Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Letter For My Father

So, allow me to begin by saying I love my mother. In fact, my sister and dad both tend to think I'm much more like my mom by nature than my dad. Which, is probably a very good thing. But while my base nature I get from my mother my mannerisms, language, and thought process I get from my Dad. Lots of people freak out when someone says they're exactly like their Dad. I think it's a good thing. He is, after all, my hero.

My Dad was the son of a Greek immigrant from the town of Maroni. He spent an early childhood in St. Louis for a bit before traveling around and finally settling in Stillwater, Oklahoma. His father, a man I called Gurney (his real name was Pete), ran a Napa autoparts store. My Dad, his brother, and his sister helped their dad run the store. To this day my Dad uses all the car knowledge he gained to avoid doing any possible work on his car. It's honestly impressive how long dad's truck has lasted.

Not too much is known about his teenage years. He promised to tell me when I was well past my own. My Dad always liked to say his kids would not get away with anything because he knew all the tricks in the book. He never said how he knew them, but my sisters and I have our educated guesses. Rumor has it: my Dad was a hellion.

My Dad. Apparently we look and sound a LOT alike.
He took a full ride to SMU in Dallas to study history and economics for undergrad. He swam on the SMU men's swim team, but really mostly as a relay guy. He would continue to swim for the rest of his life. That's how he met my mother - who did her undergrad at SMU as well, only she was a competitive diver. They were a match made in heaven, except they didn't get together until college was over. My dad went on, after undergrad, to attend SMU Law school. He specialized in criminal defense.

His life after law school is filled with adventures: working for Burleson, Pate, and Gibson, cornering my mom at a party, traveling a little bit, working and swimming with the Masters swim program. He's been extremely lucky. You see, my dad does what he loves for a living. He has lived out the idea that if you do what you love you'll never work a day in your life. Sometimes he has good days and somedays he has bad days. When he has good days he likes to compare himself to an old gunslinger.

He's the rare kind of Dad, I realize, that I want to show off. It's kind of funny because he's still embarrassing and I don't know anyone else who can embarrass me as much as him, but I swear to all my friends that he's a cool dad. He never compromised to be cool either. He may have taken us out to restaurants, coached me in swimming, and heaped praise on me at his office but he was never afraid to have a stern conversation. I remember plenty of times I was reprimanded not only for doing something wrong, but for lying about it. It was the one thing he (and my mom!) would be really upset about. I could do wrong, but if I lied about it I was in way more trouble than the beginning.

Always keep a photo of my fam on the wall here. Sorry you're missing Alex!
He's eternally optimistic. Sometimes my sisters and I wonder if he's not dangerously optimistic. One of the best things he ever did, and one of the reasons me and all my friends love and respect him, was he treated us as equals. Even when I was an eleven year old he always treated me as his equal. He never talked down to me or thought I couldn't handle myself. He was like that with my friends too. When he taught Sunday school classes he would ask us hard questions that we teenagers wanted to be asked. He never pandered to us or tried to lecture us. He never tried to be cool, he just respected our tastes and opinions.

My dad reads an absurd amount. I mean, it's honestly impressive when I think about it. Rooms full of books and so many books my mom goes crazy from time to time. He instilled that love of reading with me and my sisters. At night, when we were young, he would read out loud classics like Frank Herbert's Dune or Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit or the BFG outloud to us. I used to get really mad cause after he finished reading outloud he would read the ending of the book and then just kinda get lost in the book itself. He's a science fiction NUT. He's read tons of Frank Herbert, Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and so much more. He says his only vice is books. You can't fault him for any major thing EXCEPT for his books. He always promised he'd try and keep up with us kids too. He'd read whatever we were reading.

I remember when I was in my senior year of high school. That winter had been especially brutal since there was a very tough breakup I went through. The kind of breakup I had to share with my parents through tears and who, without their love and support, might have affected my year as a whole. It was the State finals for swimming. I went over the events I was supposed to swim with my Dad. He explained to me that in order to get the time I needed for my 100 Back I was going to have to "do something crazy." What did I go do? I hopped in that water, I gave it everything I had. I got my time. When I came back you know what he said?

"I goofed up. Technically you didn't have to do something that crazy, but you did a helluva job!" Classic Dad.

Yeah. He's my idol. He knows a little bit about everything. He's always optimistic. He plays aloof a lot, but he's actually got a plan most of the time. He loves kids of almost all ages. He found his passion and has never stopped doing it. In fact, I've come to realize just how important it is to him that his children pursue their passions as well. Between my sister going to seminary and me serving abroad for a year you would think he'd be frustrated we didn't put our liberal arts degrees to better use but he couldn't be happier (at least I hope so.) He drives my mother and sisters crazy. He always forgets my friends' names and he only knows how to say 'muy abogado' in Spanish. Did you know a family friend of ours in Israel told all his friends: "If you get into trouble in the States, Tom can help you. You call Tom." My Dad's an international lawyer. How cool is that?

In honor of my father I'd like to share some of the things he's instilled in me after all these years:

1. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.
                  No matter what you're doing, at least do it consistently. That way nobody can say you weren't reliable.

2. If you laugh at your own jokes, you'll always have someone who thinks your funny. 

                   He's technically not wrong.

3. Everything is connected and everything has consequences.

4. Dad jokes will never go out of style.

5. It doesn't matter what you believe, a church community is a strong community to grow up in.

6. Honesty (and communication) is key. 

7. 90% of going to college is showing up to class and taking notes. That's all.

8. Stay in school for as long as humanly possible.

9. Some is good, more is better. - Okay, I don't always think this is a good idea. But you should see him come home with groceries.

10. Always invest in people.

He taught me all these things either by saying them out loud or showing me through example. I'll never forget the countless swim practices he's coached me through, all the screenplays he's read, and all the speeches he's given. He'd lecture me on American History the night before AP US History exams. I always like to get people in front of him to see what he thinks. He reads people particularly well (I call it applied empathy.) He's my Dad and I wouldn't be where I am without his guidance. I look back on the opportunities I have and I realize the true depth of my blessing. My Father somehow did just the right amount of work to raise some pretty decent kids, all things considered. Here's to you Dad! I'm sure we'll Skype soon so no need to worry about it.

I love you! I'll see you soon enough!

Your son,

P.S. Mom you're the saving grace for my goofball of a Dad so I owe you just as much as I owe him. Love you!
These are my parents when they were close to my age. Love you guys!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Advocates Efficacy

Like any good Texan I'm incredibly proud of where I'm from. I was born and raised in Dallas. I grew up in the Friday Night Lights football culture. The oversized-mums-sweet-tea-and-pecan-pie culture. We're home to Mathew McConaughey, Beyoncé, Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson, and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin. We invented the margarita machine (you're welcome.) George Bush Jr. spoke at my college graduation ceremony. Whataburger is a State specialty and if you've never been to Bucee's then you've never really seen Texas at it's finest.

I'm proud enough of my heritage to claim ownership of it. By claiming ownership, however, I take responsibility for it's flaws as much as it's perks. That often means I have to explain when news stories pop up featuring discrimination, hate, aggression, or even violence. I have to explain to many people that Texas isn't only what you see in the news. Not all of Texas is represented by it's politicians or it’s businessmen. I have to apologize a lot, but I willingly accept this responsibility.

Michael Crichton once wrote “When we acknowledge a problem we accept responsibility for it.”

By denying a problem exists we aren’t required to address it. That’s exactly the same mindset major corporations prey upon. Climate change naysayers repeat over and over again: “The science is inconclusive.”

Nobody can say oil and gas companies ruin our environment because they never witness it. News may leak every now and then about a horrific spill, but the daily horrors never get noticed. Like Thomas, we have to touch the wounds with our own hands to believe.

Unlike Thomas, however, many of us have seen, but continue to disbelieve. What can we do about an issue as big as our planet? How can one person contribute to ‘defeating’ environmental degradation? That’s the American mindset.

Peruvians live amongst the catastrophic consequences of unchecked mining, oil, and gas operations. Entire tribes fall sick because of runoff into their water source. Major corporations buy up their land, evict them, and leave them with nothing and nowhere to go. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand. I witnessed the kind of desolation and destruction caused solely by these businesses. However bad I could imagine it; it was significantly worse.
This film mentions the Hunt Oil Co. based out of Dallas.

Make no mistake: climate change is real. Global warming is real. It affects all of us daily and even if we can’t see the effects let me assure you: Peru is feeling the heat, acutely. Peru is one of the top countries affected by climate change in the world. It’s fertile jungles, valleys, lakes, and general ecosystem is hurting. As if that wasn’t enough, major companies are exploiting everyone in this country to turn a profit.

Whether it’s the lead-polluted town of La Oroya, the Shawi San Jose’s water source, the mercury poisoning in the Madre de Dios mining area there are catastrophes taking place right under our nose. These aren’t just Peruvian state controlled companies, but businesses from Canada, New York, and even Dallas Texas. So very little of this news reaches American ears, but the legacy of exploitation in Peru goes back millennia and continues to this very day.

My work at Paz y Esperanza involves assisting pueblo leaders get communal land rights so that major companies don’t buy their property for mining or oil extraction. I record interviews with leaders and publish small videos showing their struggle. The Ankash Yaku at Achinamiza, the Shawi San Jose in Barranquitas, the Kopal Sacha in El Dorado, the list goes on and on. Damage is being done outside of the States away from prying eyes in the jungle, the mountains, and the coast.

How can someone who lives here work against something so big like an international oil conglomerate? How can they dedicate their lives to this cause without feeling the least bit pessimistic?

In America, I realized, we would measure our success. We value and weigh the work we’ve done by the projects we’ve finished. I reckon that if you were to tell an American they were going to advocate for more fair trade policies and they were not going to accomplish their goal that person would feel defeated. They might do the work, but there will never be a true sense of accomplishment to what they do. It could disenchant them to their mission and ultimately end their efforts because: “why bother?” When we decide that a cause is lost we give in to apathy. Apathy, then, is our greatest impediment.

Peruvians don’t see it that way. One of the great beauties of Peru is they’re lack of focus on a goal. Peruvians focus much more on the current day. They don’t worry about whether or not they’ll accomplish their goal. They work regardless. I call it ‘staying in the moment.’ It’s almost a childlike mentality (because what child can tell you what they’re going to do a month from now?) Is this not what Jesus taught us? Didn’t he invite the children to join him? He told us we must return to a childlike state if we hope to bring the kingdom of God to Earth.

Matthew 18:1-4New International Version (NIV)
The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said:“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

None of that is to say Peruvians are lazy or don’t have a goal they intend to accomplish. All I’m saying is that Peruvians don’t let the impracticalities of change diminish their optimism for the future. The odds may be severely stacked against them (I have many stories of such cases) but they are going to continue to work until the issue is resolved. They don’t fight to get rid of the darkness. Instead they bring light into this world.

So where do I fit into this battle of light and dark? I come home in two months and yet, just because my YAV year has ended doesn’t mean I stop advocating for reform. Actually, I think my job gets much harder when I go home. Texas isn’t exactly known for its willingness to change. Especially when it comes to Oil and Gas.

designed by I.M. Pei
Before I came to Peru I was fairly indifferent about environmental catastrophe. I once spent a summer working as a glorified secretary for an oil and gas consulting firm. I have family, in Houston, who make their living and provide for their families working for Big Oil. In a subtle twist of irony I went to high school where Exxon Mobil’s former Dallas headquarters is. Oil was not my concern unless the news announced yet another horrific spill in the Gulf Coast. As far as I was concerned it was a necessary evil and that was fine by me.

Now, having flipped my paradigm in ways I’m still trying to understand, I have come to realize several things:

1. Just because we don’t see the damage doesn’t mean it isn’t happening
2. Unchallenged companies will find any way possible to make a profit, and
3. Our planet is suffering from both of these.

How can I say otherwise when I’ve seen tainted rivers firsthand, when I’ve witnessed deforestation in front of me? Better yet: how do I explain that to everyone back home?

There’s a tendency back home to write off any young person with a slightly liberal agenda as ‘youthful naiveté.’ Having just spent a year in South America meeting native tribes in the rainforest is about as stereotypical post-college as it gets. I fear coming home and being written off because my experience conformed to such expectations.

I didn’t request this work. It was assigned to me. I didn’t know anything about pollution’s effects on Amazonian tribes before I came here. I was just a post-college kid looking to grow up a little bit. How do I communicate that to somebody who sees me as ‘just another naïve Millennial’? Did I not flash my credentials enough at the beginning of this piece?

It’s hard to communicate something particularly antithetical to people’s way of living. I understand. Like I said, I have family who make their living working for oil companies. I wouldn’t ask them to quit their jobs to support my cause. What I want to communicate, at the very least, is that the issues here are more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘red’ or ‘blue’ equation.
Of all the things I’ve learned in Peru one of the top things is: embrace complexity. I can’t stress that enough. Living in a cognitive dissonance can prove more fruitful than you imagine.

When we simplify an issue we run the risk of creating more problems. Our ‘solution’ is too simple and has a ripple effect felt in ways nobody can predict. It’s part of what turns Americans off to long-term crises. There’s no easy fix and dedicating our lives to something is no easy task. Thus we become apathetic. Apathy breeds lethargy and lethargy breeds ignorance. How can we truly say we ‘solved’ an issue if all we see are dead ends? We’re overwhelmed by the complexity of issues; especially Oil and Gas’ connections to pollution, climate change, and planet care in general. We simplify to survive.

It’s not comforting to live within a complicated issue. The cognitive dissonance involved with both needing a product and disapproving of the suppliers takes it’s toll on anyone. Except for Peruvians. Peruvians are content to live within this complex paradigm. The mission workers at Paz y Esperanza understand nothing is ever simple with the work they do. The United Hands Network is especially good at living in the complexity.

I don’t advocate a complete cessation of activities. That would be both extremely unlikely and completely unreasonable. The solution to this problem has many layers. Where Americans hope for the quicker answer, Peruvians are content to wait. They’re too busy occupying their immediate moment to choose the short-term band-aid over the long-term surgery. For them, the steps necessary are the steps necessary and to avoid any part of this process only hurts their efforts.

What may seem radical to you is normal to Peruvians. It’s a normal they should not have to occupy or endure, and if there is any help I can offer them then I will. I’ve given ten months of my life not so I could effect a change in this world, but so that I could understand it better. That alone, bears some merit. Peruvians see the merit in that more than most Americans I believe. I’m proud to say they’ve given me a similar vision. I can only hope and pray that I can share this vision with others.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Peace and Hope pt. 6: Miss Pueblo Libre

It was Friday the 13th, normally an unlucky day, I witnessed a truly inspiring event. On that Friday I went with Clara (our sign language teacher) and Erika (our child psychologist) to the home of one our deaf-mute children. Her name is Lesley. The house was ridiculously busy and I mostly sat in the background, watching the proceedings.

You see, 16 days before Friday Lesley decided, without anyone's provocation, to participate in her high school beauty contest. This was, according to Erika, the first time a deaf-mute child had ever tried something like this. So over the course of fifteen days her parents (being of infinite love and support) rented a costume, helped her practice, and hired a choreographer. Meanwhile, Erika and Clara taught her an extra amount of vocabulary to prepare her for the question and answer section.

Friday night the whole house was abuzz. Her father bounced on his feet saying "Tonight! We will win!" in both Spanish and stuttering sign language. Her mom zipped from the kitchen to the living room to Lesley and back. Lesley, for her part, was the calm in the center of this storm.

Happy Dad with Clara our instructor.
An interview with the parents showed they were very proud of her. They hope she wins, but if she doesn't they love her all the same. Erika and Clara told me they would never participate in such an event. It had never occurred to them. "Don't be scared" they advised. "Just by participating you've won."

They didn't need to tell her. I don't think Lesley was scared at all.

It appeared to me she was the school's darling. Lots of students were rushing in backstage before the contest to say they loved her and wished her good luck (in sign language.) She serenely smiled and signed 'I love you' back. She looked distracted, but the reality was: Lesley had her game face on.

The time came for the show to start. They introduced the contestants one by one and when Lesley came on stage we all went crazy. Half of the entire crowd roared. Another girl, Contestant Number Nine, walked the stage and the other half of the crowd roared, All told, there were eleven contestants in total.

Other girls, you could tell, were nervous or hadn't prepared as much. Many times they were off beat or forgot a prepared answer. Many squeaked with stage fright like this was their first time. Number Nine had all the moves down not necessarily from practice, but from experience. Lesley looked as confident as ever.

Team Lesley. Erika on Far R, Clara middle R.
For us, Lesley participating already sent a strong message. It was enough for her teachers, her friends, even her family. Technically there were no stakes for Lesley. She had already accomplished so much. She could stumble and fall on stage, but that wouldn't diminish the fact that everyone that night saw her as just another girl. Not a deaf-mute person. Sending a message wasn't enough for Lesley though. Lesley wasn't just in it to prove a point though. She was in it to win it.

I wasn't privy to the sixteen days of preparation leading up to that Friday, but I imagine they were intense. I could envision Lesley's face scrunched up in concentration as she felt the downbeat or moved her hands repeatedly to mimic a word she was learning. I think of it as the beauty pageant equivalent of a sports training montage - replete with raised fists atop the massive staircase.

Opening Dance
From the moment Lesley walked on stage she owned the show. Other girls were competing. As far as Lesley cared she had already won. You could tell by her walk. Head level, hands on her hips. She never once rushed to hit her mark. She never fumbled with a piece of her costume. She never broke character. If she was off beat she was off beat so confidently I was convinced for a long moment she was right and everyone was wrong. She strutted like a queen and her smile told everyone: I have zero fear.

Call it what you want: hard work, natural talent, or care-free performing. Maybe she was considering a career in beauty pageants. Maybe she was just having too much fun. She didn't just time her walks perfectly, she made everyone wait for her timing. You could say that she had nothing to lose since her message had gotten through. You could say that she did her best and that was more than enough. You could say she felt such love from her community that she never felt like she could fail. You could say growing up with something we call a disability (it's not) predisposed her to pay more attention, focus on visual cues, be aware of her surroundings, and thus gave her an advantage. Whatever it was it sure paid off.

Now none of this is to say the contest wasn't close from my point of view. Number Nine was giving Lesley a run for her money. Number Eleven walked in her traditional costume so well I thought she'd gained the lead. The judges, from my point of view, weren't going to cut Lesley any slack. It was anybody's game.

The contest happened in five sections: 
1. Opening dance 
2. Gala wear
3. Traditional costume
4. Question and Answer
5. Runway Showcase. 

Traditional Costume
For her traditional costume Lesley's mother chose the theme of coffee. It's what the people of Pueblo Libre live off of, thrive off of, and dedicate their lives to. Other girls chose snakes, butterflys, or jaguars as their themes. For gala wear Lesley wore a sparkly teal dress the exact same color that a few others wore except hers flared out at the bottom fringe like a mermaid's tail. The dress was inspired by the rain. Number Nine wore a smoky scarlet and purple dress. No other contestant wore such dark colors. 

The question and answer section was the deciding factor I think. This part weeded out the prepared from the lazy, the confident from the nervous. Each girl had a prepared question and only two minutes to answer. Some managed to answer the question while other's couldn't get past thanking the judges. Number Nine transitioned so smoothly from thanking everyone to answering I didn't even realize she'd gone over time.

Gala Wear
Erika mounted the stage when Lesley's turn came. Erika was permitted to translate.
"What do you think about the effects of having a deaf-mute girl in the contest?" A softball question.
Anyone in Team Lesley (her loyal core group of supporters/mentors) could answer that question with a mild sense of grace.
"By participating I hope to show that deaf-mute people are just as capable as everyone else. We are exactly the same. We don't have a disability and if I can sho that to others then I have succeeded. I also want to show my fellow deaf-mute friends that we can do anything. They don't have to be afraid."

 It was at that moment, as Lesley walked away, everyone in the audience erupted into loud cheering. We were all proud to be on Lesley's side. I genuinely felt sorry for the girl who had to come after Lesley.

When all was said and done I wasn't honestly sure Lesley would win. Number Nine stuck out in all of the events. Number Eleven nailed the traditional costume, but whiffed the question and answer. A few girls had shined in one event or another. All that was left was for the judges to deliberate. It was 12:30 at night. The air was cold and dew had formed on untended surfaces. I had to rub my arms to warm up and rest a bit from filming. My hands wouldn't stop shaking.

We were all pretty tense.
3rd place, Miss Amistad, went to Number Eleven. Cheer! My fingers stayed crossed.

2nd place, Miss Simpatica, went to . . . Number Four! More cheering! I clenched my camera so much it hurt. First place was still open and there were two very clear candidates.

The first two girls tallied points around the two hundred mark.

In 1st place, Miss Pueblo Libre, with a clear lead and a score of over three hundred points was. . .

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Hey all! Sorry for not posting a blog post anytime soon! I've been out on retreat with Jed and Shaina in Huanuco and hiking the Salkantay trail to Macchu Picchu. Soooo, pretty busy.

Before I left though my little sister made a request. She was doing this youth-led worship service for Pentecost and asked me to give a 10-minute video homily. Now, at the time I put it on the back burner so I ended up rushing the project and compiling it one day (more or less.) Suffice to say: I'm not going to be winning a grammy anytime. But, I wanted to share the video with you all. It may not be Pentecost, but I still want to share this message.