. Then I’m off to Paraguay!