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Jogs of shame

Elijah and I are walking to the gym. This is a sentence I have never uttered before. Every piece of it feels foreign. A few years ago, I was talking to my friend Katherine about how at home a morning swim makes me feel, and she interrupted me amusedly: “You … work out? I never pictured you as working out.” I never did either. I loved to swim, but swimming was not “working out”  in my mind, and “working out” was not something I associated with myself or to which I aspired. I blame my childhood in Greece, where–between the complete lack of sidewalks and seemingly collective disregard for the state of our arteries–nobody ever seemed to jog back then. My mother’s sense of exercise extended to imitating the aerobics segment of morning television programs that self-professedly catered to housewives. On the screen would be a supermodel in Jane Fonda socks, counting “and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4” while gracefully swinging long limbs everywhere. Across the screen, my petite mother in her leggings-worn-as-pants (in an era …

Hugging strangers

2004 was the summer of hugging strangers, in the country in which “don’t talk to strangers” was something Americans said in the movies, and not a dictum by which to live. Then, at least. On the special Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the Champions League games would take place, Ajax would face Juventus, Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos would make the otherwise bored Greek sports commentators jump out of their seats, and-once in a blue moon-the odd Greek team would qualify only to lose 5-1 to a Norwegian soccer club none of us had ever heard of. On those Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we would get to order pizza, stay up past our bedtimes, and gather around the TV to listen, almost with worship, to a few bars of the Champions League theme song blare through the screen. The commentators always said “we” were outclassed, then proceeded to raise “our” hopes that maybe Olympiakos or Panathinaikos or occasionally AEK would surprise us all, quickly followed by an all-knowing proclamation that nobody ever seriously thought “we” could compete in …

Reconstructing the everyday

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Greek, I spend a lot of my time thinking about debt. The debt in question at the moment is a narrative one. Is there a shelf life to the stories we haven’t told, but wish we had? Is it best to consider them told, wipe the slate clean, and start the new story right where we are? I have also been thinking about our capacity to write. As I have learned this year, I can produce words, hundreds of words, thousands of them, almost on command (and caffeine). But I can only produce one type of thousands of words at a time. When my capacity to write is entirely consumed by footnotes, the more reflective, personal words do not flow. And thus this space has been gathering cobwebs, as I have been caught between hesitancies: I am hesitant to write the this-is-what-I-had-for-lunch posts, orthe my-life-is-sparklier-than-yours posts. In many senses, this has been a time of constants: I am still relearning how to walk. I am still recovering, still grieving.  I am …

Self-reflection and failure in academia

On Friday, Nicholas Kristof published a column titled “Professors, we need you!,” in which he argued for the need to make research more accessible and relevant to the general public. While his point on relatable, open research is well-taken, Kristof drew heat from a rank of academics who have been attempting to make their fields more accessible than they have been for decades. One of the more salient critiques, titled “Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!” is at the Washington Post, while others are available at Duck of Minerva and the incredibly titled Mischiefs of Faction. The response that most resonated with me is by Erica Chenoweth at Political Violence at a Glance. I agree with the critics who have pointed out that Kristof has not acknowledged some of the steps social/political science have taken to relay their research and findings to the general public, but I still think there is room for self-reflection on academic conversations in slightly different terms than the ones in which Kristof casts the issue. On the same day as Kristof …

A fall diary of the moments in between

If this fall were to have a narrative arc, it would read like a bibliography full of texts on narratives, memory, and patterns of violence, with titles like Killing Civilians and Precarious Life and Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community.  James Dawes, whose own book Evil Men has also dominated my thoughts and research this fall, speaks of the moments in between. Dawes and his team, consisting of a photographer and a translator, interviewed convicted war criminals who committed atrocities in the second Sino-Japanese war. He had the following to say about the moments in between the interviews and, while he is referring to interviews and field work in situations of mass atrocities, his words also ring true of the moments next to those consumed by research and thinking about mass atrocities: “I don’t understand how to put these things next to each other. It is like somebody has taken a crowbar and pried open the seams of the everyday, so that the evils we cover over, block out, are now suddenly there, implacably next to …

Our other selves: From the field to graduate school

When the deep breaths came more easily: Day 3 in Massachusetts after returning from Bogotá. Returning home is a process of memory and activating the muscle of remembering to be here in Boston is more strenuous than I had recalled. I used to have dreams about Boston fall. In the years that I lived in deserts or straddled the Equator, cherishing the eternal warmth and sunshine, I missed the crispness of a September morning. This September, with my feet planted on top of crunching leaves, I struggle to feel anchored in place; almost ironically, I am having trouble feeling my feet on the ground. Leading a life of perpetual transitions allows one to develop a strange set of expertise, of the kind that cannot quite be called a skill or a desirable trait. Pack a carry-on bag in under five minutes. Emerge on the other side of the world and find your bearings sooner than one would expect. Learn to love from a distance, and love well. ‘Being good at distance’ is not a title …

Field notes from Colombia: Farewell

  There are those moments on the Avenida Circunvalar when the clouds lift momentarily and the whole world is flooded with light. In those seconds, the weight of my work here lifts too — momentarily, as though coaxed to evaporate by a patch of blue sky and impeccable clouds. When I think of joy in Colombia during this field project, I think of a taxi zooming through mountain turns on the Circunvalar. I will miss the conversations with the taxi drivers. A few remain at the top of my mind: The woman who was navigating the city on her first day as a taxista. Perhaps a place is truly a home when you give your brand new taxista directions 100 blocks North and reassure her that you will neither be lost nor be run over by a bus. When she gets terrified, you encourage her to turn up the Carlos Vives bellowing from the radio. If these field notes had a soundtrack, it would be a marriage of Carlos Vives and Fonseca. Other taxistas would …

Field notes from Colombia: Courage

I routinely inhabit the space between courage and paralyzing fear. It is in conversations with other professionals who work in conflict zones, tinged with bravado and a veneer of fearlessness, that I realize just how extensive my own list of fears is. Between July 2009 and July 2010, I boarded 43 flights in and out of conflict-affected areas, rendering my carbon footprint equivalent to the size of an elephant’s paw (if not a whole elephant). I stared at the wing to assess the stability of each and every one of those flights almost the entire time, as though staring at the wing could prevent pilot error or the twists of fate that result in plane crashes. More than once, I have considered that I have too many fears, that I scare too easily and too often, to remain in my chosen line of work. *** “You are going to die.” That is the face of a threat: chillingly concise. Sometimes it arrives via text message and sometimes it is on a flyer slipped under your …

On going home, by Estefanía Marchán

Estefanía Marchán is a talented writer, terrific colleague, and cherished friend. She spent part of her summer in Ecuador, from where she shares some reflections. Plaza de San Francisco, Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Estefanía Marchán. Yesterday I saw my mother in the face of a woman on the street. I should say, rather, I saw her in the skin of a woman on the street. She, the woman with my mother’s skin, was walking next to me down Amazonas. Where we were headed was unimportant. Only her profile was visible: a patch of translucent freckled skin stretching back like ripples on a lake. The rest of her remained concealed. She wore oblong shades and had her hair pinned back. Sylvia, I thought. Her ghost. Two months in Ecuador and I am becoming superstitious. Memories turn to visions that haunt this place. My mother is on the street, alone, black-clad and elegant at her age. Jorge, her father, drinks dark rum on a stoop, surrounded by other young military men. Lola, my father’s mother, sits next …

Field notes from Colombia: Nostalgia

This field notes dispatch was compiled, as most honest thoughts are, through excerpts of emails to loved ones. It was inevitable. Do not even pretend to be surprised. A few times a month, I publish a column at The Equals Record titled “Eternally Nostalgic” and this weekend I have lived up to its namesake. A recent New York Times article asked “What is nostalgia good for?” Starting from the premise that it used to be considered “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause,” the article sought to debunk myths surrounding nostalgia and illuminate its positive sides. An unintended benefit of nostalgia is that it, apparently, raises your body temperature, making you feel warmer. In search of warmth, I write to you from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I arrived in this country to find myself taken aback by the July chill of Bogotá and the coziness of outdoor space heaters. This weekend I fled to Cartagena, in search of fuller, humid air and warmth. If Cartagena were a color, it would be a …