Thursday, December 31, 2009

Whoever's On First

Dad: Dr. Klein diagnosed my high blood pressure and referred me to doctor whoever.

Mom: If it weren't for Dr. Klein he never would have seen doctor whoever.

Me: Doctor whoever? Who's that?

Mom: A cardiologist.

Me: I know, but don't you know his name?

Dad: Dr. whoever.

Mom: Fooever.

Me: His name is Dr. Fooever?

Dad: Fuuulweber.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fun With The Camera Phone

This place used to be a Chinatown "erotic" massage parlour. It has been converted into a Lower East Side-style trashy bar and dance club with an equally classy name, Happy Ending. I walked past it one evening and noticed this sign on an otherwise unremarkable-looking side door to the place. The handwritten Chinese says, "No massage, just a bar." (Mei you ah mo, zhi you jiu ba.) Apparently they have problems with some of the old parlour's long-time patrons not getting the memo about the change in their business model.

You and me both, bud.

Still, not the ugliest or most terrifying rat in Manhattan. And what IS that? An udder?

Hahahaha! New York humor.

A bug I found in my stir fry at XO Kitchen in Chinatown. When we pointed it out to the waitress, she replied, "Are you sure it didn't just drop in there after we served it to you?" Then the manager rushed over and told us he'd give us the dish for free, and apologized. Finally, someone in New York who gives a crap about customer service.

My neighborhood grocery store is Associated. Among New York grocery chains, it's better than C-Town, Gristedes and Key Foods in terms of quality and selection, but prices can be inconsistent - and mostly too high. But I forgave everything when I discovered that they have this plastic bag recycling bin! Also, just outside the store is a large metal bin for used clothes that you want to donate. It works like a mailbox or book drop where you pull a handle and a door rolls open so you can put stuff inside. When I tried to open it, though, it was either frozen shut, or someone had welded it shut to prevent people from dumping garbage inside or just taking a dump...inside.

Oh yeah, Bellevue Hospital says Merry Christmas! And right this way to the emergency room.

Now, Bellevue happens to be the oldest public hospital in the U.S. (founded before Independence) and is actually referred to as a "Hospital Center" because it's easier than saying Labyrinthine Fire Hazard And Easy Place To Make Someone Mysteriously Disappear And Never Heard From Again. I work in what they call "New Bellevue." This implies that there is an "Old Bellevue." But let me ask you this. How new is a place where there are bathtubs with non-working fixtures in the patient restrooms? I say bathtubs plural because...

In case you need to bathe two patients at the same time who both happen not to mind being naked and taking a bath next to someone else.

And why is it called a camera phone? Shouldn't it be called a phone camera?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Jollies

So every year in December I pull out my big, fuzzy Santa hat and wear it around for a few days leading up to Christmas. Instead of bringing good cheer, Justina Claus seems to compel people in my life - the ones whom I know by first name or better - to make fun of my Normal Rockwell spirit, or to assume there's a more rational explanation.

"Are you going caroling after work?" one of my office mates asked.

"Is today your company Christmas party?" my roommate asked.

What's wrong with wearing a Santa hat to keep your head warm?

"That reminds me, I need to get a winter hat," my roommate said.

"You can borrow my Santa hat tomorrow."

"Uh, yeah. No thanks."

On the other hand, strangers tend to give me more credit. It seems that if you're wearing a Santa hat, people assume you're jolly and treat you with jolliness.

"Merry Christmas, happy holidays," said some dude coming out of a liquor store.

"Heya Santa," said another dude standing on the street doing nothing.

These people always catch me off guard. On the outside I walk and talk like a normal, well-adjusted person. No one can tell that recently I was viciously and profoundly betrayed by the person I trusted most.

Sometimes I almost feel a physical separation between my body and my soul. Soul Justina sits in a tall swiveling office chair inside my head and looks out at the world through my eyeballs, as if she's the captain of the world's greatest spaceship. Well, let's face it. She IS the captain of the world's greatest spaceship, and we're star-trekking across the universe. But these days Soul Justina isn't paying much attention the world outside because she's preoccupied by the narratives of unbearable anger and disbelief, as well as the vivid revenge fantasies, spiraling out of control inside Brain Justina.

It takes a stranger's jolly greetings to jolt me back to my unified self and to remind me that on the outside I'm wearing a ridiculously fluffy red Santa hat and looking jolly. But on the inside, my heart has no choice but to spend the holidays waging war with bitterness and hatred, and to wonder whether she will ever find a way to open up, make room, and learn to trust again.

Messin' With Bush Country

The last few times I've visited Houston, I've come across these bumper stickers in traffic:

This Is Bush Country

Bush '04

[In the colors and logo of Obama's HOPE campaign]
HYPE - Vote Republican

I Voted For Sarah Palin

I'm not sure why I was surprised. Houston may have just elected its first openly gay mayor, but it's still Texas.

I think what surprised me was realizing why I was surprised. It takes me almost half a minute to think of two people I know who might have voted for Bush or Palin, and I'm not sure either of them would drive around with a bumper sticker announcing it.

I always assume that not only everyone I know, but everyone I will ever meet, shares my political values and beliefs. That's one of the perils of the various worlds - New York, San Francisco, Peace Corps, public health - I've occupied for nearly all of my adult life: You acquire this 99 percent accurate assumption that everyone around you is a liberal, and experience mild disbelief when you discover that everyone isn't.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Promoted To Glory

My friend Kumiko called me in distress one night. She had lived less than two hours away from me in Kenya, and now lives two subway stops away from me in Brooklyn.

"I was on Facebook and just saw that Dave posted a new profile picture that has a Kenyan flag and under it says, 'In Loving Memory of Jack Opiyo,'" she said. "Do you know anything about it?"

I didn't, but the news had traveled quickly through the Kenya RPCV community. I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and saw three or four other status messages about Jack. Everyone was stunned.

I called another friend who lives in DC. I thought she might have heard more through the extensive Peace Corps Kenya grapevine down there.

"Yeah," she said. "He died in a matatu accident in Nairobi."

I felt ill as I imagined the gruesome circumstances of Jack's death. I just felt so sorry. What is that called? Sorrow?

Over the next few days, I heard more details. He was hit by a matatu while walking on Thika Road in Nairobi.

Jack Opiyo died on October 19. The three years and half the earth's circumference that had already separated my world from his made the news a strangely muted shock, but still horrifying.

Poverty and injustice are homicidal lunatics, and they prey far too frequently in Kenya. There were times when my co-workers would attend two or three funerals a week.

But epidemiologists and demographers know that the educated middle class are less likely to die. Jack was from a modest rural village near Lake Victoria, but had earned a masters degree. A slight man with the trademark chiseled jawline and high cheekbones of the Luo tribe, he had made his way eastward across Kenya to work for international NGOs in Nairobi. He was not the low-hanging fruit that death prefers.

Jack was one of our technical trainers during pre-service training in Kitui. He taught us what AIDS looked like in Kenya, and deciphered Kenyan culture for us, and shimmied barefoot down a rope to the bottom of a half-finished well to show us how much work it was to dig for clean water. And sometimes he let his Luo accent get away from him.

"There's a lot of feces in Lake Victoria," he would say.


"Yes," he'd say. "You know we Luos like to eat feces. We are feecermen and we catch feces in Lake Victoria."

My friend Steve explained, "All the guys in Peace Corps are in love with Dr. Patti, and all the girls are in love with Jack Opiyo."

In my opinion, all the guys were also in love with Jack Opiyo. I certainly had my own crush on him. I relished his goofy sense of humor as well as his passionate calls for us to do something. We all had stories about Jack. He was a mini-celebrity among adoring Peace Corps volunteers.

We adored him because he was one of the only trainers who seemed to want to change things in Kenya for the better. I can't fault anyone for taking a job for the money rather than for idealism - unemployment in Kenya was over 60 percent at the time - but Jack always seemed grounded in a vision of an improved Kenya.

"If you get to your community and you see corruption, say something," he said to us in class. "Don't keep quiet. Everyone keeps quiet and that's why corruption keeps happening."

I didn't know what corruption looked like yet, and I wouldn't realize for a long time how immensely courageous it was for him to say that when most people looked the other way or felt powerless to change anything.

Jack had a deep passion and drive to help the vulnerable in Kenya, especially girls. I heard one story of how he was in a vehicle and saw a young girl walking home from school. He asked his driver to stop and give her a ride. As he chatted with her, he said, "Study hard, Kenya needs you to be its president one day." Then he went on one of his rants about how the country would be much better off if women ran it. The girl looked at him in confusion and surprise, then broke into a comprehending grin.

Jack believed in possibilities that everyone else dismissed as foolish or unrealistic. He had a faith in his fellow Kenyans that sometimes seemed naive. Most of us, Americans and Kenyans alike, thought that we knew better. But that didn't stop him from planting seeds. His idealism and hope inspired people.


Of course, we also liked him because he was cool. He had a curiosity about Americans and American culture that was free of judgment or even surprise. One day during training, after the sexy Dr. Patti had given a female condom demonstration, we gathered outside for a tea break. One volunteer told us that female condoms were also popular among gay men for anal sex.

"Really," Jack said, not batting an eye. He'd been around Americans long enough not to be surprised by frank talk about homosexuality and graphic descriptions of sex. And a graphic conversation had indeed ensued, which included sharing personal experiences with anal sex between men and women as well as between men. Jack just listened and nodded. I'm sure he was more than slightly amused. After all these years, he was still learning something new.

It was rare for Kenyans to engage with us about sex and homosexuality. Anyone who didn't become uncomfortable, or accuse us spreading immorality to the rural masses, would at least explain patiently that there are no gay people in Kenya.

Jack knew that a surefire way to win someone's affection was to know about popular culture in their country. He loved to imitate characters from American TV and movies. One of his favorites was the comedic supporting character on Will and Grace.

"Guess what?" he'd say, framing his face with his palms turned out. "It's 'Just Jack!'" Everyone agreed that whether or not our Jack knew the character was gay, he didn't care.

"You know," he said another time with a very serious look on his face. "There's more to life than being really really really ridiculously good looking."

Why are we so attracted to people who understand our own brand of humor? Is it because humor is so culture-specific, and someone who gets why something is funny must inherently get something deeper about us? Because I had a crush on him, I wanted to make him laugh as much as he made me laugh. It was as intimate as I dared to be with him.

"Jack, I have something important to tell you," I said to him one day.

He got a concerned look on his face. "Yes," he said.

"Ninakunywa pombe kama samaki," I said. I drink beer like a fish.

Jack stared at me. He was apparently unfamiliar with the American saying. More apparently, it didn't translate well. "Kwa nini??" he said finally, throwing his hands in the air in a colossal shrug. Why??

Clearly my attempts to lure him with my American humor didn't always work. He was far more adept at wielding the humor baton on an audience than I was. That same day we were on a bus going to a field-based training site. He had been bantering loudly with another volunteer about American music.

"Tevin Campbell?" Shinita said. "But he's so cheesy."

"I like his music," Jack said. "He's good."

"You have cheesy taste in music, Jack," Shinita repeated. "You're just so cheesy."

When we stopped for a bathroom break, Jack pulled me aside.

"Justina," he said. "Can I ask you something?"

This time I got a concerned look. "Sure, what is it?"

"What does cheesy mean?" he said.

"Oh!" I said. "It's like, well, you know, like corny."

Explaining an American colloquialism using another American colloquialism didn't seem to help, so I said, "You know Yanni?"

Jack shook his head. No.

"Oh," I said. "Well, he's this cheesy easy listening singer. If someone said they like Yanni, you could tell them they're cheesy."

As we piled back into the bus and took our seats, Shinita was still harping on Jack's taste in music.

"Totally cheesy," she said.

"Shinita," Jack said, raising his voice so everyone could hear. "YOU. RESEMBLE. YANNI."


Not long after we finished our pre-service training in Kitui, Jack took a position in the Nairobi office as a project assistant for the small business development volunteers. It was an administrative job, not a teaching post where he could do what he did best - inspire, motivate, and make us laugh. But it put him three hours closer to his wife and young child whom he traveled to Kisumu to see on weekends.

We attended periodic training meetings throughout our two years of service, but he no longer had an active role in them. We would see him in the evenings after our sessions, and he would sit at the table with us, watching us fish.

That night he explained the subtleties of gender relations that exist in Luo culture, which were otherwise invisible to us as foreigners. "It's a man's mother who tells her husband to tell their son what to do, so the men save face but the mother ends up getting her way."

I remember doubting whether it was really true, since I had been in Kenya for a year and a half and nearly everything else I'd seen in my village indicated that women never had a say in anything. Instead I had seen every injustice perpetuated against females for no better reason than not being male. But I decided that since Jack said so, it must be true. Few people's words, especially a Kenyan man's, held that kind of power for me.


I just discovered a Facebook group created for Jack called The Legacy of Jack Opiyo. I devoured everything posted on that page, and then I clicked through all the photos. I wanted more details about how Jack died, but even more I wanted to know about how he lived.

I started to see hints of hardship and suffering in his life. He was 34, long enough to suffer plenty in Kenya. Friends and colleagues posting on the group's page had alluded to a difficult past two years for Jack. He had been badly injured in another road accident about a year or two ago. Afterwards he had sent out an earnest email brimming with gratitude for God's grace during his recovery, which had made the Peace Corps email rounds. Tragically, it seemed that he and moving vehicles were not meant to live harmoniously in this life.

In a way, this post is an attempt to compile the scattered tidbits that I know of Jack into a single cohesive portrait. But I didn't know Jack in a single cohesive way. He was a teacher, an inspiration and a friend, but also a mystery. Not because he was a private or mysterious person, but because his job required him to enter and exit our lives only a limited number of times.

It wasn't enough times. We miss you, Jack Opiyo.

Photo by PhoenixInKenya

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Roomie

Today I got home from work and there was, inexplicably, a small cockroach racing across the floor.

"Ew, there's a cockroach," I said. "Where did that come from?"

"Oh! Get it! Get it!" my roommate said.

"I can't, it went into the crack," I said. I had picked up my shoe and was waving it uselessly above the cockroach, which had crawled into a crevice in the floor molding. "My shoe's too big."

It was like that puzzle about the tiny ball that rolls itself into a corner of a square room to escape being flattened by a giant ball.

"Use your hand," she said.

My hand? I was using my hand - to hold my shoe.

She crouched down and jammed her finger into the crevice, smearing cockroach juice all over the place.

"Oh, you meant for me to use my bare hand?" I said, as she came back with toilet paper and wiped up the roach pus.

"I know, it's kind of gross," she said. "But I just want that thing dead."

My roommate, ladies and gentlemen. Way more awesome than I.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Slow For the Speed Bump

It seems that this has never happened to anyone else. The specifics of my particular breakup have seemingly never happened to anyone else. Usually when you tell people about something, they have a similar experience to share. That's how I learned that everyone has had poison oak on some uncomfortable part of their body. But so far few if any of my friends have even heard of my kind of breakup.

That's why it just doesn't make any sense. Every other breakup has warning signs. Every other breakup I've ever had has had warning signs. I have a finely-tuned intuition, and there's no reason why it would have failed me this time.

No reason except that I was lied to. For far too long I was lied to. It's that simple.

He's struggling with what to do with his life, and what career direction to take. How about acting? I couldn't tell him apart from an actual honest person.

Healing isn't a linear process. I'll be making a beeline for strength and peace, then I'll fall into a deep, dry well, and weave among angry thorn trees, and lose a tennis match to hatred and spite, and chant a soul-crushing mantra.

Bob Dylan, that master articulator of bitterness and loss, resonates well today:

I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I was telling a co-worker about a place I had come across during my apartment search last month. It was in a beautiful high-rise in Long Island City, just over the East River in Queens, with gorgeous sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. Referred to as LIC by hip Bridge-And-Tunnelers in the know, it's an ideal location for midtown worker bees who want cheaper rent but a manageable commute.

"Ohhh, Long Island City," my co-worker said knowingly. "There are lots of amigos there."

I played dumb and said, "Amigos? Do you have a lot of friends who live there?"

She laughed uncomfortably. "Oh, well, amigos is what we call people who come from the south of America."

So there you go. Your daily geography lesson.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Nonprofit

So, you know. I'm getting a little better each day. Mornings are still the worst because my body is still in a suppressed energy state, so no endorphins. I no longer lie in bed for 45 minutes wondering if I should barf though. Now it's just 10 or 15 minutes.

But I can barely control the spiral of anger and disbelief and hurt that still takes over whenever my brain has nothing else to occupy it. On the other hand, mind control in itself is also exhausting.

Most of the time I have enough clarity to focus on important things like not getting hit by a car or food delivery guy while crossing the street. But other times, like this morning, I will do something like putting on the same pair of underwear after a shower and going to work. So now you know. And I don't care if you are picturing it and unsubscribing from my blog.

Today was further confirmation that I should actually be writing a TV series called The Nonprofit. For starters, I share a (tiny) office with four other people and if I walk in at 9:10, I will most likely be the first person there. It's not like people work 10-6 or 11-7. At 4:45 everyone is pulling their coat down from the hook and waving goodnight. Fine. I'm no workaholic. It's a 35-hour work week after all, and I won't tell if people shave off another 45 minutes of their day to go home and live their real life.

But the bureaucracy. We arrived this morning to find out that they had turned off the power for half of the outlets in our office. It was a planned power outage for many offices throughout Bellevue, inexplicably during business hours. They had notified all Bellevue employees who would be affected, but because we are NYU employees, they neglected to tell us.

And you'd think that if you cut off half the power in our office that half the computers would be affected. Instead, one computer went down completely while I only lost my internet. Why?

Bellevue'sandyoucan'tpluganNYUethernetcableintoaBellevueinternetportandviceversa so we re-rerouted my cable to a third internet outlet blahblahblah.

We spent hours doing this, while a couple of Facilities guys wearing plaid flannel shirts and tool belts periodically stopped in to ask if everything was working again. Sure, thanks for the help. I'm glad I went to grad school to thread ethernet cables through office furniture.

I'm also glad I went to grad school to get barked at by the mailroom guy. He's this Asian dude with a ponytail who delivers packages that need to be signed for. Since I sit closest to the door, he dumps packages on my desk and shoves a handheld electronic delivery tracking thing for me to sign.


Okay, so this thing has a full keypad with letters for entering whatever information you're supposed to enter, plus a little plastic pencil thingy like on credit card swipe machines. If someone was screaming PRINT PRINT PRINT JUST PRINT at you, would you think he meant to type in your name, or to use the pencil thing to write your name? The confusion is this: typing causes print, and the plastic pencil thing is usually used to sign your name.

So I didn't know what to do. And the longer I stared at the stupid thing in my hand, the louder he screamed, "PRINT PRINT JUST PRINT PRINT YOUR NAME PRINT PRINT."

I forgot about him because he didn't come by for another few weeks. Like the first time, he handed me the whatever tracking machine and started screaming, "PRINT PRINT PRINT JUST PRINT YOUR NAME PRINT JUST PRINT."

"Okay, we went through this last time and I still don't know what you're talking about," I said irritably.


"Yeah, I heard you fine. You don't have to yell at me," I said. "You want me to print with the pencil or what?"

"Print please," he said quietly. "Yes pencil. Print."

And ever since then, he tells me to print print just print your name print print in a quiet voice.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


So you may or may not know that I finally got a job in October. I'm working at NYU School of Medicine as a research coordinator. Drop me an email if you really want to know what that means. Though I'm an NYU employee, I work at Bellevue Hospital, the nation's oldest public hospital (founded in 1737, even before the US was a country), not at the beautiful, modern, well-lit, spacious NYU Medical Center building a few blocks up the street. I share a tiny office space with four other people, 50 years of medical records, zero windows, seven computers of varying speeds (of which none are called "fast enough"), six chairs with their seat upholstery faded into round patterns by numerous and diversely-shaped pelvises throughout the years, three years of hair sheddings, and an AC vent in the ceiling that we routinely force our Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp to cover and uncover with a page from a 2008 wall calendar for climate control.

I think of movies and TV shows that spoof corporate life, and then I think of my own work environment and am convinced that the nonprofit world makes for much more absurd theater. And so...what do I need this job for if I already have a brilliant screenwriting career ahead of me?

Anyway, today we heard that there were leftovers from a lunch event in our conference room. All five of us who share my office space stood up and shuffled down the hall as fast as we could to survey the fresh prey. The Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp even told me to bring a tupperware. We were the first people on the floor to descend upon the leftovers, and we obliterated them. Judging from the way the buffet table had been abandoned, it must have been a small event attended by people who only eat mashed potatoes. The mystery meatloaf, pasta, chicken, sandwiches and salad were virtually untouched. Such a jackpot. I made off with enough food for tonight's dinner and tomorrow's lunch. A penny saved...isn't worth crap in New York. But those freebie-sniffing skills I picked up in grad school--priceless.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

East To Heathens

The last thing I want to do right now is go back to New York and the highly irritating world I inhabit there. The first thing I'm doing tomorrow is going back to New York and the highly irritating world I inhabit there.

So, Day 7 was also pretty shitty but it's also Day 1 of no longer counting days after or until something. Buddha or Yoda or some other squat fat fellow must have a saying. "Only now matters." I mean, even the most enlightened yogis know that's not entirely true if you are also trying to function normally in the world. But it's nice to have those moments when you make only now matter. It's when I'm like, "Oo, take that, world. I stopped everything but now. I see you as you really are. I've won!" Enlightenment is all about winning.

Squirrels are so cute. I adore fat, fuzzy, stupid creatures. It even spilled over into my dating life.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Seafood For Life

Today my mom, dad, brother and I went to dim sum at a very popular restaurant in town. It has been awhile since any of us have been there, since we were all surprised by how it had been remodeled into a cavernous yet unrepentantly gaudy Chinese banquet hall. Unfortunately their website doesn't have any pictures of the tacky new decor for your viewing pleasure.

Chinatown businesses in Houston are not infrequently robbed by people who know that the owners like to keep everything in cash. (Don’t go getting any ideas there, Gunslinger.) This restaurant was no exception. A few years ago I’d heard that one of the owners, a woman named Nancy, was tragically shot and killed during a robbery.

Except that today my mom said that she overheard some of her friends saying that they’ve seen Nancy around.

"Nancy is alive and well," my mom surmised.

“Are you sure?” I said. “Have you actually seen her?”

“Gossip, gossip,” my brother Nick said.

“Must be,” my mom said. “My friends saw her.”

“Maybe they saw her ghost,” I said, always loving a good ghost story.

“I’m going to go ask for her,” my mom said as we were leaving the restaurant.

“Don’t tell them you just want to see if she’s dead or not,” I said.

Oh, my God! There was a gigantic lobster in one of the restaurant's eight fish tanks holding live but doomed seafood. This guy was the size and shape of a regulation football. Seriously. I don’t lie about this stuff.

My mom reported her findings as we were walking to the car.

“I asked them, hey, where is your boss Nancy?” she said. “They said she drove to the airport to pick up seafood.”

“Maybe that’s code for she’s dead,” Nick said.

“Then they asked why I wanted to see Nancy, and I said that I’m one of her friends,” my mom said.

“You’re such a good friend that you don’t even know if she’s alive or not,” I said.

“She’s alive,” my mom said, proud of her successful sleuthing.


Before today's post:
"I know you kids just like to make fun of your Asian parents and talk about us."
"I don't talk about you, mom. You never say anything funny."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It Would Be So Worth It To Conquer The World For This

For another little ray of urban biking sunshine, I recommend this site that maps the safest bike routes between two points in the five boroughs. Still has kinks, like not being able to show me how to get to my favorite tofu pot restaurant in Fort Lee, NJ, but pretty good otherwise.

Colonizing the Last Banana

The weather has finally turned uncomfortably warm, and we don't have AC in our kitchen. I've gotten a bit careless about the zero-crumb policy of New York living: More than zero crumbs or sticky patches of evaporated juice on the counter will breed cockroaches and mice in your very own kitchen.

The last banana in the house was sitting on the shelf, and I was looking forward to making myself a fruit smoothie. When I went to claim it, I found that someone had already discovered the banana. There was a large chomp taken out of the side, complete with little mice teeth marks, and an army of drunken fruit flies hovering lazily around the fermenting exposed fruit. The fruit flies had also taken a liking to the mouse poo stuck to things all around the banana. And I dunno. That puddle of liquid under it? A by-product of fruit fly colonization...or mouse pee?

Back In The Saddle. The closest F train stop is a 12 minute walk from my apartment, when going at a brisk pace. Last night I strolled to the station, and then discovered that I had forgotten everything I needed to get on the train: my Metrocard and my money. I actually considered panhandling for the $2 train fare, but couldn't bring myself to do it. I haven't lived in New York long enough, I guess.

So I trekked for 12 minutes back to my house, my eyes, nose and mouth collapsed into a dark, disgruntled, cursing mass. I decided that I would not waste another 12 minutes on the stupidity of my current situation, so I got on my bike and rode back to the station. It took about 3 minutes, and my soul scoffed defiantly at Karma, who rolled her eyes and plotted her next infuriation with my name on it.

New York has taken steps like a caveman towards becoming a more bike-friendly city, but still the only way you can take your bike (or stroller, or wheelchair) onto a train is to go through the emergency gate, which sets off a piercing alarm that is gleefully amplified by the natural echo chambers of the New York subway system. At this particular stop, there aren't even any turnstiles that you can carry your bike through--which is illegal anyway. There are only those revolving bars that would never fly in Texas because everyone is too fat to go through. And a bike won't go through, either.

So what you have to do is:

1. Leave your bike by the emergency gate
2. Scan your Metrocard for the revolving bars
3. Enter through the revolving bars
4. Run to the emergency gate
5. Push the bar that sets off the alarm and opens the gate
6. Look around frantically for your bike, which may or may not have been stolen by now

There should be an accompanying diagram for this complex process.

Anyway, a kind man offered to hold my bike for me while I went through the revolving bars. All sorts of images came to mind while I let him hold my bike against my better judgment. I just know he's going to make off with the bike. I just know it. He's throwing his leg over the seat now. There he goes. Pedal pedal pedal.

He didn't steal my bike. He didn't even try. Isn't that nice?

It turned out to be one of those nights on the subway. You know: the Manhattan-bound F train was running on the A track after Jay Street. What? How is that even possible? They announce it at the Jay Street station and you have to make a split-second decision about whether to get off the F, which is now the A, and wait for a real F, or stay on the F, even though it's an A, because you don't know where else you'd find an F. Since I had my bike, I decided to stay on. I could ride my bike from wherever the F-ing A train dumped me.

Biking in Manhattan only reinforces all my sweeping assumptions about New Yorkers. No one could care less about anyone else. Life is all about yelling at people for how they've annoyed you. Somehow I arrived at my destination in one piece, insane, sweaty, and grinding my teeth into little nubs.

I think it would be so worth it to conquer the world just so I could pass a law saying that cars aren't allowed on this planet and everyone rides bikes.

When There Is Charcoal, Life Is Good

Don't Leave The Bananas Out. I feel like that could be a great ironic slogan for something involving crazy fun. Unfortunately right now it's just a good rule of thumb for keeping the mice and fruit flies at bay. Ewww. I kept wondering why there was this rotting garbage smell in my kitchen. I took out the trash. I took out the recycling. No food bits left in the sink.

You know, it's a bit cliche to say that Kenya taught me all sorts of lessons that I'm still using today. But like any decent cliche, it's true. There was one night when I was visiting my friends Julia and Emily and their family in Kapkoi village. It was a bit cold out, maybe a little rainy, and we had just eaten what seemed to me a pretty unsatisfying dinner of ugali - unsalted maize flour eaten as a paste - and milk. To the Nandis, though, this was a perfect meal, and Julia, Emily and I sat together in the dark hut making idle conversation. We were huddled around a ceramic stove full of warm coals, and the pungent gray smoke was making my eyes sting and laying the foundation for lung cancer. All the parts of me facing the stove were feeling charred, and all the parts of me not facing the stove were feeling a bit chilly. Julia sighed contentedly.

"When there is charcoal, Justina, life is good," she said.

Strangely profound. My Kenyan friends always had a way of interspersing some great wisdom into their redundant small talk about what kind of crops we grow in America and helpful clarifications that, yes, two years later, "Jambo," is still how people say hello in Swahili.

Paradox: There's something about living closer to survival mode that gives you more clarity on what's meaningful in life, but at the same time, always being in survival mode made many people incredibly obtuse about things that seem so obvious to me, like considering the consequences of an action before doing it, or thinking about the future at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rogue Butter Knife

Just finished the dishes and kept trying to put a butter knife into the part of the dishrack that holds silverware. The dishrack is one of those stainless steel wire things from Ikea, and the silverware pocket has wider gaps in the corners, where silverware can sometimes fall through. The first time I dropped a butter knife in there, it slipped through the large corner gap and fell on the floor. I picked it up and tried again, and it fell through again. This time, though, it fell into the narrow gap between the counter and the wall, and is now irretrievable.

Isn't there a part of all of us that is actually a butter knife? Life can be such a silverware pocket, and we're all looking for big corner gaps to through which to escape. Only some people have the courage to run off and build a new life in the dark, musty space between the counter and the wall.

Man, I really tried to make this metaphor work. Let's face it. A butter knife is just a butter knife.

Also Possesses Solid Mastery Of Offensive Stereotypes. There are always a few outrageous stories in the back of my head that I always meant to blog about and kept forgetting.

There was the time during grad school when I was at my neighborhood Gristedes in Washington Heights, standing in the chicken aisle. A Dominican man and his 8-year-old son were standing nearby. In my lizard brain I was like, "Oo. Cute man. I wonder if he notices me."

The man looked at me, then turned to his son and said loudly, "Hey, so what do you think about having chicken feet for dinner?"

Uhhh ex-squeeze me? "Hahaha, just joking," he said, still to the boy.

Then the man looked at me again, and he had this unbelievable look on his face. It didn't say, "That's right, go back to where you came from, you yellow slanty-eyed dog eater."

It didn't even say, "Hahahaha, I love making fun of your weird food, Chinkie lady."

No. Apparently chicken feet is also well-appreciated in the Dominican Republic, and what his face actually said was, "Hey, pretty lady, aren't you proud of me for knowing something about your culture?"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Nimepotea sana

I have been so lost.

And, we're back. No point trying to justify my absence, which has no more interesting explanation than laziness, or being swallowed up by life, or accepting a five-month seahorse harvesting contract in the Solomon Islands.

The quick run down:

1. I graduated with a masters in public health (MPH) in May. I moved out of my apartment on campus at the end of May, and into a sublet in the South Prospect Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. It's a bit like Washington Heights except that in addition to English and Spanish, people also speak a Carribean language or two that I can't identify. Some woman I met at a friend's birthday party was like, "Well, why don't you just ASK what language they're speaking?" Well, why don't you just ASK why I'm about to trout-slap you in the face?

2. I'm looking for a job. It's been two months of pounding out resumes, cover letters, networking emails, and updates to LinkedIn profiles. No luck so far. Something is wrong with our economy when my brilliance and genius and modesty haven't landed me a job, but most people working in customer service in New York have raging attitude problems and IQs like they've lived too long in jars with not enough air holes punched in the lid.

Anyone know of anyone in San Francisco hiring MPHs? Specifically, an MPH with experience working in Africa and Asia on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and migrant health issues, with jaw-dropping writing, communications and project management skills. Other skills include qualitative data collection and analysis, needs assessment, literature reviews, community mobilization, health curriculum development and education, event planning, online content development, cross-cultural experience and grantwriting.

3. I've come full circle in my appreciation for New York. I feel like despite starting out with a negative attitude, I started to open up to the possibility that this town doesn't suck. There were months when I'd actually say that New York isn't that bad. I don't hate it. It's growing on me. I think I've given it a fair chance, especially after deciding to stay through this summer, when the weather is beautiful, the free outdoor events are copious, and I don't have grad school getting in the way.

But the verdict is in. This city bugs. Irrevocably. I outgrew it ten years ago, when I was actually earning a decent salary and flying in for business trips armed with an expense account. Now it's just loud, rude, obnoxious and dirty. I don't sound like a grumpy old lady at all. People say things like, "New York just wouldn't be New York without people screaming at each other and being jerks. You just have to love it." What is wrong with people??

4. One of my coping mechanisms, which I developed while rafting in Maine last weekend, is to put my hand on my air mouse and air click on everything in my field of sight that I don't like, which naturally air deletes it.

"Delete. Delete. Delete."

It started out as a way to delete away all the other bright yellow rafts full of life-jacketed, helmeted urban escapees from my view of the pristine river landscape.

"In New York you need to use the Select All tool," says Holger, my co-conspirator in hating on the city that should be put to sleep.


Oh, look. I can see Connecticut.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I May Not Post Often Enough, But At Least She Does

I just discovered this blog about AIDS, gender and health. Despite the dismal and academic-sounding subject matter, it's hilarious, so I spend a lot of time procrastinating here.

Here are some favorites:
Get Money From the Global Fund
Play Public Health Bingo During Boring Meetings

Monday, February 16, 2009

Recycling Is Edible

Grad school is affording few adventures to blog about lately, unless you want to hear about how the Republicans slashed family planning from the Medicaid portion of the stimulus package.

(What's that? You DO want to hear more! Here you go then...)

Lately my life extends from my bed to my desk to my kitchen to my toilet to my bed to my desk to my kitchen to my

In Kenya I started taking inventories of the food in my kitchen, so I could better plan meals, reduce food waste and save money. There's something satisfying about using every last bit of the goat that you never asked for, but that your well-meaning friend brought you as a gift. (Unfortunately, in the case of the goat, I tried to make wontons and ended up with a very pungent bowl of soup that reminded me of a petting zoo. Goat is gamey, make no mistake about it. I conveniently left it on my doorstep overnight "to cool", since I didn't have a fridge. In the morning it was gone, but in its place was a thank you note signed by a mongoose.)

Anyway, I've imported the inventory-taking habit back to the States with me, and have developed a rigorous system of meal-planning around it. Actually, last year my inventory-taking was occasional and recreational. I didn't become hard core about it until I got back from Thailand. When I moved back into my apartment in January, I found stuff sitting in the back of the fridge, or in the boxes I'd packed away for storage, and decided that if it was still good, I'd use it.

Some of it was easy. Grits, oatmeal, curry powder, spices, dried shitake mushrooms, rice. That sort of stuff doesn't go bad.

I also found some other stuff that seemed questionably promising. Mayonnaise? Olives?

The olives were probably still good, but there were a few white floaties in the jar, so I tossed them. They were purchased as garnish for martinis, and I figured that I might benefit from fewer of those this semester, at least until graduation.

It also turns out that despite mayonnaise being a code word for "lots of eggs that would normally go bad pretty quickly," my jar of mayo was still good. Apparently that's because mayonnaise also has enough preservatives to ensure a half-life of several centuries. Thanks to calcium disodium EDTA, I made a tuna salad last week and a potato salad this week.

It has actually been really nice to cook and eat exactly what I want, and not have to spend a fortune on it.

But first, a segue.

How much would you suppose this juice would cost?

Let's consider what you're getting in this 15.2 oz bottle of 100% juice. It actually tells you. Inside this bottle you will find: 30 blueberries, 8 blackberries, 3.5 apples and half a banana. Also you get an assortment of vitamins and minerals, and supposedly all the ingredients are natural.

The suggested retail price is between $3.19 and $3.79, not cheap.

I PAID $4.25!!!!

What's wrong with this planet? This is why poor people buy soda when they don't feel like drinking tap water. (Which, by the way, isn't filtered in New York. Very clean, but not filtered.)

Last I checked, people were still quoting the liar who said that health is a right, not a privilege. Tell that to the folks who designed our health care system, the only one in a Western developed nation that isn't nationalized and universal.

I've been studying my health policy notes too closely. Switching gears...

Tonight's dinner was a meal-planning, food recycling success story. It's almost like having my own Iron Chef show at every meal. I opened the fridge to find today's special ingredients:

a bowl of leftover chicken broth
white mushrooms, getting old
brown mushrooms, getting old
shitake mushrooms
tom yam soup mix in a jar
half a container of tofu fa* I bought in Flushing** last week, getting old

* a very very soft tofu that is usually eaten as a very very delicious dessert
** better Chinese food than anything you'll find on the island; try Jade Asian Restaurant for dim sum, but be prepared for a wait

I was inspired by this Korean tofu pot restaurant I went to in Ft. Lee, NJ, a few weeks ago. I don't remember the name, but I think it was this one. I don't have a ton of experience with Korean tofu, but it was the best I've ever had, by leaps and bounds. I'm accepting eating buddies to accompany me on a second visit.

Anyway, I had a Thai soup mix, not a Korean one; and Chinese style dessert tofu, not Korean soft tofu. But, throw it all together, add vermicelli noodles and a raw egg, and voila...

A ridiculously delicious recycled meal.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New York in LEGOs

This is so creative...

I LEGO New York

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Next Time I Will Procrastinate More Productively

So I've been a bit addicted to iGoogle, which is a customizable web page where you can get news feeds and other web content delivered to you in one place. They have some pre-designed templates ("themes") that you can apply to your iGoogle page for visual variety. This is their Classic theme, which I use for my home page:

I poked around a bit and found that someone had designed one for CARE International, and as you know (or maybe you didn't) I was doing my practicum last semester with CARE Thailand.

Anyway, I came upon some comments that people had posted about the template. The description given for CARE was this: "CARE fights global poverty by empowering women and girls to bring lasting change to their communities. Learn more at"

It's from their website but I don't think it's their official boilerplate, because I know for a fact that their work doesn't focus exclusively on women and girls.

Anyway, someone had posted the following comment:

Charity for all... Anonymous - Jan 10, 2009 - Report this comment

Males are just as affected by famine and hunger as females. I don't understand this charity's preference and emphasis on the female sex (sexism?). Please explain.

I don't know why I bothered to explain, since the audience for the CARE iGoogle Theme Comments Page is probably even smaller than the one that reads my blog. Usually I write off infuriating comments as the gaseous by-product of ignorant commentators. But for some reason tonight I was compelled to explain. And quite politely, if I do say so myself.

Response to "Charity for all..." Anonymous - Jan 28, 2009

Actually males are not affected by famine and hunger the same way as females. Females, and girls in particular, are more vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, poverty, conflict and every other misfortune that life doles out in developing countries. They have a higher rate of HIV infection, lower levels of education, and fewer opportunities to earn money to support themselves and their families.

This is because in most cultures women and girls do not have the same social status as men. They are not valued as equal members of society. Many men in these cultures will tell you that women are property. They will tell you how many cows you should pay in order to get a wife.

In poor families, girls are passed over for education in favor of boys. Uneducated or poorly-educated females have fewer (no) opportunities to earn money. Without economic power they depend on their husbands for support. If these women do not have husbands or are widowed by disease or war, they're out of luck. If their husbands are abusive, drunk, unemployed or generally irresponsible, these women have no way to escape their situation. In many cultures a woman is blamed and/or rejected, often by her own family, if she tries to leave an abusive or exploitative marriage.

In many cultures, women do 90% of the work in a household (cooking, cleaning, fetching water, taking care of the kids, often even farming) but has virtually no say in how or when money is spent for the household - or when they get to have sex.

Without social status women do not have a public voice; they are not allowed to enter forums where the exchange of ideas occurs that bring about the changes that benefit them, their families, and their communities.

CARE does not "prefer" women/girls over men/boys; they simply know that giving women and girls the resources to support themselves and their family benefits the community as a whole - including men.

Having said that, if you go to their website you'll see that they have a broad range of projects, not just those targeting girls and women.

P.S. The light orange link color is hard to read. Please change.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Subway Diaries

My friend runs a blog site called Muni Diaries in San Francisco that chronicles the oddities and the banal seen on the public transit system in the Bay Area. I just Googled for a similar concept here in New York, and got a few decent hits. The most compelling one, at a glance, is The Subway Chronicles, which I plan to peruse at some point in the next decade or so.

Anyway, I thought of this as I was riding the C train back home from my friend's place in Harlem tonight. There was an ancient, homeless-looking guy on my car who appeared semi-conscious or drunk, leaning at a 45 degree angle, mouth-breathing and staring at nothing. I walked towards his end of the car looking for an empty seat, but immediately spun around and headed to the other side of the car because he was steeped in pee. Nothing personal, I just didn't care to smell him for the next 50 blocks.

A few minutes later I noticed he was alert and smoking a cigarette, which has been illegal on New York subways for the last 500 years. Strangely enough, everyone on the car was staring at him. I mean every.single.person. No one was staring when he was just this crazy smelly old homeless guy half sleeping next to a spilled cup of coffee.

A woman started scolding him from across the aisle. "You can't smoke on the subway. You're going to have to put that out."

The man just nodded and continued smoking. He was clearly mentally ill and not grasping what she was saying. People started whispering and continued to stare. One woman coughed loudly, several people covered their noses with scarves, one guy rolled his eyes, and about half the people on the train shook their heads and turned their frowns even lower.

The man sitting next to me said, "You know, Obama has never mentioned anything about mental illness in his health care plan."

I wasn't sure if this was true or not, so I said something else that I wasn't sure was true or not. "Yeah, mental illness is one of those things that doesn't get prioritized in health care because people don't see it as a physical sickness."

"Oh my God," the man next to me said. "Now there's someone kicking that guy."

This was true. Someone had gotten on the train, taken one look at the dude smoking, and started kicking him.

I feel like rule number one on the subway is, don't kick mentally ill people. It's not nice, and not really safe either.

The kicker got off at the next station, and the homeless guy started ranting to himself. "Nggh mgh nngh I don't GIVE A SHIT! Fnggn ghnn nngh."

Then he took his cigarette and got off the train.

New York Finally Recycles (Plastic Grocery Bags)

My subletter moved out and I settled back in to my old apartment last week. I opened the pantry to find a wall of grocery bags packed as tall as me. There were exactly two items in the whole pantry: plastic grocery bags, and an ironing board. I mean, how does that happen in the first place? I've never accumulated that many bags in my whole life, but I turn my back for one semester and you could film a horror movie in there.

All last year I asked around about where you can recycle these bags, and the answer was: You can't. You can recycle most other normal recyclables in New York, but not plastic bags.

It drove me crazy.

Fortunately, New York State recently passed a law requiring certain businesses in New York City to accept plastic bags for recycling starting January 1, 2009. This means that at larger grocery stores or chains there should be a clearly marked bin where you can return all those plastic grocery bags that have been accumulating in dark corners all over your kitchen.

Safeway in the Bay Area has had these bins for years. However, no one ever seemed to know about them, except me. Every month or so I'd take a huge plastic bag stuffed with plastic bags to Safeway, and people would always ask what the hell I was doing.

Anyway, now this brilliant idea has arrived in New York, but a lot of stores still don't have the bins. Stores are supposedly fined $100 a day for not having them, but there's either a grace period for compliance, or $100 a day is less of a burden for stores than figuring out where to get these recycling bins.

I'm happy to report that the Gristede's near me in Washington Heights is on top of their game, and has placed a bin right by the entrance, so now I can go in, dump my bags and not shop there, because their groceries are ridiculously expensive. But kudos to them for the bins.

The Fairway Supermarket on the Upper West Side has a bin, but most of their employees and managers don't even know about it. I finally found one manager who did, and he pointed me upstairs, to their organic food section where there were only about three customers milling about. My friend said to me today, "There's an upstairs at Fairway?" Not a good place for an item that is already so obscure in the consciousness of even the store's employees.

Since there's clearly a publicity and marketing person who's not doing their job on this plastic bag recycling campaign, I'm making it a point to tell everyone about it. (Also, if you'd like to fire that person and replace her/him with me, I do have a marketing background, excellent communication skills, and a fierce hatred of plastic grocery bags that don't get recycled.)

Another part of the problem is that I've only seen these bins with my own eyes in two places in the city. Let's be fair, though, I've only been back in town for a week. I hear that Whole Foods has them, if that's any help. The Rite Aid in my neighborhood doesn't have one, and the employee I asked about it didn't know what the hell I was talking about.

"You're looking for what? Outside. Just go outside."

So good to be back in New York.

If you find a listing of stores in New York that have these bins, send it my way.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cold. Expensive.

I’m back in New York after five months in Thailand, three weeks in Texas and four days in San Francisco. Coming back wasn’t as painful as it was this time last year, when I contemplated dropping out of grad school mainly because it required me to live in New York. That’s as harsh a review of a place as you can get.

This time it was only painful in terms of regulating my body temperature. It was 23 degrees the day I flew into JFK, and today it was 16. I hear it’s much worse in the Midwest, but I’m not counting my blessings. I’m ungrateful for the fact that it’s not below zero. It’s so cold here that I get angry when I feel the outdoors coming to greet me when I exit the subway or my apartment. I feel violated by how cold it is. It offends me.

But, it does make me grateful for warm things, like a down coat, tall boots, my oddly large collection of SmartWool socks, and fuzzy slippers.

Yesterday I was at Fairway – an “inexpensive” grocery store in New York – and started getting angry. Avocados are $2. Apparently that really is cheap compared to Whole Foods, where they go for $2.50 or $3. I mean, who is stupid enough to pay that much for an avocado? The answer to that – a lot of New Yorkers – only leads me to the conclusion that I’m living in a city of 8 million stupid people. Which then makes me even more irritable, especially because I’m often stupid enough to pay ridiculous sums for ordinary items as well. I just dropped $10 on a tiny box of dried cranberries mixed with dried blueberries. Why? After all, raisins are so much cheaper, and taste much worse. But everyone succumbs to the insanity eventually.

Case in point: In Bangkok I would get annoyed whenever I’d come out of a BTS station and the person in front of me would be walking down the stairs slowly. I'd think, “What are you, a turtle?” Plus, everyone knows it takes way more energy to go down stairs slowly than to trot down and let gravity do the work. Anyway, why does any able-bodied young man or woman need to go slow? Don’t they have a life to get to?

That’s when I realized that New York had seeped into me, just a little. I remember arriving home from Kenya, stepping off the plane in Houston and noticing everyone speed-walking past me. In retrospect they were probably walking at a normal speed and I was walking slowly. But I do remember thinking, why is everyone in such a hurry? Are they so excited to get to immigration so they can stand in line?

Like everyone else in the United States of America, I resolved to exercise more in the New Year. Catherine, my brother’s girlfriend, pointed out that in order for resolutions to work, they must be quantified. For example, “I resolve to exercise twice a week.”

Well, more is a quantity. In my case, it means any number greater than zero.

Actually, I had the idea to use the current temperature to guide my workouts, because doesn’t everyone want to merge her disdain for winter with her disdain for indoor gyms? Today when I went to the gym it was 17 degrees outside, so I did 17 repetitions of everything – sit-ups, leg lifts, weights, etc. Sadly, 17 reps at a time are still too many for me. This is either a sign for me to get more fit – or hope for colder weather.

Wait. That can’t be right.