And the sky quaked….

Hello my baby, hello my darlin', hello my ragtime gal...

“And lo, then the apocalypse did arrive and we did sayest to our kinfolk: “Be this it? This be-ist not so bad!” And lo, then we did enjoy the hell out of the plague of tiny frogs and the plague of bluegrass locusts and the plague where the river did run red with Kool-Aid…”


Someone told me last week that everything I write is set in a Slacker Apocalypse. Sounds about right.

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Stella Lee’s Punch Pie

“Take an old apple pie (one from the day-old rack at the supermarket) and punch holes all over the top crust after it’s baked. Then pour on the rum or brandy, making sure it goets in all the holes. Now that’s good enough, but to make it really something, sprinkle on a little sugar (now don’t load it down) and set fire to it. That’s what you call making it prissy.”

From White Trash Cooking by Ernie Matthew Mickler.

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The Summer Dragon

Takes dogs and cows

and the old, when it can get them.

Sucks clouds like eggs, rubs the paint

off houses, scrapes them to wood

under an itchy chin.

Oh, Summer – Why?

Do you love the crickle of your dry skin so

you burn the grass down dead

and every wind hisses

like scales

over the cracked dirt?

(Riding Amtrak through small town Texas in July. If you don’t feel this way in middle of a Texas summer, then please pass me whatever it is you’re drinking.

Things passed on the train: 2 open graves. 2 black dogs hiding from the sun, 1 horse, 1 donkey, 1 mule, 5 closed liquor stores, a sign: “Welcome to Tayler Texas, Home of the Ducks!”)

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I am clearing my mind. I am squeezing the swollen mass of my mind into empty submission. The distractions are tinkling out of my mind and onto the floor with a noise like liquids dripping. I am wondering if I actually needed to drink the whole pot of coffee before beginning to write this blog post. I am thinking up at least five things to do before I start writing this blog post. I am ignoring all but a select few of these things. I am putting down the computer. I am urinating. I am sitting down. I am starting over.

I am clearing my mind. I am attempting to say things with words. I am thinking about this. I am wondering if this was a mistake. I am considering the hopelessness of using words to say things. I am considering lapsing into despair. For now, I am avoiding the deepest depths of despair. I am skimming only the frothy layer of despair from the very top of the deep vat of creamy, existential despair. This despair is delicious. Now I am banishing despair. I am clearing my mind of all thoughts except finishing this blog post tonight. I am trying to remember what this blog post was about. I am wondering if I actually had some idea about what this blog post was going to be about. I am shaking my head in a bemused fashion.

I am clearing my mind. I am remembering and inventing all at the same time all sorts of much easier and also more important things I could be doing with my time. I am remembering a list I made yesterday. I am remembering an idea I had yesterday for a small art project that I could have finished by next week if I gave up this nonsense and started now. I am letting my mind compose all the witty and charming things I will say tomorrow. I am allowing it to picture all the people I will use these words upon. I am seeing the looks on these people’s when I use words to convince them to love me and to pay me. I am trembling and smirking at the power of my own words. On the blog post front, I am continuing at nil.

I am clearing my mind. Also, I am becoming increasingly aware of my own fingernails. I am suspicious of the very assumption of the idea that I had an idea about some idea in the first place. I am breathing.

I am clearing my mind. I am reminding myself that all my essays end with the same little chirpy “, but…” that turns everything hopeful in the end. I am remembering how I HATE that. I am making a mental note of this: “Do not do that thing you hate.”

I am clearing my mind. I am reminding myself that this is all practice. I am remaining calm. I am clearing my mind. I am taking a five minute break. I am watching the same video of a catastrophic natural disaster over and over again. I am searching for different videos of the same scene in different angles. I am attempting to make out faces behind the windscreens of cars fleeing the disaster. I am watching myself be swept away. I am considering immeasurable distances. I am looking for anything else. I am watching a small puppy lick an ice cube. I am thinking, “What the crap?” I am small and tired. I am not clever. I am not going to be paid, AGAIN. I am sitting. I am standing.

I am clearing my mind. I am making coffee. I am sitting down again. I am clearing my mind.


Filed under Stuff I Write - Essays, Stuff I Write - Hella Meta

Help Is a Four Letter Word

You know what? I hate volunteers.

Okay, don’t get me wrong – I’m an utter hypocrite. I started this essay on a bus halfway between the domestic violence shelter where I volunteer eight hours a week and the Michael’s where I was picking up some donations I’d solicited for said shelter. Most of my college weekends were spent answering phones on a crisis hotline; through high school I was elbow-deep in my local animal shelter; before that, I can’t remember a time when my mother wasn’t dragging my larval self to church functions and Salvation Army programs in hopes of beating something like a social consciousness into my lazy brain. (Bully for you, mom). Maybe more than anything else at this point, I am a volunteer. I am SUCH a volunteer.


My qualms with the whole culture of volunteerism started to fester that summer I spent at a Romanian orphanage (Want to do good? Here’s a hint: Mission Trips. They don’t work). Since I moved back to Texas, the qualms have only gotten queasier. Austin TEEMS with amazing service organizations that need volunteers. It also boasts a huge population of students who, either out of a genuine desire to do good or the need to complete required service hours, are always on the lookout for volunteer opportunities. Still, for every amazing and indispensable volunteer I meet (and there are plenty), there are always three others who just have to be worked around: the volunteer who shows up only to improve his or her own resume; the entitled do-gooder who wants to run the entire organization by himself; the flake who shows up only when she feels like it. Then of course, there’s the Drop Out – the otherwise adequate volunteer who trains, puts in a few hours then suddenly leaves. Your average service organization puts a lot of time and money into volunteer training, every checked-out, counterproductive volunteer is literally robbing the org they set out to help in the first place. I’ve watched it happen OVER AND OVER AND OVER. But WHY?

I may just be exposing my soft earnest underbelly here, but I don’t believe anyone purposely sets out to volunteer with the intention of being bad at it. “I want to help” – the story goes – “I want to do something good.” Who can argue with that?

Well, that bus ride was a long one, and because I just love to help, I spent most of it coming up with four basic guidelines for being an excellent volunteer, based on my own trial and error. The topic is broad and my experience is admittedly not, I’m going to limit myself to advising those working with pre-existing service-based organizations. (Young go-getters looking to start service organizations of their very own would also do well to pay attention.)

1. Know Your Community

It’s impossible to teach drawing without at least some decent pencils, and since the clients specifically requested that I teach a drawing class this semester, I’ve spent the last week calling art stores and begging for donations – I have, I’ve discovered, a natural skill for begging, as long as I’m properly motivated. My spiel, at this point, is cast iron; still, there’s a moment in every call where I stumble and bite my tongue. That moment? The one when I need to describe, in two to three appealing words, the community I’m serving and why they deserve help. This is a problem because possibly the best word for the job – the universal phrase you see bandied around in grant proposals and brochures for volunteer programs from here to Antarctica, is the one word I have sworn myself NEVER to use while describing these kids. That word? Disadvantaged.

The reasoning behind this is a little complex. Before I explain, let’s give a little background. What is volunteering? It’s a broad term covering lots of different activities, but no matter what form it takes volunteering is a political action.

Put simply, every time you volunteer, you’re making a statement about the community in which you live: what kind of values you think it should uphold, what kind of institutions and services are necessary for those who live there, and what kind of people need help. If you think about, volunteering is one of the most effective ways to be politically active: rather than simply spouting opinions to whoever will listen, you’re out there testing these convictions of yours while at the same time making it more likely that they’ll be heard. The experience can fortify your position and provide you with helpful anecdotes for use in later opinion-spouting. Still, without a doubt, it will also challenge your convictions. Why’s that? Because when you walk through the door into your very first volunteer position, that’s all you’re going to have – convictions, hopes, and a vague idea about the kind of people you’ll be working with. The second the door closes behind you, that picture is going to explode into a million chattering pieces because the problem with volunteering is that WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the beneficiaries of volunteer programs are Real People. And Real People are complicated.

So, back to the d-word: why does all this add up to my refusing to call my students disadvantaged? For one thing, it’s a loaded word. What’s an advantage? By using the word, am I conveying that I am more advantaged and therefore of more worth than a bunch of ten year olds living in a domestic violence center? By volunteering, am I suggesting that they can’t help themselves? Those questions are enough in themselves, but my main problem with “disadvantaged” and terms like it are that they don’t MEAN very much about the people they’re meant to describe. What does a disadvantaged person look like? How do they think about themselves? About the chick in the doorway with the do-gooder grin on her face? I don’t know these things and neither will you, at least not in the beginning.

I’m not mentioning all this to preach (at least, not JUST to preach). Of the reasons that good volunteers stop, one of the most common is disillusionment – the feeling that they’re not accomplishing anything with their time. And sometimes they aren’t. More often, they’re doing fine, but since they started their work with a specific picture of what they would be doing and what it would look like, anything less seems like failure. This is avoidable. Learn as much as you can about the issues and the community where you’re volunteering – at first you might try sticking close to home and working with a community you’re already a part of. Then, once you’ve decided what ideals and values are important to you, TALK TO PEOPLE about them: staff members, fellow volunteers, members of your service population, anyone who knows anything about the subject. Be ready to have your assumptions challenged. Not only will this make you more able to provide services that the community actually wants (see #2), but by getting to know and to love your service community as it really is, you’re giving yourself the context necessary to recognize all the good you’ve already done.

2. Ask First

In any fluff piece about the magic of volunteerism in any lifestyle magazine, ever, you will read that there are as many kinds of volunteer opportunities as there are people who want them. And this is true. But here’s another story:

On a hillside in Romania, close behind the orphanage where I volunteered that summer, there is a pile of junk. Broken refrigerators and cars and old televisions and god knows what else are all up there, rusting and probably causing significant environmental damage. Why? Easy. Someone donated them.
When a donation truck rolls up to the orphanage, it’s full of things that the organization needs – furniture, blankets, etcetera It’s also equally full of other junk that the donor just needed to get rid of and write off on their tax returns. The orphanage can’t turn away the junk without turning away the whole truck and they can’t afford to turn down ANYTHING. So, they pick out what they can use and send the rest up the hill. The summer I was there they were trying to sell some of the stuff for scrap, but I’d bet anything that most of it is still up there on that hill. Rusting.

There’s a great discussion in all this about the economy of giving. More to the point, it illustrates a truth I don’t think a lot of people see unless they’re in nonprofit work for a long time: Service organizations NEED help. They need help in a very water-in-the-desert kind of way, a need that (if needs had sounds) would sound very much like nails dragging down a chalkboard. They need so much help that, generally, they’re not going to turn down ANYBODY who offers them ANYTHING. That doesn’t make what’s being offered helpful

Once you’ve found a cause that you feel strongly about, don’t arrive at the doorstep saying “This is what I am going to do for you.” Ask instead, “What do you need?” Most established service organizations have at least a few set volunteer positions. If you have a specific set of skills that you want to share, describe what you do and ask if they could use you someplace. If they can’t, they’ll know other places you can ask. If you really want to offer YOUR service to a specific community, consider working with an established organization in some other function until you’ve learned about the community and made connections enough to start your own program.

3. Go Long

Again, this is one of those bits of magazine fluff: “Volunteering doesn’t have to be a big time commitment!” And this one’s true. Even one or two hours a week can make a huge difference to an organization that runs on donated time. BUT if your goal is to understand the needs of the organization and the community and help create meaningful change….well, showing up for a day to paint a damn mural ain’t gonna cut it. (Great example of this kind of volunteerism? Mission trips.)

If you’re going to volunteer in a direct service position (that is, any position that puts you face to face with the people you’re trying to help: mentoring, tutoring, counseling, hospice work, anything with kids, etc), you need to make a commitment of at least two hours a week for a year. Minimum. Direct service positions DEPEND on a relationship between the volunteer and the individuals that they’re serving, and for the most part it just isn’t possible to develop that relationship with a small or even an irregular time commitment. Also, compared with skill-based volunteer opportunities that, while helpful, don’t have much of a learning curve (filing, dog-kennel cleaning, etc), it takes much longer for a direct service volunteer to get good at service they’re trying to provide. If you’re not in a place where you can make this kind of commitment, then you need to find another area or another organization to offer your services.

If you are the sort of volunteer who is in your last year of school and looking for something impressive to put on your resume (you know who you are), I’m not saying you need to stay away from nonprofits altogether. What you need to do is PLAN A FUNDRAISER. Find a cause you give a damn about, raise money in their name, then check the “Area of Most Need” box on the donation form. This is both harder and more impressive than it sounds; it’s also much more likely to do good, in the long run, than offering a service or program that is going to disappear as soon as the semester is over.

4. It IS All About You

Wait? What?

At this point, it’s probably a good idea for me to explain the subliminal message in all this, the one that’s been so bad at sublimation that by this point it might as well be the subtitle. So…Mission Trips. What are they? Why don’t they work?

I stole the term from the church youth group set, but The Mission Trip is actually widespread concept in the land of Doing Good. In this noble venture, a volunteer or group of volunteers (invariably middle class Westerners) travels to a disadvantaged community, either in a foreign country or simply on the other side of the tracks. This volunteer (or group) works for a week or two, enjoys the exotic locale, snaps some pictures of him or herself with an arm around some sickly looking natives, then buggers off. If you’ve been paying attention to numbers 1-3, you already know exactly how little good this kind of set-up is going to produce. Except…well, it does. It CAN. Just not what you’d expect.

You may recall that I started this essay griping about the time I spent one summer in a Romanian orphanage. Without going into detail, it’s safe for me to say that that experience was a CLASSIC Mission Trip. Entitled white kid? That’s me! Glamorous third world orphanage? Check. Parallel agenda? I was writing a NOVEL for god’s sake, and I’ll freely admit to extensive pre-trip daydreaming about adorable Romanian children and the tragic circumstances from which I would be snatching them (though how I was going to do this and still backpack Europe for two weeks afterwards was not entirely thought through.) Okay, so I learned Romanian beforehand and I stayed for three months instead of five days. I swept some floors and poured some concrete; I learned card games, hung around with the other volunteers. Romania was not much changed by my time there. Me, on the other hand? Four years later, I STILL talk about it at least once a week.

There’s a reason that so many school programs require service hours, and it’s not because they’re afraid civilization will collapse without another 20 hours of literacy tutoring. Volunteering is FANTASTIC for volunteers. Done right or even just done ok it broadens horizons. It provides opportunities to lead and to teach. It develops empathy, self-sufficiency and self-esteem. This is true even of missions like my Romanian trip that don’t particularly help the groups they claim to serve; other programs strike a happier medium where both volunteer and service community provide each other with something that neither could get on their own. But no matter the program, if all the volunteers were to disappear tomorrow, the service community itself would keep going – inconvenienced, maybe, but not helpless. I’m not suggesting for a second that this justifies self-serving, useless volunteerism, or that no volunteer actually cares about what they’re doing. That urge to help is real and it is addictive. But on its own it’s not enough, and that’s why the number one destroyer of volunteers is BURNOUT. You want to help. You are so helpful. Then all of a sudden it’s too many hours on too little sleep, it feels like no one appreciates all the wonderful services you’ve gone out of your way to offer, and the glow is gone. Then you’re gone. And who does that help?

One of the major strategies of crisis work, one that I think every volunteer should have some practice with, is art of Self Care: that is, paying attention to your own emotions and reactions to situations, even in the middle of trying to help someone else. Self Care may look like deciding to skip volunteering after a brutal day at work, or a taking a strategic bubblebath, or remembering to decompress about a tough experience to another volunteer or staff member at a later date. No matter what form it takes, the idea behind Self Care is to start paying attention, not only to the things that are wearing you down but also to what you’re getting out of it. There will be days that are horrible. There will be times you mess up. There will be times no one seems to appreciate you. But if you’re paying attention, when the glow of “Hey, I’m helping!” fades, it can be tempered – and strengthened – by the realization, “Look how much I’m learning!”


Filed under Social Justice, Stuff I Write - Essays

Mustering the Troops

Having the weekends off, it’s…ah…well.

Actually, I’m not complaining. I’ve eaten gelato; I’ve talked on the phone; I’ve eaten applesauce; I’ve made cookies; I’ve eaten cookies; I’ve conquered North America by train. And I saw that it was good. But the problem with full time work (stupid work, as I call it) is that when you have free time, you tend to spend it all in the gelato/cookie/train-conquering mindset, and not doing all the business-ney type things that might actually free you from the cycle of stupid work and stupid downtime. Or so the old myth goes. SO, while I am going to spend the last hour of my free weekend drinking mint tea and listening to the latest Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me Podcast, THIS is the list of things I need to accomplish this week:

1. Figure out how to teach ten year olds to draw. Because I’m an art teacher now. Didn’t you know?

Well, as most of you know, I volunteer regularly working with kids in association SafePlace*, the domestic violence shelter here in Austin. Among other things, one of the activities I arranged last semester was a creative writing class for kids who were already part of one of the shelter’s outreach programs. The class was an absolute success, except for two key factors: One, that the majority of the kids who came were under 6, and Two, that most of them couldn’t write or speak English. So the whole thing turned into sort of a mime/arts and crafts class, and we made puppets. Good times had by all. This semester, the mothers in the program asked for something for the older kids, who are traditionally a harder population for these programs to reach. (It’s in an area with high underage gang activity, for one thing. Oh, hey, and a lot of the kids are second-generation immigrants. How about that?) And the older kids? They want a drawing class. So, by God, that’s what they’ll get. I just have to figure out HOW.

My experience last semester tells me that, if anything, the kids need MORE time in a program to get anything out of it. So, my first design was a two-hour class, twice a week, on Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Since I am more-or-less in the dark on the drawing thing, and since it is my firm belief that children given access to good art supplies become better people (Think about an oil pastel. Try to picture someone turning out entirely awful, after being allowed some quality time with block printing ink. Tried it? Right, there you are.), then the Thursday classes were designed as free-drawing days, wherein I give the kids good-quality art supplies and let them play. Saturdays were to be the days where we went on field trips, or invited guest artists from the community in to talk about their work and being an artist/how it’s very similar to being in a gang but much better. Not a bad design, if I do say so. My supervisor agreed. Then she pointed out to me that this is a nonprofit. So, tomorrow morning, I have to create a new plan for a drawing class with the following characteristics: one hour, one day a week; no field trips (liability); no art supplies (no money).

Mmm. Smell the challenge.

2. In-Design myself a book. Because, you remember that thesis project I was always blabbering on about? With the Romania and the dogs and the yadda yadda? Well, it’s done. It needs some editing, of course, but our professional editor (*coughmothercough*) is really in over her head with work lately AND I did just happen to purchase a brand new shiny laptop with a brand new shiny copy of Adobe InDesign. Somehow, I know, these two things add up to my formatting Orfelinat into a beautifully booklike thing. I just have to figure out how. Anybody?

3. Speak Spanish. This is always on my lists. Maybe someday it will actually help.

4. Give away kittens. I’m serious, people. I’ve been trying for months now. When the cats outnumber the people in your house…well. It’s time to give away kittens.

5. Remember how to come to a conclusion. Because…

*Many domestic violence or rape crisis centers conceal their locations so as to protect their clients from retribution or misplaced social stigma. SafePlace, as an organization, has decided against this route for two reasons. First, no matter how well they are hidden, safehouses are almost always discovered by batterers. Second, with more visibility, the program is open even more to public support. Due to confidentiality, I will never post any specifics about the programs or individuals I work with at the shelter. However, I am proud of my association with the program and will happily discuss its mission or the opportunities it provides for victims of assault and abuse in the Austin area.

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Learning Hats On

You know what happened today? Today, I read an article that made a point. Nothing strange about that (maybe), except this is a point I wrote down, circled three times, and surrounded with exclamation points. Why? Because I have NEVER SEEN IT MADE BEFORE!

The set up is simple: I’m reading about Mexican-American immigration. There’s a couple of reasons for this, but they all boil down to the fact of HELLO? TEXAS! I live in a border state. I know undocumented immigrants and their children. Frankly, it’s criminal that my only knowledge about immigration boils down to violently disagreeing with whatever Bill O’Reilly says about the subject. (Knee jerk? Guilty.) So, along with the rest of my little self-improving measures this Spring, I’ve set myself on a little independent study. And since there’s so much verbiage on the subject, I decided to start with Getting Immigration Right, a collection of short essays on the subject of illegal immigration that covers a wide range of opinions and a nice little Further Reading section to get me going from there. It’s well written, it’s well edited, and apart from the lingering shame-heartburn from not knowing some of this stuff to begin with (Mexico was ruled by a one party system for eighty years? How did I miss that?), I’m really enjoying the chance to fit all the soundbites and talking points into their places in the larger story. The only problem with the book is that, because of the way it’s formatted, several key points tend to be repeated. So when, halfway through chapter 9, I came across yet another reminder that America is a land of immigrants and that ALL previous waves of immigrants overcame low wages, language barriers, and violent prejudice to become successful yadda yadda yadda…I skipped to the next paragraph. Where I found this:

“When America has failed to provide material and educational incentives to recent arrivals, instead meeting their ambition with hostility, their children have grown up to become permanent outsiders, resentful, and often violent….Until recently, the story of immigration has been suffused with optimism, whereas that of suppressed radical minorities has been one of despair. As the new century advances, however, those two stories begin to converge.”
– From “Undocumented Workers, Documented Mendacity” Patricia Fernandez-Kelly in Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know, David Coates and Peter Siavelis, ed. Potomac Books, 2009. (Page 135)


Kid of a politically correct school system I was and am: I know my Sacco and Vanzetti just as well as my Plessy vs Ferguson. But never before today had I made that supremely logical connection between the two. Kidnapping, brutality and enslavement might not count as “immigration” per se, but the post-Reconstructionist Great Migration to the northern and western U.S. certainly does, and communities across the country
(Chicago, for one.) are still scarred by the economic segregation that was built at that time. The focus of the chapter as a whole is to address the idea, apparently one widely-bandied on the talk waves, that the immigrant situation needs to be controlled because undocumented workers engage in criminal activity. The conclusion? Marginalizing a large group of people, denying them access to services and rights DOESN’T MAKE THEM GO AWAY. It just…well, creates a large group without access to services and rights, who respond to disenfranchisement with disaffection and violence (some of the examples the author uses are high rates of teen pregnancy and incarceration/involvement with gang violence and the drug trade. So, in a sense, there IS criminal activity that results from illegal immigration – after the children have grown up in the restrictive and racist American system). It’s a point so simple even I knew it already, but I’ve never seen it applied to the Latin American/American immigration situation. Isn’t that just your favorite part of learning? When you learn things and say things and you ask questions, then one day your head clicks and you know

Next question: This makes so much sense. The children of first-generation immigrants are suffering from this RIGHT NOW . Why isn’t it being broadcast as an urgent impetus for reforming the system? If anything, why are mass deportation and wall-building (military action on our border with an ally nation) STILL being talked about, even though they are economically and ethically unfeasible, while this isn’t?

If you want to see the numbers, the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), the source of a lot of key data in the chapter, is here.

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