Less News is Good News

If you spent too much time obsessing about all of the big news stories in 2017 — the tax bill, the hurricanes, Charlottesville, #MeToo, North Korea and everything about President Trump, as well as about sports, entertainment and other fields — perhaps you’ve resolved to turn down the volume in  2018.

I am happy to tell you that change is possible! However, you may need to join the Peace Corps to break your habit.

As a volunteer serving in Eastern Europe, I have been living for more than a year and a half now without the nonstop chatter of American cable news stations. These channels aren’t widely available here in Moldova; much of the content comes from Russia or Romania, as well as locally. Champa and I don’t even have a television, much less English-language newspapers or magazines.

This has been a huge change for me. I used to run a university news office, paying close attention to what was happening not only on our campus but around the world. My office’s “rapid response” team tracked events and jumped quickly to highlight faculty experts who could discuss the latest political drama, natural diaster or social trend. I monitored the news throughout the day. It was both my job and a passion.

If I’d been home this past year, I probably would have been following every twist and turn in the Russia investigation, along with other stories. Instead, I’ve been focused more on what we’re doing at our post, such as with my robotics and entrepreneurship teams for local students, and with Champa’s costume project for her school’s drama program.

I still get my daily fix of American news, mainly via the online New York Times and Washington Post, both of which offered great overseas rates. Champa and I also watch monologues from the previous night’s comedy shows, such as Stephen Colbert. We often view these while eating dinner. I can’t believe I’ve become one of those people who gets news from late-night comedians, but I have, albeit with a seven-hour time difference.

This may still sound like plenty of news but it’s nothing compared to what I used to ingest. And guess what? Just like an obese person who went on a diet, I now feel lighter and healthier.

I’ll never quit the news altogether. I’m still a curious person who wants to know what’s going on. I still get outraged by some of what I see. But I’m thankful my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has led me to step back a bit. I’m a lot happier never seeing people argue on a cable news program or CNN flog a story hour after hour.

When we return home next summer, I’m going to resist reverting to my old habits. I’ll try to stick with my new diet. If you come to visit us in North Carolina and see me staring at the news again for more than a few minutes, please snatch the remote control out of my hand.

 

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Ready, Set, Flow

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Raise your hand if you’ve done any of these things at your local library:

    • Guided a fire truck to a burning fire
    • Used munipial sludge to fertilize a garden
    • Replaced a broken pipe in a water system

Oh, and you needed to do all this with a robot you programmed. (You can raise your hand on your own.)IMG_9958

On Wednesday, students in our robotics program at the Ialoveni library began their newest challenge: a “Hydro Dynamics” competition in which their robots will carry out as many of these and other tasks as possible within two and a half minutes.

They are joining students aged 9 to 16 from 80 countries in this event organized by First Lego League, an international organization that challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers. This year’s competition focuses on water; previous themes have included animals, food, trash and climate.

IMG_9928Our team will be programming robots to operate precisely on a colorful mat filled with Lego models of pipes, wells, fountains, gardens, a filtration system and other structures involving water. In one of the 18 possible missions, their robot will need to turn the handle of a faucet, releasing plastic models of water. In another, it must pull a lever that releases rain from a cloud. In others, it must place a water well near a garden, open a valve or drop water into a pot to make a flower rise.

This video shows what they’ll be doing:

Our students will also need to give a presentation in which they share an original idea for solving a problem involving water. Their overall score will assess their research, presentation and teamwork skills as well as their programming prowess.

Ialoveni’s library, Biblioteca Publică Orășenească “Petre Ștefănucă,” is among several public libraries participating in the competition with support from Novateca, the NGO that’s been a driving force in modernizing public libraries across Moldova. (See my recent post describing Novateca’s remarkable impact in our area.)

On Monday and Tuesday, my colleague Lidia Rusu (shown above) and I participated in a training session for the new competition. Novateca organized the program, where we were reunited with many of the libraries we met at November’s SumoBot Challenge at Tekwill, which I showed in this video. The librarians have formed a Facebook group to stay in touch, share ideas and encourage each other as they compete against teams from schools and other groups.

Our students are now building the Lego structures for the competition and starting to think about their research project. After Christmas, they’ll need to decide which of the 18 missions to undertake, and then start modifying, programming and testing their robots.

Raise your hand and wish us luck.

 

 

‘Wealthy’ Neighbors

When your neighbor appears wealthier than you, it affects how you view your own life. I’ve seen this in both of the countries where I’ve served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in how Nepalis view India and how Moldovans view Romania.

Most Americans probably view India and Romania as developing economies, which they are relative to ours. But in Nepal, India is the wealthier neighbor next door, as is China to the north. In Moldova, which was once part of Romania, many people look admiringly at their western neighbor’s economy, which has prospered since joining the European Union in 2007. This is especially true in our home city of Ialoveni, which has strong cultural ties with Romania. In some other parts of Moldova, the outward focus is more on Russia, whose economy is also much wealthier.

Many Moldovans are eligible for dual citizenship with Romania. If they can obtain a Romanian passport, they can work in EU countries. Every day, they line up outside the Romanian Embassy, which is located down the block from the Peace Corps office. In between are passport photo shops, travel companies and employment agencies.

The three high school students who were on my Diamond Challenge entrepreneurship team last year are all studying now at universities in Romania. Several of the girls on my current team may study in Romania, too. A young man from Ialoveni who I tutored in English is now there as well, as are people from across Moldova. Many others are in Italy, Germany, France and other Western countries, as well as in Russia and other countries to the East.

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Before we came to Moldova, we visited our nephew Shankar and other members of our family in Nepal who live near its eastern border. India is on the left side of the river behind us in this photo.

It all reminds me of what I’ve seen in Nepal, where India is a larger, wealthier and more powerful neighbor — and one much more accessible than China for most Nepalis. A large percentage of Nepal’s adult population has left to work across the border or elsewhere, especially in the Gulf, although there are also Indians who come to work in Nepal.

When Champa and I visited Nepal before we came to Moldova, we spent several days at her sister’s home in a small village near the Indian border. In the evening, we could look across the river into India and see homes whose brighter lights contrasted with those on our side, where electricity was weak and  irregular. We often had to use candles and flashlights. So did the family next door, which had a television and other nice things purchased by their son who worked abroad.

Here in Moldova, many of my colleagues at the library earn a bit more than $100 per month. Monthly pensions for retirees are far lower. Highly-educated employees at the local county government earn only a few hundred dollars per month. No wonder some Moldovans look lookingly at their counterparts in Romania, whose GDP per capita in 2016 was $9,474 compared to $1,900 for Moldova, according to the World Bank. (For the United States, it was $57,467.)

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We saw Romania’s economic growth for ourselves when we visited Transylvania last spring.

All I can say is that what I’ve seen here in Moldova feels familiar to me, as does the irony that the same Romanians whose economic situation seems better may aspire themselves to get a green card to live and work in the United States. Likewise for people from India and other countries whose economies look impressive to their poorer neighbors but remain behind our own and, of course, include wide disparities in income and opportunity.

It’s all relative, and we’re not immune from these comparisons ourselves. When Champa and I flew home from Nepal last time, we stopped for several hours in the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar, whose Doha airport felt like a palace compared to many of ours in the United States. I was impressed, if not a little jealous, even though I was glad to leave and continue home.

Our sense of other people and places begins with our own lives. Wealth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

My Favorite Books

‘Tis the season for year-end lists of favorite books. Here’s mine from Moldova. I downloaded almost all of these books onto my Kindle for free through the online OverDrive system which, as I’ve written previously, is the best thing that ever happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer who likes to read.

 

I could fill my Top Ten list just with recent novels I read this year. My three favorites were Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant depiction of two refugees from a war-torn Arab country; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which captures the brutal insanity of North Korea; and The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s chilling exploration of slavery in antebellum America. All three novels haunted me for weeks.

I also loved Manhattan Beach, which Jennifer Egan sets on the waterfront of New York, showing us a different side of the city while telling a harrowing yet moving family saga. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool are gentler but wonderfully written, with compelling protagonists struggling to make sense of their aging years. Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Sympathizer and Karan Mahajan in Association of Small Bombs both took me to communities I barely knew before. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher was funny and wise. Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl was even funnier. All ten of these novels were a pleasure.

 

I also loved three older novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, whose depiction of a man’s life upturned by accusations of sexual misconduct seemed especially timely now; Redeployment by Phil Klay, rightly hailed as one of the best novels about the Iraq war; and Smiley’s People by the great John LeCarre, who published an acclaimed autobiography this year.

I’ll give a partial thumbs-up to three other novels: Moonglow by Michael Chabon; The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Bohjalian’s book is about the Armenian genocide, and I read it shortly before we visited Armenia. Like the others, I thought it was good, not great. I was even less enthusiastic about Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which was snarkily funny in places but somehow didn’t click for me.

 

I also read some great nonfiction this year. My favorite book was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I know it’s come in for criticism for its depiction of dysfunctional white families in Appalachia, but I found it insightful following our election last year. Arlie Russell Hochschild covered some of the same issues in Louisiana in Strangers in Their Own Land, which I enjoyed but found less compelling. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, was a treat from cover to cover. So was reporter Katy Tur’s recent Unbelievable, about covering the Trump campaign, although its uneven text reflected the haste with which it presumably was written. (Sorry, always an editor.)

I’m in a science book club back home, so I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite science book of the year: Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It wove geology, politics, history and personal stories into a narrative I would have found engaging even if Steve weren’t a good friend.

I’m also a history fan. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis offered a fresh look at how early military defeats under George Washington nearly ended the American Revolution in its early days. In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough showed how the two aviation pioneers were nothing less than admirable, illustrating what’s best in the American character at a time when I needed to be reminded.

 

I’ll also give a hat tip to two novels I read just for fun. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan poked fun at the super-rich families of Singapore and Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version when it comes out next year. Another comedy of manners featuring people with too much money was Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Once again: well-done fluff that kept me turning the pages.

Detective and mystery novels are great page-turners, too, and I read several good ones this year, including books by John Grisham (The Litigators), David Baldacci (The Guilty), Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train) and Jonathan Kellerman (The Murderer’s Daughter). My favorite was Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, which dealt with neo-Nazis emerging from the shadows, in this case in Norway, yet another case of novels unexpectedly touching on today’s news.

Then there were travel and adventure books. I’d missed The Old Patagonian Express by one of my favorite travel writers (and former Peace Corps Volunteer), Paul Theroux. It described his trip across Latin America. Eric Weiner’s entertaining The Geography of Bliss explored why some countries are happier than others, with Moldova featured at the opposite end of the happiness scale. In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker described her adventures as a foreign war correspondent, a tale recently adapted by Tina Fey in the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. David and Veronica James in Going Gypsy and Kristin Newman in What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding described extended trips they made after leaving the workplace. All gave me new perspective on my own recent adventures.

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Among the books I expected to like better but never finished were The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Still Here by Laura Vapnyar; Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The biggest clunker for me was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which extolled the virtues of simplicity and decluttering while bloating a 10-page idea into an entire book.

Finally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, 2017 was the year when I finally got around to reading some of the Harry Potter books. I blasted through both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and am looking forward to reading the others in the year ahead. That is, if I can find time after we get home and start binge-watching all of the movies we’ve missed.

Thanks to the Durham County Library and the Duke University Libraries, together with the OverDrive system, for providing these great books for free. Which others did I miss? I welcome your suggestions and will look forward to reading some of them in the year ahead. If you’re a reader, too, I hope you’ll try some of the books I’ve recommended here. Happy reading in 2018!

Getting Into Costume

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Cowboys, Indians, pirates and other characters have begun arriving at Champa’s school. Her grant project to create a costume and prop wardrobe for its drama program is progressing nicely, with many of the costumes now completed.

 

 

The school, LT “Andrei Vartic” in Ialoveni, Moldova, recently received its first batch of stage props, including some great hats. As you can see in these photos, Champa and I had fun trying them on with her project partner Ana Doschinescu, in the white and blue dress, and another teacher, Tamara Vîrlan.

Ana, Tamara and Champa can’t wait until the project is completed and students start using the props and costumes on stage. We’ll keep you posted.

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Story Time at the Library

Readers, I seek your assistance — the first and only time Champa or I will make such a request while we are serving in Moldova as Peace Corps Volunteers.

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The library where I work in Ialoveni has launched a project to create a “Story Time at the Library” program for toddlers along with educational programs for adults. They’ve already raised nearly $1,000 locally — a lot of money here — but need $2,303.94 more to create a kid-friendly room with small chairs, educational toys, art materials and the like.

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I’ve worked with the library and Peace Corps to launch a fundraiser through the Let Girls Learn program championed by Michelle Obama.

As you can see in the infographic, the librarians did a survey showing overwhelming community support for the idea, which is similar to the story times held at many public libraries in the States. Their target audience is kids a bit younger than those you see in the photo above of a school group recently visiting the library.

The project is just the latest example of how Ialoveni’s library is trying to redefine itself for the modern world and become a vital community resource. During the past year alone it has expanded beyond books to create programs for video animation, advocacy, computer coding and robotics, together with new services for special-needs users.

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You can learn more about the project and donate here. Your contribution is tax-deductible in the United States. You can donate in honor or memory of someone and, if you choose, share your contact information with me. You can also send words of encouragement to the project team. I will be administering the funds.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, support what the Peace Corps is doing or just want to support a great cause for the holidays, I hope you will make a donation. On behalf of the mothers, children, families and librarians of Ialoveni: Mulțumesc (Thank you)!