Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Serendipity 11. A Most Unusual Birthday Celebration

So, yesterday I celebrated the birthday of a person I've never met by going on a hike with an incredible award-winning filmmaker, watching the devastating film she produced, and signing a post card. All of these activities were connected to the "Dear Hillary" Campaign, a movement created and deployed by a number of friends, colleagues and students here at Saint Michael's College and in the greater Burlington Community.

Two of the organizations I'm active in, the Vermont Global Health Coalition and the SMC Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC) have been working with some of the leaders of our local Congolese community for a couple of years now to try to put pressure on the US government to make the ongoing war and concurrent atrocities, including and especially the use of rape as a weapon of war, a serious priority. To us, it seems beyond the pale that this conflict, which has created far more death and suffering than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put together, should be almost unknown to the average American and so low on the priority list for the US State Department. Working with a number of national advocacy groups, especially Friends of the Congo ( --whose office visit I wrote about in the post before this one -- we've done work locally and in Washington, DC.

But this most recent campaign was the brainchild of my friend and colleague, Laurie Gagne, who directs the Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice here at Saint Mike's. She thought of the idea of celebrating Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's birthday by flooding her office with postcards from around the country entreating her to celebrate her birthday by enforcing a law that's already been passed, PL 109-456 (DRC Relief, Security and Democracy Act). To help people learn more about the importance of the issue and mobilize post card signers, the Dear Hillary Campaign created over 50 chapters around the world who agreed to show the film "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" to interested community members. This film was produced by Lisa F. Jackson in 2007, and among other awards, was the recipient of the Sundance Special Jury Prize in 2008. Although it's very hard to watch, having viewed it twice in auditoriums full of people, I can definitely say that once a person sees it, it's impossible not to be affected and want to do something to right away. With that in mind, here are the links to Lisa's web site and the film, as well as to the Dear Hillary Campaign site: and, both of which have more info on the film and trailers for it.

Although I had a shamefully small role in all of this -- a few meetings and some postcard stamping -- Laurie generously delegated some of the hosting duties to me when Lisa came to town, and yesterday afternoon I got to show her a bit of Burlington and do a quick hike up Mt. Philo together. That's her at the top. I think she liked Burlington almost as much as we in Burlington liked her, and I hope that she'll be back, perhaps to speak about some of her other films, at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The heros of this event were, of course, the Core Organizing Committee, and there's a group picture of them with Lisa: Pierre (who also happens to be a Congolese playwright in his second year as resident scholar here at Saint Mike's), Leah, Laurie, Rachel, Mia, Cleophace (who, with his wife Malinga have been fabulous activists for the Congolese community here), and in the front row, Kate and Samantha. Of the committee, two students, Kate and Leah chaired the work, and that's Kate showing off the program with the logo she created for the campaign. The one person from the committee who didn't make it into that group shot is Ashley, a Saint Mike's grad who now works at neighboring Champlain College. She's also the coordinator of the Vermont Global Health Coalition, and is shown here with Laurie (and check out Laurie's awesome Congo jersey that was a gift from Cleophace).

The event at Saint Mike's took place before a packed auditorium. In addition to hearing some African drumming, we sang happy birthday to Hillary with the help of Katarina and the Acabellas (the unfortunately dark picture in this set), listened to Lisa give a keynote address, watched the film, signed the cards, and of course, had a birthday cake. Afterwards, a number of us had a meeting at the SMC Center for Women and Gender with Lisa to figure out next steps, and that's Drisk, Kate and Mia having some Thai food while strategizing.

If you get a chance, please do check out the links in this post. (And here's one more -- a story our local news station, WCAX ran last night -- ). If you're interested in getting involved in the campaign, since last night was, as they say, merely the end of the beginning, please shoot me a message or contact the Dear Hillary Campaign directly. The situation in the Congo, especially for women and girls, is terrible. But it's not going to change unless a whole lot of us do a whole lot more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Serendipity 10. Spend Columbus Day Weekend in Washington, DC with 29 Students

So, it's been a couple weeks, and I really want to make sure that I get to share some of the cool things (lots of new ones, too) that the 30 of us MDG class and Social Justice Leaguers of Saint Michael's College did in Washington, DC. The whole trip was the suggestion of students from my Global AIDS course last year. I told them that I was thinking about starting a new class in fall 2010 on the Millennium Development Goals, and they gave me all kinds of great ideas for the new course. Mae suggested that the class should incorporate a trip to Washington, DC over Columbus Day weekend to do advocacy on the issues we were covering in the class, and that seemed a great idea, so now we've done it.

We left on Saturday, October 9, and since Saint Mike's takes off both Monday and Tuesday of that week, we were able to spend both days in DC. We attended an environmental rally in front of the White House called by the Vermont-founded organization on Sunday afternoon and spent Monday morning doing a training on the issues we'd be speaking about with Hill staffers. Monday afternoon was a fabulous teach-in with Maurice Carney, Executive Director of Friends of the Congo and two of his staffers. One of their offices is upstairs from a wonderful bookstore-coffeehouse adjacent to Howard University called Sankofa, and after our teach-in, we were having drinks and snacks outside, and the actor Danny Glover dropped by to visit the cafe and FOC office. It was great to chat with him about issues affecting the Congo, and he even posed for pictures with our group and some of the individuals.

Of course, everything led up to Tuesday morning, which was our actual time for lobbying. We split into teams and were able to visit 6 offices: Senators Leahy and Sanders and Representative Welch from Vermont; Senator Gillibrand and Representative Lowi from New York; and Representative Hodes from New Hampshire. We talked to them about fully enforcing Public Law 109-456 which has already been passed on the Congo; providing more money for global AIDS and global health spending; and our recent environmental action at Saint Michael's College.

Along the way, we managed to get in some sight-seeing (at museums and monuments, including as you see here, the Lincoln Monument at night) and new food (Ethiopian) and lots of exploring different parts of the district. I've posted more pictures than usual, mainly because there were so many things we did and so many people involved. There's a picture of Olivia, Samantha C. and I asking Danny Glover a few questions. Although Josh got to chat with him about labor activism, an even prouder moment is captured here when he got to meet one of the heroes of the environmental movement, James Hansen, the early scientific voice of warning about climate change in the United States. There is a shot from our Ethiopian eating adventure (almost everyone at the table had never tried it); photos from the hotel lobby getting ready for Hill lobbying (that's Sarah, Matt, Jerry and Mia sitting on the floor strategizing, and I'm waving around a photo of our recent 350 action on campus we brought to give to our Congressional delegation); and pictures of Rachel and Claire helping Maurice with his presentation and then all of us outside with him. On lobbying day Team Leahy passed Team Gillibrand in the Senate office building, so I forced Ben, Connor, Tim, Chris, Tim, Ellen, Claire, Olivia, Katerina, Samantha H. and Alexsis to pose together. And finally, you can see something our class and advocacy organizations have become quite adept at -- what we call the Kindergarten Circle. It doesn't matter where -- class, outside our hotel, on the grass of Lafayette Park in front of the White House -- when it's time to get ready for something or analyze what we've just seen we "circle up" and talk it out.

When 30 people take a trip, everyone takes home different favorite memories. But for me, my favorite memory is a shape -- our circle-- that we made all over Washington DC, whenever we took some time out to learn and prepare and talk together. I am lucky to work with fabulous students and student-activists who came to Washington to learn and advocate for issues they believe in. Not a bad way to spend a four-day weekend.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

10.4 Hike Camel's Hump in all four seasons -- Fall

Today was a big day in terms of New Things -- the last of four seasons of Camel's Hump hikes. The first was in winter with Conor, the second in spring with Will, and the third -- a moonlight/dawn summer hike -- was with Siham, Josh and Ali. Along the way, I did another winter hike on snow shoes with Ryan, Brigit and Alex, and two summer hikes with Gary and Chris respectively. But today officially closed out this new thing (though I'm ALWAYS up for another hike) when I got to do the long-awaited hike with my sister Katrinka and brother-in-law Brian (and I should do a quick shout-out to two of my fabulous students, Katie and Claire (pictured here with Tigist) for going above and beyond the call of duty as babysitters and being tagged by Tigist as her new "best friends" in the process).

I should have known that my beloved state would throw a weather-wrench in the works, and sure enough, though today was October 17, weather-wise it felt like winter. As you can see from the photo of Katrinka signing in, it started out deceptively. It was gray and overcast and then rainy, but as we kept climbing we heard from people coming down more and more ominous warnings of wet, heavy snow and nasty winds further up the trail. Soon people were reporting that they hadn't been able to see anything from the summit as they wrung out their completely soaked clothing.

So, the last Camel's Hump hike of the official four ended in abbreviated fashion, at the clearing a third of a mile from the top. As with so many other things in life, it was much more about the journey than the destination though, so it didn't really matter. The hike today was a wonderful reminder of any number of things -- the fact that I have phenomenal family members who were willing to fly from across the country to do the hike with me in the first place (as well as make sure that I was there for their daughter's birthday celebration -- the picture of me holding Tigist is from her birthday night); the fact that this hike was the last in a series of six others, all of which were special in their own ways and marked by unique friendships with a whole variety of people; and the fact that I live in an incredibly beautiful state where so many people get out and enjoy the mountains and the gorgeous forests that cover them.

Coming Attractions

I still want to do another post about the trip to Washington DC over Columbus Day weekend, and I'll be writing some details about some of the things coming up in that post. For now I'll just say there's some cool local-ish travel -- 24 hours without sleeping in New York City with Chris, and Quebec City with Siham and Leah in the works. And I think I've decided that, having travelled more than most people in the last year, I'm going to take the time that most people travel off. I think I'm going to observe Thanksgiving at home, by myself, doing one of the things on the list I've put off the most -- the day of doing nothing at all. I'll write up the details on all of these and a few other things in the next post.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Serendipidity 9. Start Tigist on her own list of New Things (ice skating)

So, I should be working, but I just had to do a quick little Serendipity post because my niece, Tigist, is in town visiting with her mom and dad, Katrinka and Brian, and this morning I got to start her off on her own list of new things when I took her ice skating for the first time. Brian was the cheering section and took some photos, and here they are.

I also included a shot of Tigist, Katrinka and me at Ben and Jerry's and Tigist and me at the playground across the street from my home. Before they came to Vermont, they were visiting friends in Boston, including Siham, and here is a picture of her along with Katrinka and Tigist. On Sunday Katrinka and Brian are going to do the last of the Camel's Hump in four seasons hikes with me, and I am so excited that they came all the way from Tacoma, Washington to do this hike together. Should be great!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

47. Visit the Walter Reed Museum

So, this New Thing is actually attached to a much bigger four-day trip with 29 students from my Millennium Development Goals class and several of our student organizations within the Saint Mike's Social Justice League. There's all kinds of fun activities and pictures to report on for that, from lobbying in the halls of Congress, to meeting Danny Glover outside of Sankofa, an awesome cafe-bookstore next to Howard University where we got a briefing from the organization Friends of the Congo. But this post is strictly about the the museum, which is technically my New Thing from this trip.

The idea to go the museum came from my good friend Lilly, who suggested it last spring, when I took a group of students to Washington, DC (and that time our new thing wound up being visiting the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial at night). But I just knew that now was the time to hit it ("it" is officially the National Museum of Health and Medicine) for two reasons. First, it would square the circle on a bizarre habit I picked up in Jordan this summer of visiting museums dedicated to tumors and three-headed babies and every other kind of grotesque medical thing you can preserve in formaldehyde. This summer in Jordan while we were visiting the University of Jordan, our very gracious hostess, Inas, took Siham, Connor and me on a tour of the medical school's museum, where I committed my most memorable international faux pas when I screamed when I saw a particularly startling specimen. So, since Connor was also along on this trip, I told him we just had to go. On top of that, another student and New Thing veteran, Will (who did my spring Camel's Hump Hike with me), has a personal connection to the museum, since his great-great grandfather's femur bone from an amputation during the Civil War is prominently displayed. Of course, we all learned that Will's great-great grandfather, General Daniel Sickles, was not only a Civil War hero who took his friends on an annual pilgrimage to the museum every year to visit his leg bone, but also first successfully used the temporary insanity plea in the United States when he killed the son of Frances Scott Key (composer of the Star Spangled Banner in case you forgot), who was having an affair with his wife. Too bad there was no reality TV in the 1860's.

All in all, I convinced six students, all seniors, to come with me, and now they are slightly horrified to have shared this experience with their professor. In the group picture next to the tubercular lung you can see Josh (who would clearly go in the 52 Hall of Fame if I had one since this is about the 20th new thing I've strong-armed him into doing), Amanda (who is one of my highly-talented rock climbing instructors), Tim and Ben on the top row, and on the bottom, Connor, Will and me. There's also shots of Will standing proudly next to his famous ancestor; Connor and I posing next to a tumor for old time's sake to show Siham; Tim, Josh, Ben and Connor learning what they'd look like as tall men without the flesh; and Ben and Amanda intently examining bits of Lincoln's bone fragments from his skull (really, I'm not making any of this up).

After staring at medical oddities for a couple hours we re-joined the other groups (who I had not managed to convince to come with us because they had to do boring things like check out the Smithsonians on the Mall) to start our political activities at an environmental rally in front of the White House. We had lots of other great adventures, and I'm definitely going to write about them, but for me, I'll always fondly remember our trip to the Walter Reed Museum. It's actually got some very fascinating exhibits about the evolution of battlefield medicine as well, and I really would recommend it -- unless you have a weak stomach.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

46. Take a ride in a hot air balloon

The winds have welcomed you with softness,
The sun has greeted you with it's warm hands,
You have flown so high and so well,
That God has joined you in laughter,
And set you back gently into
The loving arms of Mother Earth.

— Known as 'The Baloonists Prayer'

Some debts are too big to pay back, but still you have to try. That's the case for the debt that my friend and student, Connor, and I incurred this summer when my very good friend and SMC alum Siham agreed to go to Jordan with us. Connor and I were going for research, but neither of us spoke Arabic, and Siham does fluently. Her language facility, combined with the fact that she is easily the most charming world traveller I've ever seen in action, made the trip a million times better than it would have been otherwise. I can't really pay her back, but wanted to at least do something, so when I saw hot air ballooning on her list of New Things, I knew that a hot air balloon trip was in order as at least a form of symbolic payback. So I bought us two seats on a balloon ride for this weekend, and we joined tourists from around the country who had come to see the famous Vermont foliage from a different angle -- floating from above.

There were a few times when it almost looked like it wasn't going to happen. Balloons usually fly at dawn and dusk, and we were scheduled for Saturday morning, but the weather did not cooperate. We were going to our friends', Erin and Ethan, wedding in Stowe on Saturday night, so that left Sunday morning. We were supposed to meet at the Inn at Essex at 6 am, but got off a little later, took a wrong turn, and in our haste to get back on track, ran a red light. Luckily, there was no traffic in any direction, and the officer who pulled us over was a really nice guy who let us off with a warning so that we could make our meet-up.

When we finally arrived at the Inn, we got picked up and taken to the launch spot, which was the very large front yard of someone's house. There, we shivered and mostly watched the crews go through the very lengthy process of setting up the baskets, unrolling the balloons, and inflating them, with fans and propane heaters. One of the first things I realized is that getting a balloon in the air is a real production, with LOTS of work involved, but our pilot Jeff and his crew (and his mom and girlfriend who are both sometimes-crew members as well) brought lots of energy to the process. Since this is the peak viewing season Jeff was operating his company, Above Reality (, at full tilt, and there were 14 of us (plus two pilots) waiting to go up. Siham and I were in the big balloon, which held 10 passengers, plus a pilot. Our punishment for being late is that we got stuck on the ends, which I didn't think was much of a punishment, since it was fun to have less-obstructed views in one direction

Flying in a balloon is different than I expected. For one thing, it's very quiet. It's not like flying in a plane -- you go a lot more slowly, since you're in the breeze you don't really feel the wind at all, and you're much lower than when flying in a plane. It's just generally a very peaceful experience, and I imagine much more like what a bird would experience than what you feel when you're in an airplane. The launch and landing were both very gentle as well, and the crew made everything look easier than I'm sure it is because they have their teamwork down so well. We landed in Essex Junction at the edge of a condo complex, and the crew walked the balloon to a road, where they deflated it and and rolled it up (with a little help from the passengers, as you can see from one of the pictures of Siham doing battle with the billowing balloon fabric).

Unless you're independently wealthy, I think this is pretty much a splurge activity, but definitely one that is well worth it. At the end there's a champagne and cheese (Vermont Cabot, of course), and a recitation of the Balooner's prayer that I put at the beginning of the post. As a Vermont resident who revels in the experience of living here, I'd say this is a wonderful way to experience another facet of the beauty of the Green Mountains and our forests and farms and Lake Champlain. It's a special gift that's well worth giving to yourself or someone else (or better yet, both at once) sometime.

52 Ways to Say I Love You
In Tamazight (Berber), and now I am indebted in yet another way to Siham.

Hello Azul
Goodbye Timnsiween
I love you Arkm Tereegh (for a female)
Ark Tereegh (for a male)
(Love = Tayri)
Can I have two beers, please Fkiyi snat birrat zafak

Coming Attractions

Columbus Day Weekend in Washington, DC Not quite sure what the "featured" new thing will be, but the weekend will be chock-full of new things, beginning with the fact that this is the largest student group I've ever taken there (32 students, and yes, I am the only faculty chaperone!). We'll be visiting some development organizations and doing some lobbying on Capital Hill Tuesday morning before coming home, and on Sunday we'll be attending the 350 rally to fight climate change. If people have other ideas for new things, drop me a line!

Camel's Hump Fall Hike. Been waiting a long time for this one. Katrinka and Brian are bringing their daughter, my beloved niece Tigist to Burlington for the weekend of October 15-17, and while they're here we'll do the final Camel's Hump hike together. They've agreed to let me get Tigist going on her own list of new things (she'll turn 3 during her visit to New England), and she and I will be going on her first hike (Mt. Philo) and/or first ice skating experience.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Serendipity 8. Learn Pesto Production

So, this is one of those plans that went off the rails on its own trajectory, with a highly satisfactory result. Beer brewing was on the original 52 list and has been faithfully transcribed to every list update since. I've had teaching offers from three different sets of friends so it's a bit ironic that it just never seems to happen. Then last night it looked like the stars were going to align. A group of friends, many of them past and current (over-21!) students -- Dan, Derek, Drisk, Ali, Abby, Ben, Kate and Josh -- got together to start brewing a new batch and bottling one that was ready to go, and that sounded to me like a perfect rainy-evening past-time. But the full exercise was not meant to be. I am the "faculty visitor" to a first-year dorm (Ryan 2nd floor south), and we had our second meeting together last night. By the time that was done, so was much of the heavy lifting (or at least brewing and bottle washing) of the beer production. But I headed over anyway, and got to learn a thing or two about bottling, and a new skill that hadn't made my list (but probably should have) -- pesto making.

When I arrived at Dan, Derek and Ali's place the whole house smelled like a basil heaven. They had done a last harvest of basil from their community garden plot and had a giant bag of it in the middle of the living room. In case you, like me, have never made pesto from scratch before, here's the slightly simplified instructions:

1. Try to find still-green leaves to pull off the giant bag of plants sitting in the middle of your living room. When you have 3-5 cups of them, throw them in a food processor with a third of a cup of seeds (note: if you are a budget-oriented student you will be pleased to know that sunflower seeds can be substituted for pine nuts at one-tenth the cost) and three chopped cloves of garlic and "a little" olive oil. Then press the food processor button until it all looks pretty pasty.

2. Add 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and "a little more" olive oil and blend again till you can't see the Parmesan cheese.

When you are done, you will have a tasty batch of pesto that you can refrigerate or even freeze.

While Kate and Josh were teaching Drisk and me to make pesto, Derek and Abby were pulling more leaves off plants, Dan was was doing some magical steps that I didn't quite follow with his new batch of beer and then showing Kate, Ben, and Drisk how to use this cool apple peeler/corer/spiral slicer so that we could make an apple crisp as well. As you can see in one of the photos, Josh did also show Drisk and I how one home-bottles beer (with a sort of pressing device and new bottle caps) and so after whipping up a few batches of pesto, and bottling some beer, we all enjoyed a huge pan of apple crisp while listening to the rain pour outside. As you can see, we had some canine company as well, and my favorite picture of the evening is of Blue, who decided that a pile of basil would be a just-about-perfect pillow. A pretty perfect rainy Thursday night, and if anyone wants to some pasta with pesto, drop by my place and we'll have some!