What’s the meaning of life?


            It was a strange week for me, emotionally speaking, and I have made my way through to the sunlight after having many doubts about my work here and the value of my being a Peace Corps Volunteer. (I write this upfront because I know that there are several people who read this regularly and have expressed concern about my emotional well-being. For that reason, I want you to know that all is fine; I’m not looking for high places or sharp objects.)

            There are several apparently unrelated factors that seem to have contributed to last week’s malaise.

            Early in the week I caught a cold. It was not a severe case, but I have definitely been congested, under the weather, and not operating at peak performance.

            On Wednesday, when I taught at ISERI, attendance had fallen drastically. There was only one class in which all computers were in use; for the other three classes, there were only three or four students. Once again, I was feeling that my presence in the lab was superfluous, with students independently making their way through the software and asking Bedine questions in Arabic if they needed help.

            Thursday was the last session of my American Civilization class at ENS until April because the students are headed to their student teaching assignments for the next two months. Maybe I should feel a reprieve from the work, but how do I feel relief when I have hardly been working?

            Toward the weekend, I finished reading River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, written by Peter Hessler. Though this was the eleventh book I have read by a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is the first one that has actually made me feel envious of the service of another PCV! His writing shed a light on all that has been missing for me in my work here. He and another volunteer taught at a teachers’ college in a small town, lived on campus, had meaningful relationships with their students, observed them in student teaching, heard from them after they left town to start their teaching or other work, and were well integrated into the lives of the community. Wow: a PCV who was not only doing what he had been invited to do, but was successful at it!

            On Friday, our acting County Director threw a big party at the beach, inviting everyone to the festivities, which was to include a bonfire once it got dark. I didn’t go to the event because I don’t enjoy beaches. The elements of a beach outing that everyone else seems to love – the sand, surf, sun, and salt water – are all features that I don’t appreciate. It didn’t make sense for me to go because I knew that in a very short time, with no comfortable place in which to sit because there was no back support, I would be miserable. Why subject everyone to that? This was, of course, totally unrelated to everything else that had been happening so far, but it fueled my sense of alienation because of my concern that people would think I was snubbing them. (We already have one person who passes other Volunteers on the street or in a restaurant and does not even acknowledge their presence by saying hello to them! I don’t want my absence from such group events to be misconstrued as that!)

            When I finished reading River Town, I began another book. Catch Me If You Can is the story of a con artist who successfully poses as an airline pilot, hospital pediatrician, lawyer, and college professor. He cashes millions of dollars in phony checks. I didn’t see anything admirable about his deeds, of course, but it struck me as I thought of this impostor that that was exactly how I felt about myself – I am impersonating a Peace Corps Volunteer!

            There was a bright spot in the week, but even that eventually led to contributing to my self-doubts. Two of my ENS students have been notified that they were awarded Fulbright Scholarships to study in the United States. Both Ahmed and Mohamed have distinguished themselves in classroom discussions as being articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, and serious students. Ahmed is the principal candidate and, thus, more likely to be going; he would begin his studies in Arizona. Mohamed has been told he is the alternate candidate and would be able to go if the funding is approved; his program would be in Oregon. Both of them would be leaving in March.

            As part of their required paperwork, Ahmed and Mohamed need the name, address, and phone number of somebody in the USA who can be a contact person in the case of emergency. They asked me if I could be that person. I told both of them that I would be happy to serve in that capacity and help them in any way I can, once I am home. But that will not happen until October. I offered to write to an RPCV who served here, is married to a Mauritanian, and lives in San Francisco.

            Two e-mails that arrived on Friday afternoon brought comments that were intended to be kind and complimentary, but had the opposite result.

            When the aforementioned RPCV replied to me, agreeing to be a contact person in the USA for Ahmed and Mohamed, she wrote, “I am sure you played a big part in making that happen,” referring, of course, to their being awarded Fulbright Scholarships which I had nothing to do with!

            Then, a person I had sung with in chorus more than twenty years ago got in touch with me for the first time in many years and wrote, “Just wanted to say that both you and your web site are amazing.” He concluded his e-mail by writing, “… you are (as always) a complete inspiration.

            These two comments only contributed to my sense of being a fraud: I am not helping anybody get scholarships. What am I doing here that is either amazing or inspirational?

            Later on Friday, I continued to contribute to my own sense of futility. It was just starting to get dark, but I had not yet turned on any lights, which meant that there was no visible sign of my being in the apartment. There was a knock at the door. I could not make out who it was, but I could tell that it was a Mauritanian. I did not answer the door. As it was happening, I could see the hypocrisy in my situation: Here I was, contrasting myself to author Peter Hessler in China, bemoaning the fact that I had not established significant relationships, and then not answering the knock of somebody who was seeking me as a friend! This, of course, made me feel worse!

            On Saturday afternoon, I went to talk with Jessica, who has had her own share of work-related tribulations. Then, on Sunday morning, Stephanie came for a visit and we had some time to commiserate along the same lines. While they haven’t gone through exactly the same situations as I, they have a good understanding of my frustrations, as it is something that many of us have been facing. Both Jess and Steph listened well, told me about their own experiences, and made me feel better.

            Jessica had a valuable suggestion. She recommended that I take a look at the chart “Critical periods during PCV service” that had been compiled by several Volunteers from Senegal a few years ago and given to us during training. My group is now in its nineteenth month here. When I looked at the period of months 16 to 20, I could see that some of the issues are, indeed, the ones that I have been facing: project work, awareness of time constraints, and realization of own limitations. The expected behaviors and reactions to these issues include apathy, self-recrimination, resignation, disappointment, downgrading one’s achievements, and over-identification in behavior. All of that looks like it’s right on target! The chart also lists a few possible interventions. Among them are visiting new PCVs, engaging in physical activity, focusing on relationships at site, going on vacation, and exploring work possibilities in neighboring sites.

            On Sunday morning, I spoke with my APCD and gave him an update about my work. He, too, is puzzled at what is keeping the textbook work from continuing. He said that it would be a good idea for us to visit my supervisor sometime this week. He also agreed that this could be a good time to make a site visit to a place where I have not been yet. Sounds like a workable plan, so I am investigating that now.

            I don’t think that there is too much about me that is typically American. But there is one thing about me that is very American, and I recognize it as being at the core of my feeling ill at ease. We Americans, possibly more than any other culture on earth, define ourselves by the work that we do. It is a primary source of identity. One of the first questions we ask new acquaintances is, “What do you do?” by which we mean professionally. Having spent my career as a teacher, I came here to build on my experience of thirty-four years in public education. It would be an understatement to say that Mauritania is not making the best use of my skills.

            Americans also see themselves as being able to control their life experiences, to shape the circumstances around them in such a way as to take an active role in our destinies. That’s another trait I share with my countrymen. I have a strong self-understand that who I am and what I have accomplished in my life has been largely the result of actions that I have personally taken.

            In contrast, there is not a lot of action in Mauritania, where most people not only seem to be idly sitting by, waiting for other people to do what needs to be done, but are apparently quite content to be doing so. And while we wait, let’s just chat and have another round of tea to pass the time.

            In the meantime, I carry on. I have always recognized about myself that I am not one to stay in a bad mental space for long periods of time. Even as I write this post, I have already begun to feel better, both physically and emotionally.


            These are the books that I have read during January:

            The Soul of a New Machine was an early work by Tracy Kidder, written in 1979. The story revolves around a group of men who are developing a new computer during an era when computers were not as commonly found in American homes as they are today. Kidder does an admirable job detailing the work and progress of the group, their trials and errors in the process. It is not a subject that was easy to make enjoyable for me, and I was not always able to follow the technical descriptions that Kidder got into. His writing has improved over the years, and I found myself enjoying later works more than I did this one.

            Jill Ker Conway grew up in the Australian outback. I don’t remember where I heard about The Road from Coorain, but it wound up on my “to read” list. It’s in a box that was mailed last March but has not yet arrived. When I saw it in a Mali Peace Corps house, I grabbed it. I hadn’t known until I got the book that the author had gone on to become the first woman president of Smith College.

            The title of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation comes from a joke about a panda that walks into a restaurant, has a meal, fires a gun, and then departs. Note the difference between saying that a panda “eats, shoots and leaves” and that it “eats shoots and leaves.” One little comma totally changes the meaning. Lynne Truss gives excellent examples, has a great sense of humor, has done a significant amount of research, and offers easy-to-understand instructions for those who need to get a handle on the distinctions between when to use “its” and “it’s,” the period, comma, hyphen, semicolon, colon, and all manner of punctuation. Maybe my having been an English teacher made me appreciate it all the more.

            Oliver Sacks accompanies a group sponsored by the American Fern Society to the Mexican state of Oaxaca. A result of the ten-day visit there is his Oaxaca Journal. While much of the book delves into descriptions of ferns, other plants, and bird life in the area, he also describes the culture of Oaxaca and gets into the personalities of the people who are included in the journey. All told, it was an enjoyable and insightful book.

            Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food takes a look at eight “revolutions” that “provide an overview of the entire history of food.” As the author, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, sees it, these eight “revolutions” were: (1) the invention of cooking; (2) according food meaning beyond its need for sustenance; (3) the domestication and breeding of animals; (4) the planting and cultivation of crops; (5) using food as a means of delineating social status; (6) the place of food in trade and cultural exchanges; (7) the transplantation of animals and crops to new climates (“Columbian exchange”); (8) mutual effects between industrialization and food. I appreciated the author’s global perspective and felt that I had built on what I had learned in reading both Salt and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

            I resonated strongly with much of what Campbell Armstrong wrote in I Hope You Have a Good Life. His story recounts how his first wife had given up a baby for adoption during the years before he met her. Having not grown up knowing my father, and especially being part of the family fiction that my mother told the world – that my step-father was my father, something I knew not to be true – I know how it feels not to have the answer to the questions one has concerning his parentage. The Dr. Lauras of this world believe that a parent who is no longer in a child’s life was only a “sperm-donor” or a “womb for rent.” In Campbell’s tale, the daughter who had been given up for adoption is 42 years old when she finally tracks down Armstrong’s ex-wife. Even more poignant is that both mother and daughter are dealing with cancer and are living as far apart as England and Arizona. They were able to spend some time together before the mother succumbed to her cancer.

            Written in the early seventies under the pen name of John Reid, The Best Little Boy in the World is a coming-of-age story that deals with coming to terms with being gay. As I read it, I realized that the author was my contemporary and that we could have been born in the same year. When I finished it, I went online to see if there was any chance that the author was still alive and had revealed his true name. The answer was remarkably easy to find. Andrew Tobias is not only an author of some note (though I had not heard of him); he has published a sequel, which is titled The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up, which I have ordered and a friend will bring with her when she visits in March.

            Right around the time Natalie Goldberg left Brooklyn for suburban Farmingdale, Long Island my family moved from the Bronx to Hicksville, just a few miles away, which gave me some familiarity with the terrain, both topographical and emotional, that she has traveled. I enjoyed her Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, ostensibly a book about writing, but also intertwined with the author’s coming to a renewed awareness about her Jewish identity, the study of Zen Buddhism, and the teaching of writing.

            Peter Hessler wrote River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze while he was in the Peace Corps in China. His stay in China coincided with the death of Deng Xiaoping and with Hong Kong’s being returned to “the Motherland.” He was living near the site of the Three Gorges Dam, a project that will flood more than 1,500 cities, towns, and villages, affecting the lives of some 350 million (!) people living in the Yangtze’s watershed, by the time it is brought to its completion in 2009.

            Catch Me If You Can: The Amazing True Story of the Youngest and Most Daring Con Man in the History of Fun and Profit! details the exploits of Frank W. Abagnale. “Amazing” is right, as he was a sixteen-year-old who was big and mature enough to be able to pass for 26! Geez, when I was 16, I couldn’t even pass for 16½! It’s also amazing how he was able to use his intelligence for criminal purposes. His tale is riveting; I could hardly wait to read about what brazen feat he was going to pull off next! I know I would never be able to accomplish any of his daring ploys: I feel guilty going to use the restroom of a hotel where I’m not registered as a paying customer!