Echoing Alex

I was pleasantly surprised a few days ago when an article I wrote appeared in a magazine with Alex Trebek on its cover.

Little did I know that the famous Jeopardy! host would die on Sunday at age 80 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.

Healthy Aging‘s cover story about him concludes with him saying ” I believe in the power of positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope.”

I admired Alex Trebek and loved his show, so now feel honored to appear in the same magazine with words that echo his inspiring message. My own article encourages readers to “dream differently” as they age and to consider the Peace Corps and other volunteer experiences that may challenge them — challenges less intense than cancer, to be sure, but meaningful in their own ways.



These experiences aren’t easy, I write in my article. “You struggle. You get lonely. You reexamine your beliefs and life goals.” Yet they also can transform how older Americans view themselves and their place in the world.

“Now that we’re back home in North Carolina, the two of us treasure our Peace Corps memories,” the article concludes. “We have renewed appreciation for our many blessings as Americans and greater empathy for the billions of people around the world whose lives differ from ours. We know we touched the hearts of our Moldovan friends, just as they touched ours. We still don’t have a boat or a golf cart, but our lives are richer than ever.”

I wrote the article several months ago, just as the pandemic began spreading across the globe. When the Peace Corps withdrew its volunteers worldwide, for the first time ever, the editor decided to hold off on publishing it. (The Peace Corps plans to resume its operations when conditions allow.)

The article highlights one of the main themes of my book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps, which was published by the Peace Corps Writers imprint on April 2. Although the pandemic derailed some planned publicity for the book, numerous articles, podcasts and other media have still featured it, as you can see on this Facebook page. The book website has links to buy the book from independent bookstores, Amazon and elsewhere.

If you want to learn more about Healthy Aging, the magazine is offering a discount to Not Exactly Retired readers — $15 off its regular subscription rate of $24.95. Use the promo code author10 at its online subscription page.

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Turn Down Your Stress

The pandemic grinds on. The election is approaching. Wildfires are blazing. And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

I’m old enough to remember the tumult of 1968 and the Watergate years, but these past several months have been an even bigger challenge to our individual and collective sanity.

On a Zoom call recently, some friends decribed how they’ve been coping with the unrelenting stress, from going on hikes to watching webcams of wild bears. Others have been binge-watching Netflix, baking bread or learning hobbies. Many are struggling.

One way I’ve been reducing stress is by walking six miles daily.

I assist North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova, transport donations for a food bank, write letters to potential voters and provide editorial or financial assistance to causes I support. Recently I’ve also been helping to launch a program for older volunteers to assist Durham community groups, one of which I’m helping myself.

Champa joined me in delivering a food donation from a local grocery store to this Durham food pantry.

As I experienced in the Peace Corps a few years ago, serving others shifts your attention from yourself. It reminds you how lucky you are. It connects you to the wider community and gives meaning to your life.

For me, the pandemic has also highlighted how volunteering can reduce stress, as scientists have confirmed. A 2015 study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that adults who helped others reported higher levels of positive emotion. “Prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health,” they reported.

Michael Poulin, a University of Buffalo researcher, described it this way: ”When you are thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems … In essence it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.”

Religious faiths tell us the same thing, that giving enriches the giver.

Paige Greenwood, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, published this article after participating in a free online workshop I taught about writing op-eds.

I also recognize that my own modest efforts come from a place of privilege and pale in comparison to those of many other volunteers, not to mention those who’ve been battling the pandemic and saving lives in other ways. While West Coast fire fighters have fighting huge blazes, I have been safe at home, with my wife, free to volunteer. Others face stresses far bigger than mine.

My Peace Corps friend Jim Fletcher and I spoke at this orientation program for UNC dental students preparing to visit Moldova.

They may find, as I have, that helping others during stress-filled times is a good way to renew their own equilibrium and strength. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, we’re all going to need it.

They’re Not ‘Shitholes’

As we approach an election with huge implications for our country and the world, a U.S. agency charged with promoting international friendship needs to make some big changes.

That agency is the Peace Corps, in which I served twice as a volunteer.

On Wednesday, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) highlighted on LinkedIn a talk I gave recently arguing the Peace Corps is way too focused on “development” and not enough on helping Americans and others to learn about each other.

No one is better situated than Peace Corps Volunteers to explain to their fellow Americans that developing countries are not “shitholes” — or to help people around the world see the realities of our own society.

Moreover, it’s their mission to do this. according to the agency’s three goals. One goal is to assist economic development, the other two are to promote cross-cultural understanding. Yet the Peace Corps now devotes almost all of its attention and resources to the first goal, even though returned volunteers say the other two end up mattering the most. This approach makes less sense now than ever before, as some politicians whip up fear about “the other.”

Peace Corps Volunteers can help Americans recognize that foreigners, including Muslims and people of color, share many of their own dreams and are not their enemies — and they can do so while maintaining the agency’s nonpolitical, bipartisan tradition.

NCPA has posted my 5-minute talk on YouTube. I hope it will help spark an overdue conversation about the agency’s programming after the pandemic eases and volunteers return to the field. I also discussed some of these issues in an earlier post and in my recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

The talk was part of NPCA’s “global ideas summit” (also on YouTube), which raised many interesting questions about the future of the Peace Corps — an organization I love and want to see have a bigger impact.

I welcome your comments.

 

 

(Top image from Olivia Prentzel’s Peace Corps blog.)

The Older Evacuees

I was friends with Karen Jean (KJ) Hunt before we both left Durham to serve in the Peace Corps. Champa and I were lucky enough to serve before the pandemic. KJ was in Ethiopia (above, with some of her students in Kotu) when the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers worldwide for the first time ever. In a new article for Next Avenue, I describe how the evacuation affected KJ and other older volunteers and what to expect in the months ahead.

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Read the article.

Humbled by the Pandemic

Friends from Nepal and Moldova have been contacting us to check on how we’re doing as the pandemic spins out of control in the United States. 

I went to those two countries as a Peace Corps Volunteer to provide training and insight from an American. Now they and others look at us and see crowds defying public health guidelines in bars, on beaches and elsewhere, and a death toll topping 140,000. It’s humbling.

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Unlike the majority of developed countries that responded to the pandemic with discipline and a respect for science, the United States has acted foolishly and incompetently. Why should anyone take us seriously again?

Millions of Americans have behaved responsibly, even heroically. Doctors, nurses and other front-line workers have been risking their lives to help others. Many teachers will soon return to their classrooms. Others are continuing to sell food, collect trash and perform other essential tasks, often for low wages. Neighbors are helping each other.

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Medical center in Chişinǎu, Moldova.

Yet the situation is worsening, and it’s our own fault. Especially here in the South, many governors rushed to reopen their states before it was safe. They defied health experts who correctly warned what would happen. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has been among the exceptions, largely resisting pressure to reopen too quickly.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times says we shouldn’t blame this failure on our American culture being “too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences to protect others.” The bigger factor, he says, has been President Trump denying the pandemic’s seriousness. His decision to “trade deaths for jobs and political gain” led many local leaders and others to act irresponsibly.

Both factors, culture and politics, have surely played a role, and health officials could have done a better job of communicating messages and winning public trust. In any case, here we are. I know Champa and I have been fortunate to ride out the crisis in a comfortable home but I am angry about how many of my fellow Americans are now suffering, especially people of color. Our IMG_4366hospitals are overwhelmed. Businesses keep closing. This didn’t have to happen.

I keep thinking back to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which I visited just before the pandemic spread out of control. Anne and her family remained quiet in an attic for more than two years before the Nazis discovered them. Here in America, by contrast, millions of people have been unable to last a few months before they insisted on partying. Even now, they reject something as simple as wearing a mask. 

One of the three Peace Corps goals is to “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It’s ironic our country had to evacuate its Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide just when it needed more than ever to be learning from others.

[Top photo: The hospital entrance in Ilam, Nepal, my first post as a Peace Corps Volunteer.]

***

One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

Raise Your Voice

I’ve been deeply moved by the stories I’ve been hearing from Americans of color about police abuse and racism they’ve encountered. As a white person, I’ve tried to listen and learn from them.

Their stories were on my mind this past week when I led an online workshop for science graduate students on how to write op-ed articles. The participants came from several North Carolina universities and other states and countries. You can see some of them in the Zoom screen, above, and watch a video of my opening talk here.

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I was actually the associate vice president of news and communications at Duke. I had darker hair then, too.

Our conversation yielded some tips you may find helpful if you choose to raise your own voice now or in the future.

Several of the participants wrote about science-related topics. One described the pressures women scientists face when raising children. Another who works with the Australian parliament warned about the Covid-19 pandemic diverting resources from tuberculosis prevention there and in Asia.

Others addressed the meaning of George Floyd’s horrific murder, such as an African American graduate who feels torn between her Ph.D. studies in neuroscience and wanting to participate in protest marches. A participant in England said she’s been reminded of racism she witnessed as a girl in Liverpool. An Indian-American graduate student who grew up in Minneapolis wrote about seeing her home town with new eyes.

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The group had some amazing stories and we worked together to identify ways they could tell them more powerfully. For instance: 

  • Get to the point immediately. With an op-ed article, as with social media, you only have a few seconds to grab a reader.
  • Tie your article to something happening in the news, if possible.
  • Embrace your own identity and voice. Readers respond best to a person they can identify with. If you could just persuade them with facts, well, we wouldn’t still be arguing about global warming.
  • Make the abstract real. Use examples and details to bring your argument to life. Describe the crazy thing that happened to you last Thursday.
  • Tell readers why they should care. How will your issue affect their kids, their job or their community? 

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Most of all, speak as a fellow human being, not as a faceless expert.  Statistics and policy arguments have their place, but, as the expression goes, people don’t care what you think unless they think that you care. As I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they’d improve their chances if they’d lighten up.”

When I spoke about some of this with a group of young entrepreneurs in Moldova, while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there, I used an Oprah Winfrey speech to illustrate how we humans make sense of the world through stories. Whether you’re writing a traditional op-ed article or using another platform, the best way to persuade someone is by starting with your own truth — something you’ve lived and experienced, or have seen with your own eyes. Only then should you pull the camera back to explore the bigger picture.

I discuss these and several other ideas in my op-ed guidelines, my free online class on Coursera and a how-to chapter from an op-ed anthology I produced for the National Academy of Sciences. Maybe you’ll find these resources useful in raising your voice, too.

For myself, now that I’ve completed this post, I’m going back to listening.

Learning Moves Online

Champa and I have been learning online lately.

We used to attend classes “in person” with our local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Since we returned from our Peace Corps service in Moldova two years ago, I’ve studied topics ranging from foreign policy to science fiction films.

That ended when the coronavirus pandemic cut short this spring’s schedule. The OLLI program at Duke University and others nationwide have been scrambling since then to provide classes online.

Next Avenue just published this article I wrote about what’s been happening. Next Avenue is one of my favorite sites, produced by Twin Cities PBS “to meet the needs and unleash the potential of older Americans.” You can read the article on their site, on the Forbes website, in this PDF file or below.

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Free Walking Tours

I wrote this article after Champa and I returned home from Europe in March, just before the coronavirus made such travel impossible. It felt inappropriate to publish it then. A new article in The Washington Post prompts me to share it now, with hope for better times.

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Champa and I were accompanied on our recent European trip by Laura, Camille, Adrien and Tim. They were our guides on free walking tours, a travel idea we hope to use again after the current crisis passes. Perhaps you can use it then, too.

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Laura, Bruges

Traditionally, you had to buy an advance ticket for a walking tour of a city, but several years ago some companies began switching to a “pay what you like” model. The concept spread, even to Moldova, where we served in the Peace Corps. 

The two of us prefer this model because the guides are motivated to provide a great experience every time. Their tips depend on it and their companies monitor their online reviews.

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Camille, Ghent

All of our guides on free walking tours have been enthusiastic local experts who provided a 2-3 hour blend of history, architecture, culture and humor.

In Bruges, Belgium, for example, Laura explained how the picturesque Flemish city became a center of European commerce, declined and then reemerged as a cultural hub. She described its majestic belfry and churches and shared stories about how it came to possess both a Michaelangelo statue and swan-filled ponds. Laura spent several years in Australia, so her narration had an unexpected accent.

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Adrien, Brussels

In Ghent, our guide was Camille, whose description of that city’s historic competition with Bruges provided an interesting counterpoint. Camille took us to several buildings that served powerful guilds and to others that beckoned sailors seeking prostitutes. We also learned the history of Belgium’s famous beer, potato fries and other foods.

Our guide in Brussels, Adrien, expanded the food conversation to include waffles and chocolates. He pointed out architecural oddities in its magnificent Grand Place and suggested local beers for us to sample when we stopped at a bar halfway through our tour. IMG_4150Like other guides, he also addressed some difficult topics. Standing in front of a statue of King Leopold II, he described how millions of Africans died under brutal Belgian rule.

In Amsterdam, our guide, Tim, told another story of colonial oppression, this one about Dutch rule in Indonesia. He also brought us to a former Jewish neighborhood and to the Anne Frank House to consider what happened to Amsterdam’s Jews under German occupation. Mostly, though, Tim kept us smiling as he riffed on everything from Dutch cheeses to the maintenance of canals. When he told us he also works as a stand-up comedian, we weren’t surprised.

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Tim, Amsterdam

During our Peace Corps service, we took free walking tours in several East European cities, such as with the guide you see below from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her excellent tour ranged from the architecture of a local mosque to the city’s many symbols of recent Communist rule.

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All of our guides combined light material with more serious sights. As Adrien said in Brussels, “I don’t want you to get churched out.” We found all the tours just right in length. We haven’t had a bad experience yet. Needless to say, we tipped all of the guides and posted favorable reviews. Hennessey, who showed us around Dublin during an earlier trip, told us his mother checked his reviews regularly.

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Hennessey, Dublin

Free walking tours can also help you find a good hotel or Airbnb, as I learned from one of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads. If you’re looking online for a place to stay, check where the walking tour originates, then search near there. You’ll end up close to top attractions instead of in a distant neighborhood.

Champa and I know how fortunate we are to have returned safely at a time when the coronavirus is claiming an enormous physical and economic toll. People around the world are struggling, and those on the front lines are risking their lives to help us. We are grateful to all of them.

As we isolate at home, we’re dreaming of the day when we can again explore a new city with a good walk.

Talking About Retirement

A podcast for librarians and a newsletter about Nepal both published stories Tuesday about my new book. A day earlier, a podcast on “career pivots” highlighted it, as have other outlets over the past month.

It’s been a strange time to release a book about travel and the Peace Corps. The coronavirus outbreak has been devastating and Peace Corps Volunteers were recently evacuated worldwide. Like many of you, I have been staying home and feeling grateful to the medical responders and others who are working so tirelessly on our behalf. If you’re ready for a distraction while we await better times, here are links to some of the stories that have appeared in places that focus on retirement and career changes, which are more numerous than I knew previously. You’ll find more links on the book’s Facebook page.

Baby Boomer Retirement

Bloomer Boomer

Born to be Boomers

Career Pivot

Retirement Wisdom

Rock Your Retirement

Second Act Stories

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These and other outlets are helping older Americans think about the changing nature of retirement and their own futures. There are good books, too, including those on Andy Levine’s list of The Best Books About Second Acts. Not Exactly Retired now appears there along with my own favorite, my sister Nancy’s excellent Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement.

In a future post, I’ll share coverage from outlets less focused on retirement, like this interview on Peace Corps Worldwide.

Visit the book website to see reviews, trip photos and more, along with links to indie bookshops, Amazon and other places where you can order Not Exactly Retired in paperback or electronically. If you’ve read and enjoyed it, please post a review online!

Most important of all: Stay safe, everyone.

Help the Evacuees

More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.

They need our help — and they have something to teach us.

The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.

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The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.

Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.

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Volunteers evacuate from Senegal. From an article and video by Paula Ospin for “The New Yorker.”

They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.

I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.

Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)

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Photo taken in Los Angeles International Airport by PCV JaKyah Beatty during a layover on her trip from Fiji to Houston.

In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.

They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.

The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.

In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.

Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories. 

Join us on the journey.

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