Friday, August 29, 2014

The Number One Thing I Learned in Ghana

Before I set out for Ghana the first time nearly five years ago, my wife Wendy gave me two pieces of advice: 1) Stay open, without preconceptions; 2) Realize that you will learn and receive more than you will teach or give.  As usual, she was right.

What I learned in Ghana started to change my life in small and then large ways.  If I had to boil all the insights and realizations down to a single point, it would be this: life is very difficult, but that's OK.

In the U.S., most of us are raised to expect a pretty easy life, even to feel entitled to it.  We are therefore often surprised and bitter when life's inevitable problems and heartaches arise.  The great majority of Ghanaians, by way of contrast, assume that life is a struggle.  This assumption leads to a sense of gratitude for even life's small gifts, and life's challenges drive people to God and each other for comfort.

As I began to realize that the proper attitude toward life is gratitude rather than resentment and that accomplishments and hardships are to be shared rather than celebrated or endured on one's own, a whole new world of possibilities unfurled.  What if our lives are not some sort of entitlement to be defended, but rather a gift to be spent for and enjoyed with others?

So Yo Ghana! heads off for Ghana on Saturday knowing that at least some of our many and detailed plans are bound to be amended or discarded in the face of unforeseen problems but also that our month there will bring unpredictable joys and innumerable friendships.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'll Be Missing My Wendy

With just three days to go until Brando and I leave for Ghana, this blog will soon be filled with photos of dedicated teachers and enthusiastic students from across that joyful nation.  Indeed, a few nights ago when I told Brando of how challenging it had been to find a quiet place to record video interviews in Ghana schools two years ago, he replied, "it's hard to find a quiet place in the entire country!"

But before that chapter starts, I want to tell you about my amazing life partner who encouraged and pushed me to help start this young organization and who has fully supported my donating so much time and money to it.

Wendy has blown my socks off ever since she warmly welcomed me into the house she shared with her room mates in SE Portland nearly twenty-four years ago, when I was working on my dissertation.  She is the kindest and most generous person I know, relentlessly optimistic, supportive, and caring.  I can't imagine a better life partner, and for all the Yo Ghana! teachers and supporters who may run across this blog, please know that much of whatever success we have had and will have is because of her.

And if you see me driving in Ghana, please don't tell her!

Monday, August 18, 2014

David on The Learning Channel Wednesday Night

I'll be one of the historians interviewing Kelsey Grammer on the Learning Channel's "Who Do You Think You Are" show this coming Wednesday night at 9:00.  And then there are bound to be many re-runs.

I hadn't met a celebrity before, let alone sat down and talked with one about her or his ancestors and how to make sense of their lives, so it was very interesting.

And I had the pleasure of honoring Rick Harmon, a dear friend who passed away much too young, by telling Mr. Grammer how much Rick loved his work.  Rick was the long-time editor of the Oregon Historical Quarterly and a loyal and valuable ally to most anyone in the field.  Rick loved the characters that Kelsey Grammer played, men much like himself--smart and often melancholy, but determined to make a contribution in a world that often didn't seem to make sense.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Helon Habila's Measuring Time

I just had the great pleasure of reading Helon Habila's Measuring Time.  Set in post-independent Nigeria, the novel traces the life of a sensitive twin brother as he comes of age.

Habila approaches his subject with a realistic yet generous and positive tone.  The protagonist and his friends and family struggle with corruption on many levels.  Political campaigns are shallow personality contests.  Politicians are leeches.  An effective school is shut down to make a political point, and the children have no place else to go.

But Measuring Time features a protagonist who learns from his brother to stand for something, and many other people in the book live that way, too.  This sort of life brings vulnerability, pain, often suffering; but it is the only way to live.  As his uncle, who is in his seventies, puts it to him when he persists in trying to find a way to re-open the school: "This is life.  There's nothing more.  The trick is never to give up."

Measuring Time is a thoroughly African book.  So much of what Americans read or watch about Africa has little to tell us about Africans.  A few white people appear in the book, but they are neither saints nor sinners.  Most important still, they are very much in the background.  For those of us raised on Tarzan and his legion of successors, from Peter Beard's the End of the Game to Meryl Streep's Out of Africa, understanding Nigeria or the rest of the continent requires a healthy dose of books like this one.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Contradictions of Youth Soccer

A few nights ago we had a little end-of-the-summer party for the soccer team that my son plays on--and that I'm the manager for.

Now that Peter is down to one year to go in high school, the flaws of organized youth soccer seem more and more manifest to me.  Rumor has it that John Calvin arrived at his theology of the utter depravity of humans after observing parents at youth soccer games--though experience with church politics may have sufficed to drive him to such a pessimistic view of human nature.

Yet the great majority of us at the PCU (Portland City United) party were happy.  The  '96 teams are coached by two men of very high character, Tim and Travis, and we have benefited by being overlooked by the more intense parents and players.  We have therefore attracted players who love the game and enjoy each others' company.  There's very little drama among players or parents over playing time or who is on the "A" team or the "B" team. Our players routinely put school before soccer.  They aren't all warming up one hour before the game starts.  The coaches discourage players from playing when they are hurt, even if it's a big game.  They don't yell at each other when things are going poorly.  Those who could play for "elite" clubs stick with us because they enjoy playing with their friends.

Not only do our players seldom burn out, their unselfish, low-pressure, team-oriented approach to the game enables them to often beat or tie the elite, teams full of players--and parents--who are much more ambitious.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dogs, Blackberries, and Homeless Men

While walking back from taking our dog ,Harley, to his weekly playgroup, I spied a neglected blackberry bush to he side of our local school and found several ripe ones--and was reminded once again of what a bizarre relationship I have with nature, money, and my own history.

We had a succession of dogs and plenty of blackberries when I was growing up in the late 1950s through the mid-1970s in rural Clatsop County.  Most of our dogs wandered off.  One was hit and killed by a logging truck.  They all got plenty of exercise without us sending them to a play group, so their social skills were rough, and their lives weren't exactly sheltered.  (Come to think of it, this description also fits the boys of that time and place, one of whom hanged himself, and two of whom were soon sent to Maclaren's School for Boys.  But most of the rest of us took care of ourselves pretty well.)

As for the blackberries, some of my earliest memories are of spending hours at our extensive blackberry bushes, filling silver buckets and my belly with the dark fruits.  You could sell the berries to a buyer at Miles Crossing for what even then seemed like a small amount of money for all the work it took.  Now, unless I find a neglected bush, I pay what probably amounts to a dime a berry at our hip little local grocery story.

Outside New Seasons Grocers, homeless men sell newspapers for $1.00 each, the price of about 10 frozen blackberries, or the equivalent of about 10 minutes of Harley's play time at his doggy day care.

When I ponder these incongruities, I think there is a very good chance I'll be spending eternity in hell.  And I wonder what the grandmother I never met, who left school in 4th grade and died young, in the 1920s, would make of this life.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reflections on the World Cup in Ghana and the U.S.

Ghana and the U.S. have very different reactions to how their national teams did in the World Cup.

For Ghana, the "Black Stars" are the source of great pride.  Two years ago a very deferential university student became expansive when our conversation shifted to soccer.  "In that sport, we are the big brother, and you are the little brother," he enthused.  "We always beat you."  In school yards all over Ghana, like the one picture here, boys dream of leading the Black Stars to international glory.

Of course that didn't happen this time around, as the Black Stars compounded poor performances against the U.S. and Portugal with bickering with the coach and reports of corruption off the pitch.  Several opinion makers have identified "indiscipline" as the key problem, which commentators link to the broader failings of youth in general and politicians in particular.  The national team's shortcomings prompt a sort of national soul searching.

The U.S. not only beat Ghana; it advanced out of the group stage and put up a good fight against two teams that were clearly much better--Germany and Belgium.  People who follow the U.S. team closely are generally pleased.  But more casual fans are irritated that the U.S. is still so far behind so many teams.  Why is it, they wonder, that the U.S. can field a military about the size of the rest of the world put together, dominate sports such as basketball and American football, then be such a minor player in the world's most celebrated sports event?

I am sure that this irony is not lost on Latin Americans.  I have been especially intrigued by the American fan who goes to matches in Brazil dressed up like Teddy Roosevelt, the quintessential racist and vulgar American expansionist.  Given the wide gap between the state of soccer in Brazil and the U.S., I suspect that  if the actual TR were somehow pulled out of the grave and restored to life he would stay away from soccer.  As a commentator on a sports radio station put it: soccer can't be that important if we aren't much good at it.  The rest of the world cannot help but smile.