September 22, 2011

The many hats of justice

Yesterday the news was dominated by a theme of justice. Depending on which side you fell on, justice either prevailed around 7 p.m. EST for Troy Davis or around 11 p.m. EST for advocates on the side of the murder victim's family. Then after following a twisted and often perverse trail lasting 26 months, the two American hikers imprisoned in Iran were finally freed through messy international diplomatic negotiations and a $1 million bail.

The news this week gave us good insight into soft spots in our country's justice system and when it works and when it doesn't work so well. The Troy Davis case gained a lot of traction yesterday with social media and the international community, including Pope Benedict, called for the execution to be halted because of evidence that was weak and contradictory. Since 2007, Davis has been scheduled for execution three times, each time the execution stopped because of new evidence or recanted statements from witnesses. 

Early yesterday evening, Davis' supporters celebrated when the US Supreme Court said it would review the case. Less than three hours later, the Court decided that they wouldn't intervene. Just after 11 p.m., Davis was executed. His last words? 

"I am innocent," Davis said moments before he was executed Wednesday night. "All I can ask ... is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight." (from this CBS story)

Justice was achieved in a very different way for the two American hikers. Using Swiss diplomats and the Omani government, $1 million bail was paid to the Iranian government and the hikers boarded a plane for Oman and left Iran for good. 

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Throughout the past two years, several people have weighed in on what the hikers were doing along the Iranian border. What were they doing there by themselves? Do you think they were spies? Why didn't they have a guide? Why on earth would they go to a region the US is at war with? 

Though I can't speak on behalf of their motives for hiking along the border, I can somewhat relate to their desire to explore the region. Kurdistan has been at war for most of the 29 years the hikers have been alive, and only recently the region became somewhat safer for people to visit (remember that Anthony Bourdain episode I wrote about a few weeks ago?)

The best way to explain it is that some people crave exploring uncommon (and sometimes dangerous) parts of the world that few tourists go. In a super globalized world, adventuring into those areas is often the only way to see truly authentic and pure culture as it was prior to Lady Gaga and KFC.

I heard a story on the BBC last week about one of the last Gaddafi strongholds in Libya, Bani Walid. The reporter was talking about the battle that was likely to ensue and was interviewing locals about their opinions on it. By some extraordinary luck, the reporter interviewed an American who was living in Bani Walid. He was a college student from California who went to Libya after his spring semester ended. He said he wanted to be a part of that country's revolution, to see it fall apart then become united again.

Now, he's back at school in Cali, pending he was able to find a flight out of Tripoli.

He didn't have any Libyan descent in his family. He had no special interests or ties to the country. He just wanted to be part of a revolution.

Just as I imagine those hikers wanted to discover the Kurdish people and ancient Iraqi culture when they unintentionally slipped into Iran. To travelers, experiences like these are fulfilling and adrenaline pumping in the same way that demolition derbies, hunting expeditions, or mountain climbing are to others. All of which are hobbies that are hard to understand the motivation unless you share the same passion.

Regardless, more than two years of these hikers' lives were spent in hell. And now they're free. I'm thankful for their freedom, but I don't envy their reintegration into their formerly "normal" lives. 

Justice has very publicly taken on a variety of forms this week, and according to some it was served in all the right ways. According to others, it was grossly enforced. But these were just the public stories, just think of how many times each day these kind of situations are played out in prisons worldwide.

think. improve. 

September 19, 2011

Hotdishing at potlucks

The past week or two this blog has taken a sharp turn towards the serious and highly political, so I'm going to reconnect with my favorite (and dare I say your favorite) pastime: eat.

About halfway through the second verse of the closing hymn is when I would get antsy and eager to go downstairs. Inviting smells of casseroles and crockpotted delights crept into the chapel during the last 15 minutes of the church service, courtesy of whichever ladies' aid was in charge for the event. 

Church potlucks everywhere have their staple items, and in northwest North Dakota those items rarely vary. There are open-faced buns with butter and one slice of turkey or ham, and half the sandwiches would have a slice of cheese (or cheese whiz). A dozen "salads" dressed heavily in mayonnaise or coolwhip always make the lineup, too. The regulars are usually potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni salad, snicker salad, cookie salad, and marshmallow salad (don't be distracted by the name, the latter three contain little to none nutritional value). And there are always crockpots filled with scalloped potatoes, tator-tot hotidsh, macaroni hotdish (NOT the same as the salad), and slushburger meat. 

(If you're questioning what a "slushburger" is, clearly you grew up out of the small pocket of NoDak where we lovingly refer to the more commonly named "sloppy joe" as a "slushburger.")

Cream of Mushroom soup, potatoes, ground beef, cool whip and mayonnaise were the star players at our church potlucks. 

Almost everyone in the congregation would go to eat, drink watered-down coffee, and mostly to enjoy community eating. There's really nothing better than eating together with others and having a good talk over a meal. One of the most basic ways humans can bond is over food. 

Why do you suppose most important meetings offer a meal? Or many of the most successful fundraisers are community benefits or pancake feeds? And on a familial level, look at how many family recipes have been handed down for a few generations and appear at every single big holiday. In my family, it's green jello. As a nation, it's a ham or a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, some form of corn, and bread. 

By our nature, we love communal meals. 

A few weeks ago, someone my age looked surprised when I said I loved going to potlucks. 

"You mean, those things for old people? Where like everyone cooks some sort of casserole?"

"Yeah, those things. I love them! They're not for old people. And it's a hotdish, not a casserole, you fool." (Ok so the hotdish line was just something I wish I would've said in retrospect...) 

Yesterday, I went to the most fantastic potluck -- it was the first time I was able to eat two of my favorite foods on the same plate: pork dumplings and [homemade] pesto pasta. No restaurant would EVER put those foods together (and no good restaurant would simultaneously offer both on their menu). And to finish it off, we had a delicious homemade cranberry-pecan pie. 

The food was great, certainly prepared with love. But the conversation was even better.  The dinner turned into one of those two and a half hour affairs that leave you painfully full, and thankful, for the deliciousness and delightful company.

September 15, 2011

Geek out

A nod to my hipster post from a few weeks back... I think I fit under a pseudo-food geek, somewhat of a political geek, and a travel geek on occasion. What's your geek?

The Evolution of the Geek
Flowtown - Social Media Marketing Application

September 11, 2011

Coming of age after 9/11/01

think. I was wearing a new purple and pink striped shirt, a birthday gift from one of my brothers, and sky blue insulated sweat pants as I sat impatiently waiting for my mom to finish getting ready for work and drive me to school. I was 13. It was a quarter to 8 and I was watching the Today show, just like every other morning. 

I watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Within a minute or two, Katie Couric got one of her friends on the phone who lived in Lower Manhattan to get an eye witness perspective of what was happening. Was it a small plane? Had the pilot had a heart attack? While the woman was on the phone, the second plane hit and I remember there being a few moments of horrifying recognition that this in fact was no accident, no grave error on behalf of the pilot or flight control, we were amidst something unfathomable and terrifying. 

A few days ago, I posted about how my generation doesn't know what real sacrifice is, for the most part. Today, I wholeheartedly rescind that statement. We have made sacrifices. No, they don't necessarily look the same as the WWII generation or the Great Depression, but our lives and perspectives changed that day whether we're conscious of it or not. And since the moment the first plane hit, 9,192 people have been killed, 2,977 on September 11 alone and 6,215 military personnel in the two wars that followed. In addition, 2,300 government contractors, 1,192 foreign coalition soldiers, and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians died consequentially because of what happened on 9/11.**

Teachers didn't know what to do at school that day, many who had first period history or government classes started watching the news and didn't stop watching it for most of the day. Some teachers taught on, Mr. Lervick attempted a geometry lesson and Mr. Overbo pressed on with P.E. PhyEd was our first class of the day with the other section of 8th graders, and they had geography first period where they watched the plane crash into the Pentagon. 

As we were jogging laps, it's all we could talk about. Someone said that Osama bin Laden had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon, survived, and was currently engaging most of our nation's nuclear weapons. My friend could have said Satan was on the prowl and I would have been less scared. Bin Laden was a real-life villain to my adolescent self, someone that only a superhero could take out. A modern-day caveman with an AK-47,  hauntingly warm eyes and a sinister smile.

In the days following the attacks, there was talk of war, a draft, fuel and food shortages, and follow-up attacks. Things instantly changed living along the border, and suddenly helicopters and 3 a.m. patrols along gravel roads and trails became the norm. Customs agents at the border, many of whom were our neighbors, interviewed each vehicle coming into the US regardless if they knew the occupants personally.

The obvious changes our country has faced are being spelled out in the news today and are easily identified by each of us: strict security for airlines, borders, and government buildings. The omnipresent reminder that we're involved in two wars. The gaping holes left in the NYC skyline. 

But it's the other changes I'm more interested in, nuanced shifts in attitude and action that aren't as quantifiable. As a nation, we've become both isolationist and more open. Isolationist in the sense that we're not exactly welcoming to foreign travelers, the US visa process is one of the most difficult of any country in the world. As a nation, we've become unsure of anyone who looks sort of bin Laden-ish, we assume that Muslims are inherently extremists or "radicalized." We've created an "Axis of Evil" and tried our damndest to destroy it for the pursuit of liberty and democracy. Words such as "terrorist," "jihad," "suicide bomb," and "treat level," have become common in our rhetoric.

That's not our entire country, though. September 11 brought out a lot of amazing things in people. It was the event that helped my generation gain a sense of nation. My grandparents had both World Wars, my parents had JFK and the moon walkers, but my brothers and I had 9/11. Once the panic stopped and the events were better understood, we gained a sense of resolve to try make this place better than it was before the attacks.

Sure, there is the aforementioned paranoia, but the the positive effects are undeniable. Subconsciously, I think the 9/11 attacks played a huge role in my enthusiasm to explore the world. And I think the same sentiment goes for many of the friends I've made living abroad. I realized the best way I can personally contribute to our world is through understanding the perspective of people who come from dramatically different cultures than my own.  

The 9/11 attacks motivated others to join the military and embark on a war strategy that had never been tested out before. Sure, there were/are plenty of bombs and gun battles, but there is also a greater outreach to local culture and communities, soldiers trying  to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that prompt people to join groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Maybe this is a consequence of 9/11 (or maybe 20-somethings of every generation have been like this) but I'm surrounded by friends who demand social change and equality. Americorps volunteers helping abuse victims, Peace Corps volunteers working hard to build communities and schools in the far corners of the globe, healthcare workers demanding reform to give care to those who need it most regardless of income, I could go on... these are the people who don't just talk about change, they live change. And I think 9/11 is a subconscious motivator for us.

I didn't know anyone killed that day. Though I've had many friends serve in both wars, I don't personally know any soldier who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that doesn't stop goosebumps from creeping down my arms when I read tragic stories or tears welling up in my eyes when I hear about a soldier coming home to his or her family. 

We live in a dynamic and sometimes scary world, but we have to embrace the lessons of September 11. We can't fear what's out of our control. And instead of looking those different from ourselves with skepticism, we ought to look with warm curiosity. Our world is different today than it was 10 years ago, but that doesn't have to mean it has changed for the worse.

**Source: The NY Times with credit to,,,  and US Dept. of Defense

September 9, 2011

Will good words lead to good action?

The gaping three hour time difference got the best of me yesterday and as I rushed home to try stream the President's speech, I managed to catch the very last of the applause when the speech was over. Too early to catch a full video recap, but to late to watch the speech, I resorted to reading it via transcript. 

Reading it rather than listening to Obama speak gave me an unusual perspective. Most times when I listen to the President, I'm caught up in the grandeur of the chamber and the weight of the tradition Presidential speeches from there hold. Not to mention, we have the most fantastically talented orator in the Oval Office since Kennedy. Regardless of whether you agree with his policies, it's hard to deny that our President is downright poetic when he speaks. 

The poetry and pomp and circumstance was missing from the transcript. Rather, I was reading only words while trying to imagine just how the President sounded. By reading the speech, I caught onto patterns and word usage. I keyed into cliches and could sense the parts of the speech that moved along quickly and the parts that demanded to be read slowly and deliberately.

The Politico transcript even had one of those speech graphs so I could see which words the president used most. The phrase that I kept noticing was "you need to pass this immediately." 

For the most part, I thought the speech lacked solid information about what exactly the President planned doing. Yes, he explained tax breaks and revamping the tax code so Mr. Buffet can finally pay in more than his cleaning lady. He promised the bill was paid for, but it's hard to imagine that a $450 billion package comes pre-paid. Then again, I'm no expert on the issue.

This morning, I sought out reaction from the speech and found this great little piece from The Christian Science Monitor. The article reviews news from Britain, France, and China, each of which had dramatically different interpretations of what the President's speech meant. Leave it to China to   extrapolate from an editorial, written by our VP Joe Biden,  that China will be the sole solution to make the US more prosperous. 

At any rate, I'd like to hope that the President's delivery was good enough to inspire a few companies to have faith that Congress can get this act passed, but I have my doubts. 

I must say though that I would give his speech writers a high-five if I saw them today, they can string words together that anyone can relate to, from long-term unemployed manufacturing workers to CEOs of midsize companies. That takes skill. Especially when the words still stand strong even when they're read by someone like me rather than our President.

September 7, 2011

Oh what a mess

think. Job creation is on the front of the tongues of our nation's leaders and media with new lackluster statistics and both a Republican Presidential debate and a primetime speech from President Obama, in which he is expected to roll out his plan for job growth.

We all talk about how we wish Washington would come up with a long-term solution, rather than a quick fix. But our attention spans are that of fruit flies, so how can we expect our leaders to implement long-lasting policies when we're demanding that our economy is back in order for next year's Christmas season? 

In tonight's debate, I heard too much from the candidates describing the economic troubles as a direct fault of President Obama, when really the problems started years and years ago, spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations. 

Thomas Friedman, a brilliant man who makes statistics and societal trends digestible to those of us who have a tough time scrounging giant stacks of data (i.e. me and most likely you as well), has a new book out in which he explains how and why the US went from being the golden superhero of the planet to a tarnished statue of its former self. 

This story from NPR's All Things Considered summarizes Friedman's theory. Each generation, prior to the post-Cold War era, made tangible sacrifices in order to move our country forward. (Friedman also wrote this fantastic column for the NY Times).

But since 1989, for the most part any middle-class white kid (like me) doesn't know what real, legitimate sacrifice really is. Sure there are plenty of things my family can't afford and there are lots of things I want but don't have, but I have never had to miss a meal because of empty cupboards. I've never gone a winter without a warm coat. And if I'm sick, I've been able to go to the doctor when necessary. 

However, I'm willing to sacrifice things if it means it will make my country stronger. I'll happily pay higher taxes to ensure those people who can't afford the doctor or can't put food on the table, have the chance to pay for what they need. I’d willingly pay more at the pump if I knew the added tax was going to sustainable energy investment.

There was a lot of talk tonight about climate change and whether it’s manmade or some silly scientific theory. Gov. Rick Perry (Tex.) made remarks in the past few weeks that showed blatant skepticism to the validity of whether we trash-mongering humans have begun to influence the climate.

Mr. Perry said tonight that he doesn't want our nation to suffer "monstrous economic effects," from being limited on our usage of fossil fuels. 

Ok. Well that's one way of looking at it.

Or one could look at environmental regulation as incentive for innovation, which is something Americans have always held near and dear.

Throwing aside all things scientific, as a God-fearing, Jesus-believing, good-hearted human being, one would think that Mr. Perry (and his fellow friends) would want to be environmental stewards because it’s a good thing to do.

Instead, we have a gaggle of Presidential hopefuls vying for super cheap gas ($2 a gallon in Bachman’s world), egregious spending cuts (which would eliminate jobs) and extensive deregulation (possibly to balance out the jobs lost from funding cuts with new ones created from less corporate rules?)

Well friends, deregulation alone doesn’t create jobs. Neither does government investment. Here’s to hoping tomorrow our President spells out a plan that may not be super popular, but will be a big first step in the right direction. As a post-cold war kid, I’m ready to sacrifice, are you? Tune in tomorrow night.

September 6, 2011


improve. In the advent of HGTV, I've watched hours and hours of home decorating and improvement projects played out beautifully on the TV screen. They make it look so flawless and easy, not a drop of paint is splattered and all of the construction projects (even the ones they need to "scrap at the last minute") all look straight out of a furniture store. Each episode the designers become flustered and panicky, as if worried they're not going to finish in their 23-minute time slot. 

Now I'm trying my hand at DIY projects in my new house but I am doing them much less glamorously than on TV. Last week I bought a very cheap Ikea desk off of Craigslist. The top was damaged, but the design of the desk was exactly what I wanted. Putting my creative hat on, I decided it would be cool to cover the desk in newspapers and cover the top with a clear resin.

Pike Place Market has a fantastic newspaper stand that sells papers and magazines from around the globe, so I snatched up Thai, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, French, Italian, and English (The NY Times) newspapers for my project. I went to the art supply store in my neighborhood and bought a huge bottle of Modge Podge and a few paintbrushes and set to work.

My hands had forgotten what it felt like to have glue on them. And I hadn't used a paint brush for anything in years. But back in my tween days, I was a decoupage queen, covering shelves, tables, and stools in whatever I thought was neat. Each summer, I brought 4-H projects to the county fair that showcased my talent (or lack thereof) for the creative world of crafts.

As I've gotten older, I suppose my hobbies adjusted and I became a little bit intimidated by my friends who have real talent. Among my closest friends I have a graphic designer/sketcher, an architect/print-maker, and a singer -- those are just the artists by profession. There are plenty of other hobby painters, photographers, creative writers, and visual artists that I call my friends. It's scary trying my own project when I see so many incredible things they create, mostly because I'm concerned about their critiques.

But today when I was elbow deep in Modge Podge, tossing around cut out stories from papers I can't read, I forgot about the constraints holding me in and I reconnected with the 12-year old version of myself and embraced the stickiness under my nails.

Tomorrow I'll put the finishing coats of lacquer onto my desk and will have created something that I think is pretty dang cool. As far as my friends who know how to reupholster furniture? Well, I'll still be seeking their advice and assistance when it comes to doing projects that involve more than a paintbrush and glue.

September 1, 2011

People skill

Humans are the single most successful species on the planet. (Obviously). No, we don't have the hunting abilities of a leopard or a shark. We're not so great at climbing trees and jumping from branch to branch, and we're really bad at moving through water with speed and agility. We can't fly, we don't have fur to keep us warm, and our eyes can't see very well in the dark. We're slow, we have blunt teeth, and our "claws" look best when trimmed and polished.

We lack many of the qualities that make other animals so intimidating, cute, or stealthy. But we've managed to overcome these challenges with our intelligence and ingenuity. 

We've impacted the landscape to build our towns and cities so much that it's easy to forget that we're animals. All of you reading this are lucky enough to be comforted by insulated walls, soft beds, and a big box that keeps your food conveniently chilled. When you're hungry, you go to the store. When you're thirsty, you get a drink of water. When you need to get somewhere, you get in that odd four-wheeled contraption of yours to drive down asphalt roads to your destination.

It's easy to forget what we're capable of.

Most of this week I've been enthralled with the BBC's "Human Planet." It's a sister series of documentaries to "Planet Earth." Each of the episodes feature humans doing crazy things to live in some of the most extreme places. The Grasslands film features bushmen stealing a slain wildebeest from right under lions' noses. The Arctic episode profiles natives of Greenland who not only rock polar bear pants (seriously, you have to watch this) but they can also catch ginormous Greenland sharks while ice fishing. How many of you have caught something that's 12-feet long out of the Lake of the Woods in January? Probably no one.

Seriously, these films are nothing short of enthralling. I particularly enjoyed the Oceans episode, it showed villages that are built over water (many of the residents become "land sick" if the go ashore). Jenn and I passed a few of those villages off the coast of Borneo when we were en route to our tiny dive island. The episode also featured compressor divers in Palawan in the Philippines -- the very island that I spent an entire week.

The compressor divers each grab a rubber tube that is haphazardly connected to a spitting and barely functioning air compressor and use that as their breathing device 40m beneath the surface. On the ship, a big crew continually works to try keep the hoses from tangling up with the 20+ divers swimming under the ship. 

The divers bring down giant fishing nets and work together to garner a catch of one ton or more for their villages. The work is extremely dangerous, many divers suffer from the bends and nearly everyone knows someone who was killed while diving. Not to mention, the job is one of the worst paying ones on the island...

The films are incredible and leave you feeling both empowered and semi-worthless at the same time (I mean, some of the people they feature seem to be superhuman). You should definitely check them out, though. They might make you believe in superheroes.


And on a different note... I talk a lot about connecting and communicating on here, and one of my favorite magazines/news sites ( just launched a month long challenge to connect with people. You know, connecting the "old fashioned way" with our voices, rather  than just sending a text or an email. It's September 1, I'm going to try out this challenge. I dare you to as well.