Elevation

I’ve been absent from this space for awhile, mostly because I’m acclimating to a new routine and living situation. Sitting high on a hill, overlooking the never-ending stream of automobiles sluicing down the 5 freeway, California sun lighting up floor-to-ceiling windows is a different experience than being nestled down in a tree-arbored apartment in southwest Ohio. The dominant color there is green; here I am steeped in golden brown and dusty blue.

SIlver_Lake_living_room

My daughter Rhiannon is coming up on 35 weeks of pregnancy with twin boys and I have been summoned in support, the first time in more than a decade that I can recall her making an unequivocal request for my help. Obviously, I am awash in emotion. This is one of those life passages so fraught with implication and meaning that one is placed in an altered state merely by their occurrence. Watching my only child soften into the contours of fecundity, I hover in suspended awareness. Time is passing; my role in my own life no longer assumes center stage. This is the future coalescing and supplanting, as it always has and will forever do.

***

Los Angeles is providing a fertile stage for this awareness; though I have lived in its proximity most of my life, I have not spent a great deal of time within its neighborhoods. My maternal grandmother lived just outside of Glendale for decades and I would spend one week a year throughout my youth with her, usually in the spring. As my daughter grew, I would drive up once a month or so from Orange County and Grandma and I would take her to Griffith Park or Descanso Gardens or the Galleria, the same places she used to take me. That was, in essence, what LA represented for me: discrete destinations, curated experiences, little containers of childhood. Now – and especially in contrast to the semi-rural context of Ohio and Moldova – LA has deepened into a complex tapestry, richly colorful, fantastically disordered, and pulsating with life. I finally begin to understand and appreciate the siren call of LA. Energy never dissipates here. There is no quiet. At 3am, the number of cars rushing through those asphalt arteries down below far exceeds those I would pass at 8am on the 275 into Cincinnati. They hypnotize me and calm me, each one a story, an intention, a full and varied life that shoots by at 75 miles per hour, anonymous and discrete,simultaneously acting out my inherent restlessness and holding it at bay.

When my daughter first moved here five years ago I bought her a book, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, that I thought might provide a different perspective on the city where no one, purportedly, walks. Little did I imagine at the time that it would become a trusty companion to my morning perambulations through the many hillside neighborhoods of eastern Los Angeles. Coming from the land of suburban housing tracts, planned communities, and gridded streets, I am delighted by the clapboard bungalows, Craftsman cottages, Neutra- and Wright-designed villas, bougainvillea-draped manors, and wooded cabins that hang off the slopes of precarious canyons fed by one-lane, buckled cement roadways that twist around and back on themselves in whimsical loops.

Climbing two or sometimes three (if I’m feeling really ambitious) staircases every morning is giving me a much more arduous but enjoyable workout than the elliptical machine at the Ohio gym. During a typical walk, I might pass by the house where Amy Semple lived, Anais Nin died, Thelma Todd was murdered, or Faulkner wrote his screenplays; circumnavigate an emptied drinking-water reservoir being reconstructed into a wetland habitat; conquer the staircases that defeated Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box or the Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake; or stroll through the wooded canyon where once the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley line ran. The staircases themselves are vestigial monuments to long-dead contractors – C.W. Shafer or M.W. McCombs – and city inspectors – W.E. Moyle or Rumble – who stamped their names into concrete almost a century ago. They are historical reminders of a time when LA was not a city of cars and freeways, but was, instead, well-served by trolleys, buses, streetcars and light-rail systems. As Secret Stairs tells it:

The staircases were clustered around steep hillside communities near these transit lines…[and were] so much a part of the landscape that developers in some areas built houses that had no other access to the outside world. These “walk-streets”… were set on hillsides without streets or garages. Everything going in or out had to employ the public staircase running, usually, across the front of the house.

Think of that! Houses without vehicle entry a scant handful of miles from downtown LA! And, by virtue of the strenuous effort needed to access them, I imagine, many of them appear not to have been altered or remodeled since they were built in the 20’s and 30’s – a unique and refreshing phenomenon in a city that reinvents itself almost every decade. There is one particular walk-street staircase of 182 steps in Rhiannon’s neighborhood affording the intrepid climber stunning vistas of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Silver Lake reservoir that I cannot imagine hauling a refrigerator up. The houses along this pedestrian alley are tiny, brightly painted, and overgrown with banana, palm, avocado, cedar, and ancient oak trees. I imagine their contents to be relatively spare and carefully curated, or else collected over decades and never changed. One would need to work hard to accumulate stuff in one of these homes: how bad do you really want that king-sized headboard, mahogany wardrobe, or JennAir range? Enough to haul it up 182 narrow, eroding concrete steps (or pay a ton of money to have someone else do it?)

The density and diversity of these neighborhoods enchants me, welcoming places where economic class and attendant privilege are not so cleanly demarcated. Perhaps one of these reasons why Angelenos remain so overwhelmingly liberal in their politics and lifestyles is that they are not able to isolate themselves in a gated bubble. So much of this city is irretrievably integrated, vagabonds setting up tarp tents in the gulches outside the Whole Foods Market, Guatemalan septuagenarians residing in crumbling adobes next to teenaged celebrities inhabiting world-renowned architectural wonders, bilingual preschools sporting late model Land Rovers parked next to rattletrap Datsuns (remember those) in their dirt lots. Los Angeles is a simmering stew of ethnic and cultural variety that fills me with appreciation, having been steeped in communities both foreign (Eastern Europe) and domestic (Orange County) that offered a limited range of predominantly pale hues. I see what the west coast – and LA, in particular – holds for people who have for years dreamed of a broader, more inclusive landscape. This place sprawls with its seemingly limitless ability to contain it all: every dream, aspiration, inspiration and realization, each nuanced individual goal and massive global concept. Energy never dissipates here. It expands, amplifies, and peoples itself.

***

When Rhiannon was around seven years old, Mike and I moved from Huntington Beach to Irvine, intent on escaping downtown sidewalks (at that time) littered with used condoms and hypodermics, where adolescent skateboarders would sooner roll over your toes than cede an inch of their trajectory and the summer tourists made guest parking a pipe dream. We retreated to the safety, cleanliness, and order of a first-class school system, landscaped medians, acres of parking lots and no less than five Targets within driving distance. We lost much in the process. I am glad to know that Rhiannon and her partner are concerned less with cocooning their two sons in cotton and convenience and more with exposing them to the wild and eclectic elements that germinate in the City of Angels. I’ve discovered that my daily changes in elevation offer me a visible contrast of perspectives, how one thing can shift and alter according to where one is standing, the landscape itself embodying the interplay and intersection of life at all levels. And all these stairs are making me strong again, increasing my endurance for the long haul, something I’m going to need as the next generation takes the stage.

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Hiho, hiho, it’s off to spread the glow…

Because this is my 3rd and final year (I think!) as a volunteer, I want to post more regularly about the experience of Peace Corps service in general and being stationed in Moldova in particular. Here is my first effort towards that end…..

***

I get up in the morning and drink my coffee while spot-checking the Internet for breaking news (making sure, for example, that California has not fallen into the ocean nor a fleet of inter-galactic aliens shown up in Ohio. Mostly I seek secondary reassurance of the continued existence of family and friends.) I then trek down a dirt road and over pocked pavement – nobly striving to keep my dress shoes clean and my ankles intact – to the bus station where I join a herd of mostly silent, grim- faced Moldovans in a rutiera that we must wait to fill before beginning the 20 kilometer commute into Chisinau. (In the morning this doesn’t take too long.) For the first 1-2 kilometers, we stop every 100 meters or so to pick up more passengers, who jam shoulder to shoulder in the aisle as the seats are all filled. Throughout the drive, we stop every 4-5 kilometers to take on or let off passengers at the intervening factories, village crossroads, or bus stations. (This becomes a Jenga-like exercise in compression and agility, as some of those exiting are all the way at the back.) At the perimeter of the capital, people begin debarking at various corners and traffic lights. All told, it takes about 25 minutes to traverse the 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles.) This is public transportation in Moldova. While it is ubiquitous throughout the country, it is geared to accommodate the village, not the nation.

This explains why the parking lot of the 9-floor modern glass building where I work needs only accommodate twenty-odd cars. (I’ve never seen more than five parked at any given time.) What I still haven’t parsed is why there are two official looking male attendants stationed behind an eye-level counter just inside the marble-tied lobby who vet the visitors attempting to access the bank of elevators behind them. The first few times I entered the building they stopped me as I passed to ask where I was going. “Novateca. Etajul opt,” I say in Romanian, attempting to blend in as just another worker bee and not some lost American seeking a public bathroom. After a week or so they allowed me to pass by with a brief nod of the head. If this is some form of security, I am not sure of its effectiveness as it seems to rely entirely on an internal assessment of the visitor’s demeanor, clothing, and sense of purpose; there is no request for ID or even to sign some sort of log.

Having gained access to said bank of elevators, a posted sign inveighs the visitor to please not press all four buttons along the wall in an attempt to summon a free elevator. I wonder if the need for this admonishment bespeaks the higher percentage of foreigners visiting and working in this building: Moldovans, for the most part, are not an impatient people. They know how to wait. Once inside the elevator, the (American) visitor is reminded that, though it is clean and relatively modern in appearance, it was built to accommodate a different architecture and body type than those to which we are accustomed. Their floor space is about 3 feet by 3 feet, allowing comfortable passage for one or two people, with any number above that becoming more physically familiar with each other than one might necessarily want. I tend to wait for the chance to board alone then press the “close door” button rapidly and repeatedly to avoid uncomfortable intimacy.

Exiting the elevator on the 8th floor, however, I find that I have been teleported instantaneously to the USA. Granted, the floor to ceiling windows in the vestibule look out over the cement facades, tangled wires, and faded billboards of downtown Chișinău, but one need only turn to one’s left – offices of IREX – or right – Novateca – to enter into a brightly-lit, plush-carpeted version of corporate America. Here, the receptionist is male, young, and exceedingly friendly. He greets you warmly, inquires after your well-being, and offers you refreshments. You immediately note the 72″ video monitor mounted on the wall which presents a continuous loop of Novateca project activities, beneficiaries, and locations in Moldova. Walking down the hallways, one catches sight of a spacious common work area with networked printers and softy humming copiers; a welcoming kitchen and a small break area, both complete with bottled water (hot and cold,) coffee maker, microwave, dishes, and refrigerator; a tastefully appointed conference room furnished with ceiling-mounted projector and screen; individual offices sporting ergonomic desk chairs and 27″ monitors; and the kind of scrupulously clean, tiled bathrooms equipped with fully-enclosed stalls, large mirrors, soap dispensers, air fresheners, and hot-air hand dryers that one typically encounters in only the nicest hotels and restaurants in Chișinău.

As a new volunteer assigned to Novateca, I am provided the same training and information and materials as an employee. Within my first hour I have office supplies and a laptop, am offered a desk telephone (no thank you!) and access to the shared Google Drive (please!) The office manager reviews administrative procedures and the job responsibilities of each employees. Every person I meet is wreathed in smiles, gives unabashed eye contact, and reaches out to shake my hand. With the exception of the director, who wears a standard collared shirt and colorful tie, the common threads are business casual – no stiletto heels, bejeweled corsets, silky cravats or peg-legged trousers in sight. Staff meetings begin promptly at 1:30pm every Monday. A printed agenda is distributed and facilitated by a rotating chair, the minutes are meticulously recorded by a rotating secretary. The conversation is spiked with good-natured teasing and an abundance of laughter. Office hours appear to be long – everyone is at work when I arrive between 8:30 and 9:00 and still there when I depart sometime between 4:00 and 5:00, but no one appears overly anxious to leave. Often, I receive emails at home late into the evening.

So what, you might be thinking at this juncture? What you describe here could be one of a thousand – nay, million – workplaces in the United States. Why is this particular office worthy of note merely because of its happenstance location in the Republic of Moldova? Glad you asked. Let’s segue for a moment’s reflection on the question of the chicken or the egg.

***

For a brief time in my twenties I pursued a Master’s degree in American Studies. While circumstance did not allow for completion, the two semesters I spent in that interdisciplinary program represented – by far – the most thought-provoking period of my academic career. Granted, the focus of the texts and discussions may have been American, but the broader context of myth, symbolism, art, literature, law, history, environment, etc., and their relationship to culture, behavior, mood, and social interaction formed the basis of our explorations and theses. From the design and production elements that led to the globalization of McDonald’s to the influence of architecture on community and education, to the audio-visual cues that evoke particular emotions, we became attuned to those aspects of our daily experience and environment that were constantly, insidiuously, relentlessly manipulating and shaping our sense of being in the world. We are simultaneously stimulating and reacting to the information that feeds our brains; we are “american” because the particular data environment our senses are subjected to is largely a feedback loop of our common cultural values, beliefs, and aspirations. Here the chicken and the egg become hopelessy entwined: the discipline of cultural studies examines, but never fully answers, the question of how and why cultures form and what influences them to change.

It is precisely this which piques my curiosity about how international development efforts, experienced from the microcosm of Novateca’s office in particular, might contribute to a shift in their host-country employees’ experience of being in the world and thus, slowly but irrevocably, alter the national culture. I venture to address this topic now, only after 29 months of living here, because I feel it has taken that amount of time to have had a fairly representative exposure to various workplaces and attitudes related to work, from personal experience and that of Moldovan, American, and other foreign-born colleagues. Here is my theory.

***

The people that flock to non-profit work, and perhaps the international development arena in particular, tend to be overtly optimistic and infectiously idealistic. One of the best chapters of Peace Corps, for me, was being shoved into a group of strangers in Philadelphia a little more than two years ago that – within a matter of months – morphed into a close-knit tribe of like-minded crusaders trading intimate details of hygeine, humiliation, and hubris. It was the tribulations and triumphs of our shared experience that bouyed me through many a dark night of self-doubt.

One of the Health Educator Peace Corps Volunteers posted this to our group Facebook page the other day:

I sat in on a homeroom lesson with the fifth graders. The topic was “Limiting Your Wishes!” I’ve been mulling it over a lot ever since because I can’t imagine, socially, a US teacher standing in front of class and saying, “Tamp it down kids, because there are just some things that you’ll never be able to have, do, or be. Ever. Now let’s talk about lowering those expectations for forty-five minutes.” It would be a nigh-sacrilegious affront to the American Dream.

I wonder if his observation evokes a similar gut reaction from you: the stupendous disservice an authority figure does when she attempts to define or curtail the wiilingness to imagine change. My desire to refute that brand of discouragement distills the kernel of difference that I seek to make through my Peace Corps service and the best of what I believe development efforts actually accomplish in any given country. When a group of driven, compassionate, and energized people come together to work towards a goal, their belief in their ability to effect change is infectious. They validate and reinforce the significance of having a dream, a vision – a compelling notion that the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are. Sure, Americans might be more adept at owning this characteristic – look at the mythic particulars of our history and how they resonate with the dynamic of change. Many of our forebears were courageous/adventurous/desperate fortune seekers who left all that was familiar and routine to inhabit a better life beyond the known horizon. Horatio Alger-type stories amplify that notion of not ceding to circumstance or misfortune: those who try long and hard enough can create the life of their dreams. The most enduring symbol of our nation stands 151 feet tall, outwardly facing, holding aloft a beckoning torch for those ready to make the leap. We are the “Land of Opportunity,” the place where dreams can be made true.

But that doesn’t mean we hold exclusive rights to hope, faith, and hard work. There are many other nationally-identified organizations and missions (Médecins Sans Frontières comes to mind) that inspire others to adopt a ‘can do’ attitude, but once infected they become their own agents of change. (We may not always agree about the dreams they wish to pursue, but hey – it isn’t just about us, now, is it?) I am not naive; I do realize that far too many big development and aid projects have ulterior motives and (sometimes not so) hidden agendas. In a world of free trade agreements and international investment banking and sweatshop labor and resource depletion, there is bound to be subtext to most flashy headlines. But that doesn’t mean that passionate people with persistent intentions of realizing different tomorrows aren’t hard at work every day within the organizations implementing those projects and thousands of others.

I see the pleasant and welcoming physical atmosphere of the Novateca office as an externality of the attitude that propels its mission. People are valued here. Mood is relevant. Environment expresses thoughts and beliefs about relationship and comfort and care.

I listened to a podcast recently that discussed the merits of what is termed “warm-glow giving,” a form of ‘impure’ altruism described by James Andreoni back in 1989 that postulates one reason why people act and/or give charitably. ‘Pure’ altruism is the notion that one will do for or give to others without any consideration for self, while impure altruism, conversely, is ‘tainted’ by the positive feeling, or ‘warm-glow,’ that the giver receives as a direct result of the charitable act. Well, really, who cares? If someone experiences an intrinsic reward from helping another person, then I would venture to say that he is probably more likely to help again – and again and again and again, right? My current role with Novateca allows me to both facilitate and witness the contagious fever of idealism. I am still learning about the various systemic obstacles, economic disincentives, and cultural mores that make altering the prevalent perceptions of libraries and librarians in Moldovan so challenging. I will admit that almost everyone outside of Novateca that I engage in discussion on this topic has more bad news to share. But that has become my focused mission in this endeavor – to help spread the warm-glow influenza, if you will. Working towards a common goal that is geared toward helping ameliorate a problem or lift up a people from poverty or give a community greater access to health, education, and well-being or bring peace to a region or turn archaic book depositories into vibrant centers of knowledge access and sharing tends to make people happier, more invested in their job, more likely to enjoy the hours spent among their co-workers, participants and beneficiaries. The more people that are brought on board the warm-glow ship, the faster the whole world sails toward that distant horizon where they way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are and kids won’t be admonished to curb their enthusiasm.

I am very lucky to have this particular opportunity during my 3rd year of service here. I regret that the enthusiasm and energy that radiates from my Novateca co-workers – both American and Moldovan – is not the predominant attitude within all non-profit organizations and public instutitions within this country. But it is gaining ground, bit by bit, partnership, PCV, FLEX exchange student, Work & Travel youth, emigrant worker at a time. Globalization spreads the good as well the bad.

Hiho!