Wednesday, February 27, 2013

UPDATE - 28 February 2013

Hi, all. It’s good to be back from India. I had a great time with the students there. I taught another batch and now I’m home, and they consistently contact me sending me love. I love it!

I then spent a week in Blacksburg visiting my mentee and spending time with one of my dearest, oldest, and most beautiful friends (hey, BF) as she works through her PhD. I stopped in DC on the weekend to surprise Kristine for Valentine’s Day. We were able to do a really cool cruise on the water and I got to see her bruises healing slowly. Unfortunately another tooth cap came loose so that had to be redone but she seems to be in good spirits, in general. Or at least seeing me helped. J

I’m now back and about to head out for another fun-filled two weeks. Then hopefully I’ll be grounded for awhile as I start up some music classes, try to join the North American Actor’s Guild here, and run a Sparks session. Wish me luck because I’m having trouble with all three of those, but I believe it will work out as I continue trying.

I’ve just finished my stint at the homeless shelter I was working at, so I’ll miss a lot of my people there. The funny thing is people ask me for jobs all the time when they find out where you work. It’s just part of working here. Students ask me, people I meet in pubs ask me. Even the woman I see each week at the dry cleaners. I thought she was joking with me and flashing that smile at me because she was interested in me. Turns out she just wanted to work with my company. I should have known after she commented on how tall I was! I didn’t think it would be the exact same thing at the shelter. So at the shelter, I was helping one girl with internships and studies. I was helping another man who was trying to shop a new product idea to my company. He asked me to check with them. I did but of course, they weren’t interested. It was the first time I got job requests even at the shelter. I’m still working on helping one guy out and need to talk to the shelter administration.

Otherwise, things are good. I’m going to go rest now, but hopefully you enjoy the rest of this update. If not, just close the tab on the browser, delete the email, or navigate to another page away from this blog. I’m never offended. Have a great week and weekend.


I spent my last week in India crying quite a bit. Nothing was really wrong; it’s just that I would stand and teach for 8 hours a day and, afterwards, I would come home, take notes on everything that happened for the last 8 hours, test out the lab for the next day, prepare to teach the lesson the next day, and answer student questions and queries by email. To answer your question, no, it’s not supposed to be like that. When you pilot a course or some training material, it’s better to have one person teach, another keep time (testing your estimated timings), and another to observe and take notes. I had to take notes in my head for 8 hours and then quickly try to remember and write everything down at night. Needless to say, each day I worked two 8-hour shifts. (Don’t worry, I collect all those travel work nights as future holidays.)

For my second 8-hour shift, at home at night, I would work with the TV, my good friend. Because my Hindi, stinks I watched an English channel that would play a new episode of Packed to the Rafters (Australian show), Joey and Molly (US TV), Grey’s Anatomy and Homeland each day. The show that really made me cry was Grey’s Anatomy. Has anyone seen this show? While in India I saw the season during which one doctor gets cancer and another gets in an accident after deciding to become an army medic. They usually showed the episode 4 times a day, so I had ample times to watch. I just kept thinking “how can one hospital have SOO much drama among the doctors (forget about the patients)? It’s unreal!” It was staggered, amazed, appalled, gripped, and sad. I would laugh at myself crying over these fictional characters while preparing to cry over the laughter of real life characters the next day—students laughing in discomfort as they struggled with a topic. J

And they did struggle. The course I had to pilot had 3 prerequisites. A majority of the students were missing at least one of the 3 prerequisites. Many were missing 2. And some were missing all 3. So imagine the task ahead of me each week. I made the decision not to worry about finishing the course but to cover each topic well and finish wherever we finished. I didn’t think anyone cared or noticed, but a few students walked up to me after the second week and thanked me for doing teaching that way, instead of pushing through. Again, it was a moment that took me aback. Students have never thanked me for that before, not explicitly. It was nice.

It was also nice to receive the keys to my room. After a week of people entering my room while I was in the toilet or changing (I think in India the concept of personal space is not as strong as it is in other cultures), a key to my room suddenly appeared! This was great news because it meant that I could have some personal space to scrape off the white film on my skin from the defective soap. Yes, the soap my guesthouse made me purchase finished, so I was back to using their soap which turned my skin white with each shower. Don’t worry, it only added 15 minutes to my morning routine. Luckily no one knew what my normal complexion is, so no one complained. In fact, they thought I had pretty skin. I couldn’t claim credit, though; it was the soap. I only hope I can still have children in the future.

If you haven’t read about my adventures in my guesthouse you should read my first post on it. On the whole, the adventures were fun and made me laugh. After awhile, I even let go and decided to use my towel to dry myself without reservation. Previously I was careful while drying so I could avoid two spots on the towel where someone had blown their nose. Now, I didn’t care. I just dried myself. Sometimes it’s nice to be dry and dirty, than wet and clean. . . No? . . . Maybe it’s just me.

My favourite part of the day was mealtime. I would sit with the guesthouse manager and a staff member of the university or an employee of the guesthouse. And for the most part I would eat silently while they talked. Occasionally I was included in the conversation temporarily and then immediately forgotten. But for that one moment—when I could answer a question with my accent that the guesthouse manager couldn’t understand—for that one moment, I enjoyed being seen, though not understood. Then I would slip back into anonymity. It wasn’t real anonymity but it sometimes felt like it from my different cultural lens. I think speaking your home language in front of a foreigner is not considered rude, here. I had no sense that they felt they were being rude at all. It was just natural for them to speak Hindi and there was no thought of me feeling awkward or marginalised. And so because there was no intent, I didn’t feel awkward or marginalised.

The biggest reason I felt included was because the university staff and guesthouse manager called me by name. They knew my name. One of my favourite gospel artists, Israel Houghton, has a song called “He Knows My Name.” At first I didn’t understand the importance of the concept. But when, again, it was the last day of my last week in India, and the students were hugging me, taking photos with me, and telling me they will miss me, I began to wonder about why they would miss me. Why were they touched so much? The students told me.

“Sir, instructors here don’t know our names. If an instructor knows your name, it’s only after 4 months and many one-on-one interactions. Usually, if you are addressed at all, it is by number.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I can see how that can be hard.”

“Yes, sir. And you learned our names on the first day! That was amazing.”

“Well, yes, it’s important to me to try and do that. I know people like to hear their names.”

“Yes, sir, we do like to hear our names. It makes us feel special. Sir, you must be knowing some Hindi because you seem quite comfortable learning the names and saying some of the pronunciation.”

“Well, I’m new to it, but some of the names I’ve heard before.”

“Well, sir, thank you. Thank you for knowing my name. It is so nice to have a professor and to be able to say ‘He knows my name’. It’s more than feeling special. We’re feeling special, yes. But it’s that we couldn’t hide. You knew us. You called us by name. You saw us. We were visible to you. We had to participate. We could not hide. That is something we have not experienced. Thank you so much.”

The words humbled me. Honestly, I didn’t know most lecturers didn’t know them and that if a lecturer did address them, it was by number. I didn’t know it took 4 months in the few cases when a lecturer did know them. And I didn’t know it was easy to hide and not be seen. If anything I thought being seen in my class would be uncomfortable. And it was, at first, for them. But in the end they were thankful that someone saw them, heard them, and wanted to hear them. In the end, they were thankful that the professor cared enough to screw up their names, to know their beautiful names, to ask where they were yesterday, to ask if they recovered from being sick, to ask how the homework went even if they didn’t do it. And I am thankful for all the many teachers I have had who did the same for me.

Mrs. Bergeron—she knows my name. She said I had a voice to say something.
Ms. Taylor—she knows my name. She first called me an artist.
Mr. Seible—he knows my name. He called me a leader.
Mrs. Williams—she knows my name. She first called me a teacher.
Ms. Young—she knows my name. She first called me creative.

And the list goes on . . .
He knows my name . . .


There was a series on TV a few years ago called Heroes that a lot of my friends really liked. It’s one of those stories that you secretly wish were true, that there are people on this earth with superhuman abilities (like the ability of my bowels to tell me which country I am in). You wonder what day—maybe today—you will come to know of your powers. You wonder what those powers will be. You even wonder what you will do with those powers, which leads to the big question we all ponder—your purpose.

I guess the draw of superheroes is that they have such a visible and obvious purpose. They live for something bigger than themselves, they fight for a greater cause. And they win. They know why they are here and that single purpose drives their actions, redirecting them when they lose their way. That must be part of the draw of superheroes, why we like them, or part of the reason why movie after movie is made of the various DC Comics and Marvel superheroes.

Luckily, we have real-life superheroes. They’re called soldiers, the military—people who serve in the armed forces. Because they protect us and risk their lives, they are heroes. Because they serve our country we should honour them as real-life superheroes. Leaving behind the debate of the complexity of war and whose interests war serves, I’ve always been confused by the sentiment that the military serves our country.

It is true the military serves the country, but the way people say the phrase implies “the military serves the country whereas other people do not.” I’ve experienced that thinking as false. There is a host of ways to serve your country. Many people will immediately think police officers and fire fighters. Yes, they serve your country. But there are many more. A public official, elected or appointed, can serve your country. Doctors serve your country. Immigration workers, judges, journalists, and social workers serve your country. Most importantly, teachers serve your country.

The second problem I have with the implication that “the military serves our country” compared to others who do not, is sacrifice. I’ve been told that the military serves our country because they sacrifice their life to do their jobs. I agree; it’s true that many military women and men have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.  To describe the manner of that sacrifice, I would like to quote General George S. Patton Jr.: “the object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other guy die for his.” I agree with him. Armed servicemen and servicewomen do die, but they are trying to avoid death and sacrifice in the hopes that the other side dies for its country.

Contrast that mentality with a willing sacrifice. Where do you find that? You find that in people who offer a living sacrifice. As powerful as the effects of the death of certain individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., I feel confident in saying that an alive Dr. King would have done more work and more good than the assassinated one. So, a death-based sacrifice does have some meaning, but the more powerful statement is someone who gives their life to something—a living sacrifice.

It is in this way that you begin to see how people like teachers can be a living sacrifice. Teaching when you could be doing something else with your time and degree, teaching in tough neighbourhoods, teaching underserved children, doing a job in which you work nights and weekends and are compensated comparatively less for doing that job, a job based on seniority when you are junior and excellent, or a job based on excellence when you are senior and respected. Doing a job in which the actual responsibilities of your job on day one are the exact same as the responsibilities on your last day of your final year but you’re still expected to achieve all the same duties no matter which day it is—doing such a job is tough. I would like to elevate teachers (among many other service professions both explicit and implicit) to the level of super-hero, for some teachers are super-heroes who serve our country.


I guess my mind has been stuck on super-heroes because I have been traveling in other countries on a day that means a lot to me—Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and inauguration day for Obama’s 2nd term. I made a decision a few years ago not to treat specific holidays as a day to relax, go hiking, take a 3-day weekend vacation, or have a picnic. I decided to try to honour the day and those in whose memory it was created. That means doing something for Veteren’s Day and Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. day (Labour Day actually is a day of rest). So while reflecting on the day and the events I was missing, I remembered that part of every rite of passage is the accompanying transition of our super-heroes to a state that is not so super.

I met with my weekly bunch of friends for our latest session on our theme of Superheroes. My friend Richard was leading it, and I know he likes to provoke people so I knew what to expect. Right from the start he created a rich multi-media presentation that called Gandhi a racist pedophile who said we shouldn’t fight Hitler, Dr. King a plagiarizing philanderer, Lance Armstrong a crooked drug king-pen, Mugabe a freedom fighter, etc. He systematically sought to unearth, unhouse, and unsettle any notions of heroes and villains we held.

Luckily, I had already gone through such falls from grace of my heroes (plus I wasn’t sure about all his accusations). Not only did I fall with my heroes in the past, but I came out on the other side. My friend sought to shatter the image of the heroes but he forgot one important thing: we are all a mixture of inconsistent actions and thoughts. The point is to take the good and choose the better history. Yes, Winston Churchill is hailed as a god of freedom while at the same time, denying that very freedom to Gandhi and India. Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence and said he would fight tyranny anywhere it reared his heads, yet he called Black people inferior while secretly fathering children with at least one slave. I will still quote the true words of Jefferson regardless of his missteps. I will still imitate the dogged determination of Churchill in the name of freedom even though his understanding of it was narrow. Likewise, I will still push for the truths that I have learned while still working on my own inconsistencies.

You see, the (second) problem with Richard’s attempt to bring low my super-heroes is that he thought we saw them as perfect in the traditional sense. Perfection is not a state, it is a process. You never arrive. Instead to be perfect simply means that you willingly and consciously undergo the process of unlearning and relearning, unlearning and relearning, in cyclical fashion. So I don’t admire someone for being “perfect” or faultless or not making mistakes or not making any big mistakes. Instead I admire how someone handles the mistakes she made. It’s what you do when you know you are wrong. That’s why I’ve told people with a clear conscience, “Imitate me. Be like me.” I’ve never meant that in the actual steps but in my honesty with my steps (or my attempts at honesty). I admire a humble, honest leader who messes up 10 times more than one who never makes mistakes. The reason? Even the one who doesn’t make mistakes, makes mistakes. It’s just that the humble one admits it. And that simple act opens everyone into the public process of unlearning and relearning. That act puts the leader on the same playing field with the followers, in the same boat, and creates a relationally more powerful bond of trust that engenders following more than any “perfect” leader could.

You have to be careful, though. I’ve seen leaders, in an attempt to be humble, “produce” missteps. These leaders will publicly admit these “produced” mistakes with great humility. However, you know they are produced because these leaders always feel the need to share a misstep that is safe, something that is a mistake enough to show they are not perfect, but minor enough to avoid endangering perceptions of the leader. In this way the pseudo-leader can be both humble and safe. A true leader, one who acts as a living sacrifice doesn’t think about self-safety, only authenticity that paradoxically increases the safety of the followers, students, community, congregation, group, or family. And you know these pseudo-leaders are not humble because they proudly use this public display of humility to show how humble they are or even to teach that humility, a characteristic they hold, is important.


There are some heroes I do like, heroes who, though fallen, have somehow risen in their deaths, an example of the power of the weakness of love (as opposed to Pax Romana, victory through the sword). If you ever visit London, take a trip to Parliament Square and visit the back exit of Westminster Abbey. You’ll see the Westminster Abbey 20th Century Martyr statues. Most of them are great examples of people who were living sacrifices, people whom I believe still would have done much more alive and been a geater blessing alive than physically dead, memorialized, and only alive through their legacy. The difference would have been the legacy. After a natural death after more years of life, they would still be only alive through their legacies, but their legacies would have been much larger.

Saint Maximillian Kolbe (1894-1941) – a Polish Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger at Auschwitz during World War II. It reminds me of a Tale of Two Cities. “A far far greater thing . . .”

Manche Masemola (1913-1928)– a young Pedi (tribe found in South Africa) Christian woman whose parents, thinking her bewitched, beat her to death to force her to consume a traditional remedy used to cure her of her Christianity

Janani Luwum (1922-1977) – an archbishop of the church of Uganda who was murdered by Idi Amin for protesting and being a leading critical voice against the injustice of Idi Amin

Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Russia (1864-1918) – German princess who married a grand duke of Russia and became known for her beauty and work among the poor; she publicly forgave the murderer of her husband and campaigned for his pardon; later she left the crown and became a nun; she was killed by the Bolsheviks (buried alive)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) – American civil rights leader who advanced nonviolent civil disobedience in the U.S.; he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated due to his efforts

├ôscar Romero (1917-1980) – Catholic Bishop in El Salvador and 4th Archbishop of San Salvador who spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture; he himself was assassinated for speaking out against the injustice and killings; he was a leading proponent of liberation theology

Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) – German theologican, anti-Nazi dissident, and founding member of the Confessing Church, he was part of a plan to kill Hitler; the plan failed and he was killed after being caught and imprisoned

Esther John (1929-1960) – a Pakistani Christian nurse and teacher who was brutally murdered allegedly by an Islamist radical

Lucian Tapiedi (1921-1942) – a Papuan Anglican teacher who was a member of a group of workers who were killed by the Japanese during a World War II invasion of New Guinea

Wang Zhiming (1907-1973) – a Christian pastor who was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned and killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

When I think of these heroes I’m reminded of the recent death of Aaron Schwartz. Aaron was an information freedom fighter, but also a general political activist who worked hard to learn the system so that he could practically affect change, always concerning himself with the vulnerable and unheard, always working to close gaps. He developed the RSS feed format that many websites use today, and he did it when he was 14. I always laugh when people talk about how good it feels to help others. Yes, it feels good. But let me tell you, if you really embed yourself in their world and go beyond a superficial veneer of help to really working alongside and relating alongside those in need, it’s not nice. It doesn’t feel good. You often suffer for it yourself. Ask Mother Teresa. Ask Aaron Schwartz. He was known to suffer from depression. And in the end he killed committed suicide.

I am thinking of him because I keep thinking about how the words of friends have memorialized him. If you have a minute, please skim through Dr. Sarah Kendzior’s short Al Jazeera article on one of the battles Aaron fought against – academic paywalls. Then afterwards, please read this Naked Capitalism article on Aaron Schwartz. I didn’t now Aaron, but after reading that, I thought, “If people one day say about me half the wonderful things they said about him, my life would have been a good life.” If instead of people not wanting to be my friend or associating me with different expletives—if people instead talked about me like that, I would be overjoyed, not for my reputation, but for the good chance that it means that I spent my life worthily and left a legacy. He’s a risen hero.