Skittles and Fish

Some things stay the same. I believe I’ve mentioned this before. Even though time does the only thing it can, never stopping, always marching on, some things stay the same. In March, I wrote about refugees having become such a hot issue in the furious clamor of our presidential campaign. We have since gone from a fractious and divisive campaign to… well, to… to now. Little has changed.

“… closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. “

In Bulgaria, near the Turkish border on the ragged fringe of the desperate struggle toward Europe, refugee camps are anything but peaceful or hopeful. “Police in Bulgaria have fired tear gas and water cannon at refugees protesting about restrictions on their movement after authorities barred them from leaving the area where they stay pending medical checks.” 1 The article goes on to say that “some 13,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, are currently trapped in the European Union’s poorest country.” Increasingly, Bulgarians are feeling threatened by the presence of refugees in their country. After the riots at the camp, the UN has urged Bulgaria to “improve living conditions… and establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers.” 2

In Germany and other Western European countries, after so famously accepting anyone and everyone for refuge, pressure and tensions are mounting, and accusations escalate. And here in America, in Minnesota, even after the US picks out the best bets by screening refugees while they live in refugee camps for years, some Somali refugee student, no, psychopath, no, radical terrorist, no, I don’t know, (damn, without a label how do I know what to believe about him?) swerves into a crowd and starts attacking people with a knife. The President-elect had an immediate answer, via Twitter, that the guy “should not have been in this country.”

GhotiA poisoned Skittle, that’s the argument. You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. An interesting Forbes article makes the case that, given a sufficiently large bowl, poisoned Skittles are safer than seafood. “The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk.” (Go ahead and read that article. I’ll wait… Oh, all right, here’s the recap. 16.8 billion seafood meals a year, making 589,310 people sick: each meal presents a 0.0035% chance of getting sick.) If you like seafood, you accept the risk. Same concept for traveling: the benefits, for most people, so far outweigh the risk that they travel without dwelling on all the things that could go wrong and result in the worst outcome, which is usually something involving a smoldering tangle of metal and billowing plumes of thick black smoke. I like to travel. Every conceivable action that offers a benefit carries a risk. What to do? We deal with it.

Deal with it. We deal with risk every day, for the good that comes from our decisions.

In Colorado alone, we accept 2,000 refugees a year. That’s more than the per-state average, since the U.S. has taken in about 70,000 a year since 2013 (more before then, with a peak of twice that in 1993). 3 If you don’t want to go to the article, there’s a recap down below in the footnotes. 4 I bring up Colorado because that’s where I live, and because I have a personal interest in the quality of life here. Remember now, these are people who are fleeing from war — real war — and it is with the spirit of the Statue of Liberty that we want to help them. That is the benefit: to be human, to live in consonance with high ideals and a spirit of charity and love (sometimes gratuitously called “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” ideals, charity and love). It’s the same reason we have charities and nonprofits, churches, veterans’ groups and government social services: to help those who need it. For a better quality of life for all.

I do a little work with refugees and asylum seekers in Denver. I have met people from Somalia, Rwanda, Burma, Nepal, Cuba, Congo-Kinshasa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and yes, Syria. These are people who fled with or without their families from terrorism, war, torture, bombs, gunfire, rocket attacks. Some were threatened with death, or had relatives killed, for cooperating with the U.S. Most have been stuck in refugee camps for two years or more, some as long as 18 years. In my mind I have run two scenarios for how they are treated and how it affects the way they will integrate into our society and contribute positively to it. One is to isolate them and keep them apart from the rest of us, in hopes that they will not be a danger to our schools and communities. Scowl at them in the grocery store, spray-paint messages on their doors, throw rocks. What the heck, tear gas and water cannons. The second way (you might guess) is to see that they learn our language and get job training so they can start working their way to a useful and rewarding life. I’ve thought about which way will make them better neighbors.

It’s kind of like being careful what fish you eat, and how they’re prepared. If I’m going to eat seafood, after all, I want it to be good.

I Am Alive

Two thousand miles across the breadth of Turkey from Bulgaria and neighboring Greece lies the small country of Armenia. Small now, but it used to be larger. I marveled, a few years ago in my Christmas letter, about the desperation that drove people to travel half that far, from Syria across Turkey toward Bulgaria and Greece as refugees, fleeing war and destruction.

When I first came to Bulgaria to work, and was living with a host family during training, I met someone in the weekly market who was from Armenia. I remarked to my host mother, Krasimira, that I didn’t know there were Armenians in Bulgaria. I learned two new words in her response: Armentcité sa vsiakadé. “The Armenians are everywhere.” She told me they had been chased out of their land, and many killed, during the time of the Ottoman Empire — though she called it, as all Bulgarians did from their historical viewpoint, the Turkish Slavery. Memories are long in that part of the world.

[Bulgaria] was throbbing with history, alternately a source of fierce pride and worn-out, tired, hopeless resignation. “Five hundred years under Turkish slavery” was something every Bulgarian would tell you about, even though it ended in 1878. It was as if it had gone on until yesterday, and until that moment had been a personal burden in everyday life. The fifty years under Soviet control were another burden, with old memories still haunting the land.
     — Breeze, p. 2

i am alive posterNow, up to date, I’ve been in rehearsals for a show. I’m singing in the chorus of a musical. It’s a dramatic musical, not the fluffy kind that comes to mind from my youth when musicals were things like Gene Kelly Singin’ in the Rain, or South Pacific with its Happy Talk and Nothin’ Like a Dame, and oh, Wouldn’t it Be Loverly. Everything loverly, just loverly. A Spoonful of Sugar! That too. Aww, Edelweiss. Songs so sweet and loverly they brought tears to people’s eyes. This one, the one I’m involved with, is a drama, or rather a dramatic musical. It brings tears too. It tells why “the Armenians are everywhere.”

The lyrics, by Emmy® Award winning composer Denise Gentilini and singer-songwriter Lisa Nemzo, pull no punches. Part of the story happens in a refugee camp in Greece after forced marches through Turkey, some through the Syrian desert, some by overcrowded boats across the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Imagine, refugees overwhelming Greece as a choke point, and spreading all over the world.

I mentioned the theme of the show to someone, and met a blank look. Genocide? Armenia? No, never heard about it. You mean genocide, like the Holocaust? Yes, like that. Genocide, the deliberate attempt to exterminate a defined group. From genus (Gr.) race or kind + cida, cidium (L.) killing. It’s a made-up word, a linguistic bastard forced together by an academic to describe what happened to the Jews. The word was exemplified, before it was invented, by what happened to the Armenians. In 1915 the world stood by with eyes averted, and let it happen. In 1939, on deciding he could get away with invading Poland and systematically killing its citizens without mercy, Adolph Hitler cited a precedent: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” No one would remember. He counted on it.

The performance in Denver is one night only, this Friday, April 29 2016. It is a significant piece of work, compelling, eye-opening, musically awe-inspiring. With much more to it than the grim underpinnings I’ve already told you, it’s a love story and a triumph of the spirit of those who survived. Tickets are $55 and $75 plus a service fee. Buy tickets here. Tell me you bought a ticket after reading this and I’ll pay your service fee. The next stop for the show is the big city — the production is heading to LA to go for the big time.

Someone has to remember.

Nothing More Than Nothing

It’s March, and in Colorado it’s snowing today! We had a sunny 73-degree day yesterday (23°C) and now there’s over a foot of fresh new snow on the ground. It’s still piling up as the daylight starts to fade. I’ve been warm inside, enjoying the luxury of seeing the beauty of it without having to be somewhere else. It makes me appreciate how much I like to be where I am.

I love the snow! The kid in me remembers the excitement, the delight of running in it, slipping and falling and sliding in it, eating it, throwing it, and the steamy wool smell of warming up after playing in it. As a grownup in my working years I lived in warm, sunny places — Texas, Thailand, Taiwan, and Southern California — until Stormy and I retired from regular work and went to Bulgaria as Peace Corps volunteers. We were so glad to get reacquainted with seasons! The sheer delight of seasonal changes included extremes of weather and temperature that we had not felt in years. It awakened those childhood memories for both of us. When we moved to Colorado a few years later we came into the realization that it’s something that we love. Change.

We’ve seen a lot of change in our lives. (I know, you don’t want me to start with the “When I was a kid” stories.) I went to a panel discussion about climate change last night, and a friend of mine has written a book on the matter. Harlow Hyde, served with us in Bulgaria. His book is titled Climate Change, of all things.1 Harlow is a numbers guy, and he has a serious background as a student of weather trends. He backs up his thesis with solid facts, and an engaging sense of humor. He rigorously lists all the big factors of climate, including the anthropogenic one (that’s us!) He lists and evaluates various links between human activity and rising global temperatures. After all, every single one of us little heat engines spend our lives turning food into energy, throwing off heat all the time! Then there’s the way we burn stuff, move stuff around, and make stuff out of other stuff. Just a little bit of heat from each activity, each individual one of us making hardly enough to matter. (He repents, actually, for his part in this travesty.) Well, I don’t want to give away the plot and you should really read it yourself. It’s an excellent and well-researched piece of work.

And politics — talk about change! What, are there changes in the country? Um, yes. What happened to Hope and Change? We’re seeing Panic and Change! Frenzy and Change! Fear and Change! But change, as always, is the constant. We live in it, react to it, and make it happen — or, depending on the subject, try to keep it from happening. Ha! Might as well try to keep the sea from rising.

Take closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. And I know other people who call that kind of work, helping those people settle in America, dangerous, foolhardy, even treasonous. We can’t know they won’t bring their wars here, they say, and turn on us. They’ll bring their laws with them. They’ll take our jobs from us. Our economy can’t bear the burden. We can’t bear the burden.

snow treeToday’s snowfall is a burden on the trees. It’s heavy and wet, as is normal for snows this late in the season, so I put on my big-boy boots and went out with a long stick to knock the big fat clumps off some of the branches that were sagging heavily under the weight. We’ve had branches, big ones, break off with that kind of load. I couldn’t reach all of them that needed it, but it was the lower ones anyway that were reaching out farther, straining and nearly defeated under the heaviest loads. Needless to say, they were greatly relieved.

I thought of a little story about snowflakes. I read it as part of a 50th Anniversary memorial ceremony a few years ago, for Peace Corps volunteers who had died in service. It was called Nothing More Than Nothing.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

  — from New Fables, by Kurt Kauter (1913-2002)2

One more. Perhaps.