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Archive for February, 2012

I finished the book When Helping Hurts and have been thinking about how Americans so often  swoop into a third world country or a poor neighborhood and try to “fix” things according to our own standards, which undermines the talents and drive of the people who live there and reinforces our own mistaken sense of superiority.  We should try to partner with local resources and listen to what people actually need.  We should try to make lasting changes that our motivated from within the community rather than imposing quick changes from outside the community that probably won’t last.  We should remember that being poor involves so much more than just lacking the basics that a human needs to survive – it involves feelings of powerlessness and shame and fatalism.  We can’t just throw money at those in poverty and expect things to improve.  Often there are systemic factors like racism that contribute to poverty.  This book emphasizes respecting local culture and working in partnership with the poor in a way that affirms their own skills and brings about long-lasting and organic change.

Even though the ideas in When Helping Hurts are profound, it was difficult to read to the end because of the dry writing style.  I persevered and have since been thinking about the difference between helping people and enabling people.  The way I enable certain people is similar to the way many people mistakenly try to alleviate poverty, and reading about guidelines for dealing with the poor made me think about applying these ideas to my own relationships.  (It sounds like maybe I should’ve read a self-help book this week instead of a book on the poor, but at least I learned something!)  The authors provide 3 guidelines when someone comes to you with a crisis:

(1) Determine if there is an authentic crisis at hand.  “If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?”

(2) To what extent is the person responsible for their crisis?  If you help them, will they miss out on the chance to learn from the consequences of their actions?  (They note that you should pay attention to systemic factors that can cause crisis and not be punitive.)

(3) Can the person help themselves?  If they can help themselves, doing it for them would undermine their confidence in their agency.  “Avoid paternalism.  Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”

I am often bossy.  I take charge of situations and make things happen, but that means that I sometimes steamroll over people and don’t give them the chance to develop important skills.  I needed to hear someone tell me to avoid paternalism this week, because that’s a character flaw that I struggle with.  At work, my instinct is to avoid taking the time to train someone for a new task when it’s faster for me to do it myself.  Instead this year I have been making an effort to mentor other people (those 2.5 people who have less experience than I do…) even when it takes time, because it’s the right thing to do and it’s actually more efficient for me in the long term.  At home, I have consciously been including my husband* more in the process of dealing with our bank, because it’s important that both spouses be partners about finances.

I had begun this process of stepping back and letting other people learn how to fish rather than just fishing for them sometime last year, but reading this book gave me words to describe what I am doing.  I am avoiding paternalism; I am affirming the agency of other people.

*I am grateful that my husband has not decided to make me demonstrate more agency in processes like emissions inspections because it is important for both spouses to be conversant about  car maintenance.  Luckily, he has not read When Helping Hurts and probably never will.

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I just read the best article on immigration and the welfare state: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/02/griswold_on_imm.html.

The point that immigrants work hard and contribute to our economy absolutely resonates with the illegal immigrants that I know personally:  The typical foreign-born adult resident of the United States today is more likely to participate in the work force than the typical native-born American. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2011), the labor-force participation rate of the foreign-born in 2010 was 67.9 percent, compared to the native-born rate of 64.1 percent. The gap was especially high among men. The labor-force participation rate of foreign-born men in 2010 was 80.1 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than the rate among native-born men.  Labor-force participation rates were highest of all among unauthorized male immigrants in the United States. According to estimates by Jeffrey Passell (2006) of the Pew Hispanic Center*, 94 percent of illegal immigrant men were in the labor force in the mid-2000s.

Also, a higher proportion of immigrants is not actually associated with larger welfare expenditures:  The 10 states with the largest percentage increase in foreign-born population between 2000 and 2009 spent far less on public assistance per capita in 2009 compared to the 10 states with the slowest-growing foreign-born populations–$35 vs. $166 (see Table 1). In the 10 states with the lowest per capita spending on public assistance, the immigrant population grew 31 percent between 2000 and 2009; in the 10 states with the highest per capita spending on public assistance, the foreign-born population grew 13 percent (U.S.
Census 2011, NASBO 2010: 33).

My husband was in the US illegally for 10 years before his status was “adjusted” and he received a green card.  In that time, he paid taxes using a tax ID number consistently.  Many people believe that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes, but in fact if they want to have their status adjusted in the future they need to prove that they paid taxes consistently for years.  Other people believe that illegal immigrants cannot pay taxes, but the IRS will issue a tax ID number to anyone without them needing to prove legal residency. Once the person files their taxes with this number, the social security administration sends them a letter saying, “We don’t have this number on record and cannot apply the earnings that you made to your social security account….”    There is no follow-up to these letters because it is understood that the IRS has given someone without a social security number a way to pay their taxes and that this revenue is good for the government.  These social security earnings are paid by an immigrant who may never be able to claim them when they retire if their status is not adjusted, and the immigrants do it anyway on the chance that someday they may be able to live here legally.

During the years that my husband was in this country illegally, he built a business that employed several people during the economic downturn.  Not only did he provide full-time employment to other people who do contracting, but he also purchased materials and gave work to other small business that were involved in the jobs that he completed.   He mentored other young men who came to America seeking to better their fortunes.  He taught them skills so they could become contractors, walked them through the process of getting a tax ID number, and introduced them to clients.  His community has strong social ties that help keep people off of welfare and that support young people until they learn a skill and can stand on their own two feet.  His efforts to guide these young men are not unique since his culture values family and community so strongly.

The people I know that are here illegally are some of the hardest working people that I know.  They make their communities a better place to live by providing job opportunities and mentoring those who are less fortunate.  They don’t turn to welfare to get by – many of them are not even eligible to receive welfare.  They contribute to our economy and they pay taxes!

*I would love to work for the Pew Hispanic Center.  Love, love, love.

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Will God forget to bless us?

If God is merciful, why do we pray?  Psalm 86:15 says, “1But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”  Later in Isaiah 49:14-15 when the Israelites lament that God has forgotten them, he reassures them: 14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,  the Lord has forgotten me.”  15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”  If God will not forget to show us compassion, then why do we have to intercede in prayer for ourselves and others?  Can we change his mind if he was not initially planning to be compassionate?

Can we change God’s mind?

If God is infallible, why do we pray?  Indeed, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 calls us to “pray without ceasing,”  to a God that we are told in James 1:17 does not change, that is “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”   On the other hand, in Exodus 32:9-14, after the Hebrew people make sacrifices to idols, God tells Moses that he intends to destroy them, but then repents when Moses pleads with him:

9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”  11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

This passage suggests that maybe we pray because we can change God’s mind, but that contradicts the steadfast nature of God that is mentioned elsewhere in the bible.  The only answer I know to this issue is that prayer changes me.  It makes me calmer, and still, and I feel like sometimes I hear guidance from him.  It brings me into a relationship with God because there is no relationship without communication.  These are good reasons to pray – peace, wisdom, communication.  But if my prayer doesn’t change anything except my own perspective, why do we pray for other people?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  I prefer to think that my God is so great that there is nothing that I could say that would change his mind, but then I’m not sure why I intercede in prayer for others.  I just do it anyway.

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Poem after repeated failure

I’m trying to work up the courage to post some of the bits of fiction that I experiment with.  I think the  most I’m ready for is a poem, so I’ll start without something short I wrote in 2009:

I’ve been thinking a lot

About grains of sand

About concentric circles

And self made plans

About sea shells

And the curve of my ear

About me being tired

And you being near

About despair and drinking until I die

About the blood in my veins

And the traitor inside

I’ve been thinking a lot

About the end of days

About arriving at your throne

With nothing but grace

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I’ve been reading a very interesting book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor that is about how our efforts to help the poor often make situations worse rather than helping them to escape poverty.  This book focuses on the debilitating impact of many short term mission trips that churches undertake and many ministries that churches provide to the poor, as well as misconceptions about what it is to be poor and what causes poverty.

Reading this book is causing me to re-think many beliefs that I’ve never questioned.  For instance, if a homeless person on the street asks me for money, almost 100% of the time I give them something.  I do this because several verses in the bible make it clear that we should share with those who don’t have much when we do have enough, like:

1 John 3:7 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Proberbs 3:28  Do not say to your neighbor,
   “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
   when you already have it with you.

There are a lot more verses like this in the bible and a lot of people will immediately ask if I’ve also literally sold all my possession and given them to the needy as Jesus mentions in Luke 12:33.  I have not, but I think it’s a very common condition (affliction?) for Christians to pick and choose which bible verses they will interpret literally and which were dependent on the context or perhaps mistranslated over time.

I believe when I die that I will see Jesus and we will talk about my life.  I want him to say that I did a good job, and I don’t want to have to answer to him for the times that I turned away from someone in need.  When my friends argue that these homeless people are just going to buy drugs or alcohol, I always comment that if I were homeless I might want to do that, and that it’s really not my business what they buy with it.  It’s only my business whether I turned away from someone who was hungry, and ultimately I’ll answer for that someday.

This book is making me think about whether my responsibility to the poor involves something different than giving them cash and turning away when they may be stuck in situations where money isn’t really what they need.  As Americans, we often throw money at problems we don’t understand.  I’m not sure yet how my interactions with the homeless are going to change, and in the meantime I am still giving them cash, but I’ll update you when I finish the book.

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I got an interesting comment from CM in response to my post on linguistic prejudice, below:

I think you’ve left out the fact that your native dialect of English is virtually identical with Standard English, so you’re approaching this problem as an outsider. Also, we correct kids behavior all the time based on our fear that others will judge them. I bet you don’t think twice about telling him to stand up straight or stop slouching. What if there were a community of people that identified as slouchers? And they had an army and a flag? Just like there’s nothing inherently special about Standard English, why assume that there’s something inherently special in Spanish-English or Peruvian Spanish?

I think kids his age are a little young to explain the “why” of what’s going on. Maybe you should continue to correct his English and when he becomes a teenager explain why Standard English is no more special than the language he speaks at home. At the end of the day it’s going to be up to him what language he uses at work, just like it’ll be up to him how he combs his hair or what clothes he wears in public (I notice your conscience doesn’t bother you when he wears American clothes in public instead of traditional Andean village attire).

Yes, my native dialect of English is very close to Standard, but there are several changes I make to conform to “professional” English.  I avoid ending sentences with an upward lilt because it sounds uncertain (to men?)  in the workplace.  I avoid using the word “just” or exclamation points in emails or other language that downplays my position as an authority figure.  I don’t use terminology that would identify me as young for a project manager like “sweet.”  I make several conscious changes to my natural variety (young and female) to sound more “professional” (middle-aged and male).

Additionally, my brother-in-law wouldn’t naturally wear Andean garb, but he does naturally speak a variety of Spanish-influenced English.  I’m not going to force him to be more traditionally Peruvian than he is, but there is a sense in which I am standardizing his dialect in opposition to his Peruvian heritage.  I like your point about the community of slouchers.  My background in linguistics makes me sensitive to linguistic hegemony, when in truth we crush children’s eccentricities all the time in an effort to make them more acceptable to society and more likely to succeed.   This seems more benign to me when they are behaviors that are not associated with a cultural identity, but you are correct that a cultural identity is just a set of behaviors backed up by a flag.

It is true that there isn’t much utility in talking about this issue with him now, particularly since he is bored by discussing language and the languages he speaks.  I think the most important thing is for me to refrain from poisoning his brain with ideas like, “People will think he’s poor!”  Hopefully later on we can have the meta discussion about language and the beauty of variety, and in the meantime I can refrain from filling his brain with ideas about language as a marker of socioeconomic position.

At the core of this issue is the notion that I don’t think any variety of language is superior to another and that we should not have to suppress our natural variety to succeed.  Despite believing this to be right and true and knowing that change will not happen until people are willing to speak in different varieties at work, I choose not to do so.  I also choose to standardize my brother-in-law’s dialect.  Apparently I think linguistic tolerance is an excellent idea, but not one that I’m willing to sacrifice for in order to make it a reality.

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I have an idea for a novel that I work on periodically in my spare time.  For Christmas I got some books on plotting and character development that I’m really excited about since I’ve never taken a creative writing class.  One issue that I’m hoping to find guidance on involves writing dialogue that is consistent with the setting for my fiction.

In this fantasy world I’m exploring, I visualize a landscape that is not as technologically advanced as ours.  I see an intricate network of islands organized in two opposing empires with some islands that aren’t aligned with either side.  I visualize island fortresses and war on horseback and marauding pirates.  However, I stumble again and again with getting the content of the dialogue to be true to this setting.  How do you write fantasy without incorporating song lyrics?  I’m pretty obsessed with song lyrics and find it difficulty to excise them from my writing.  I always skipped over the parts of Tolkien where the dwarfs sang and I don’t fancy writing poetry for my characters to quote at each other.

My main character is part of a guild of interpreters who serve an important diplomatic function.  How can I represent multiple languages in this story without actually resorting to using real languages?  If I do, how would I explain the presence of Spanish and English in a landscape with no Spain or England?  How do you know what kind of modern slang is acceptable to use in dialogue?  For instance, would people in these island kingdoms say “okay?”  I think anachronisms have the potential to yank a reader out of a believable story and I don’t want to stumble into that pitfall.

I’d also like to incorporate aspects of the story of the Tower of Babel and other themes from Christianity.  I see these interpreters being like priests in a sworn brotherhood of public servants.  They struggle with protecting the confidentiality of what they hear in their professional capacity and with the existence of God during times of terrible conflict.  How do I include Christianity in a setting with no Israel?

I’m honestly asking.

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I stumbled this last week in dealing with my anxiety, but I’m pulling myself back up.  I have been gearing up to see Casting Crowns in concert this week and while listening to their new CD “Come to the Well” I was struck by a song they sing about God and how He exists outside of time:

All my fears and all my questions
Are gonna play out
In a world I can’t control
When I’m lost in the mystery
To You my future is a memory
Cause You’re already there
You’re already there
Standing at the end of my life
Waiting on the other side

There is peace for me when I cling to the idea that God knows how my current crisis is going to turn out.  I cannot control this world, but it’s okay, because wherever today is going, He is already there and He is waiting for me.  I think if I lived forever I would be more calm because I would have seen every type of crisis at least once and I would know I could handle whatever comes my way.  Since I’m not going to live forever, it comforts me that I’m relying on someone whose experience is eternal.

More than God being in control, this song also makes me wonder, what do moments feel like when you’re immortal?  Novels with immortal characters (usually vampires) always focus on how much ennui they feel when they know they’ll never die.  They are jealous of humans whose mortality gives moments poignancy and immediacy in a way that they have long forgotten.  I think God must exist both inside and outside of time in a way that distinguishes him from angsty teenage vampires and allows him both vast perspective and the ability to savor each moment.  Do you wish you were immortal?  I don’t.

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Today I want to talk about linguistic prejudice.  Many people in America live in bidialectcal households and have mastered speaking more than one dialect of English.  Most often, these people speak a more “standard”* English variety along with a “non-standard” home variety like Southern English, African American Vernacular English, New Yorker English, English that’s influenced by another language like Spanish or Chinese, or even that lilting intonation that we associate with teenage girls from Southern California.   Many successful people in America suppress accents or speaking styles that are considered “non-standard” in order to be taken seriously in the work place.  However, should the fact that this linguistic prejudice exists mean that people with non-standard dialects should change how they express themselves in order to get ahead?

My background in sociolinguistics makes me inclined to support the ideal that people should be able to speak in “non-standard” varieties without appearing less competent.  This belief is normally evident in my interactions with my husband’s little brother, who is now seven.  He comes from a monolingual Spanish-speaking household but acquired English in pre-school.  I am trying to inculcate in him pride for his native language and for the variety of English that is spoken by the bilingual members of his Peruvian-American community.

While I strive to support him as a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, the truth is that I struggle with my own fears for him about his bilingualism and how others will perceive him.  I think I’ve done a good job of hiding from him how much it disappoints me that he’s so reluctant to speak Spanish anymore.  I know the phenomenon of language loss is very common in second generation immigrant communities.  I try to only encourage him rather than being one more voice in his life telling him that he’s speaking Spanish incorrectly or speaking English too much.  I say “try” because I know of at least one occasion when I did not succeed in shielding him from the linguistic prejudices that I carry within me.

When he was four years old I was in the car with him driving him home from Chucky Cheese and he said, “There wasn’t nobody there.”  My reaction was immediate and vehement:  “Don’t ever say that.  You meant to say that there wasn’t anybody there.”  My husband was startled because double negatives are very normal in Spanish and typify the speech of many native-Spanish speakers of English who speak a dialect of English that is influenced by Spanish.  When he asked me what was wrong, I explained without thinking, “People will think he is poor.”

In fact, people will think he is uneducated, but that is often conflated with poverty.  I was afraid for him and trying to protect him from the prejudices that I thought could hold him back in life.  What I should have said was, “No variety of English is inherently better or worse than another.”  I could have said, “You can speak that way at home or with your friends, but in school we always say….”  I missed that opportunity to talk to him about Standard English without making him feel shame for his home variety.

However, the linguist in me bristles in the notion that I would even tell him that the way we speak in school is different than the way we speak at home because it smacks of being  “complicit” in the oppression of linguistic varieties.  When I deliberately or unconsciously try to sound “standard” instead of speaking in a non-standard vernacular like Southern English (or African American Vernacular English, or California Girl English, or New York English, etc.) I perpetuate the myth that you can’t sound Southern and intelligent at the same time.  When I tell a child, “Don’t ever say that again.  People will think you’re poor,” I may be trying to protect him, but I am also telling him that the world at large has the right to judge his variety of English as inferior.

I can’t reconcile the fact that it is morally wrong to be complicit in linguistic prejudice with the role that I have been given in this child’s life to prepare him for life in a world in which people can discriminate against him with impunity because they don’t like the way he sounds.  Do you think we should teach children to be bidialectal to succeed in the work place, or do you think linguistic tolerance will not win the day until people are willing to use their variety in all situations?

*Please note that there is no such thing as “Standard English.”  America is not like Spain with the Royal Academy of the English Language arbitrating what makes up “proper English.”  When I trefer to “Standard English” I’m thinking of the variety that news anchors use on TV, or that I am careful to use in the office when I speak with clients.  This is clearly a subjective term.

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I practiced meditation for a half hour each day after school as a kid in elementary school.  Sometimes I fell asleep, but mostly my mind raced.  I learned the rosary as an adult to help fight off panic attacks.  Despite not being Catholic, it occurred to me because of movies about exorcisms because panic is like a demon inside of me.  After using this method for more than a year, I discovered that repetitive prayer or actions can actually help meditation.

I have a hard time sitting still and letting go of my racing thoughts when I try traditional meditation, but I’ve discovered that doing certain things at the same time can help me stay in that state of mind.  For instance, if I just think about a bible verse on worry, it’s not enough to hold my attention, and I’m soon pulled under again by whatever anxious thought is stalking me.  However, if I visualize in my mind writing that verse out in cursive, it’s a sufficiently difficult task that I can focus on it.  I have to think hard about how to make some cursive letters, and the visual component of this makes doing it in your mind absorbing.

Another example is the rosary.  I used to just say the prayers over and over again during panic attacks because repeating something I had memorized helped distract me.  Then I learned the way the rosary was meant to be prayed by people who are actually catholic and don’t just suffer from anxiety.  After you say the creed, on the first 3 beads above Jesus’s head you say one hail Mary each for the increase in the world of faith, hope, and love.  That’s my very favorite part.

While your mind is babbling (I prefer to say my rosary in Spanish) the same repetitive prayer, you can hold the intention in your head of there being more hope in the world.  I think of something different all the time – children in armies in Africa who need to believe there is life outside of war, people who’ve made such terrible mistakes that they think no one will forgive them, families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.  I imagine the hope growing in their hearts while my mind carries on with the prayer.  I can hang onto this train of thought without getting sucked back into my worry because saying a prayer in Spanish while you visualize sending hope to the hopeless is complicated.

When you get to the decades of the rosary (the 10 little beads between each big bead in the chain), Catholics meditate on one mystery per decade.  (There are luminous mysteries, joyful mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries…there’s a schedule for each day of the week.)  For instance, if they were doing the joyful mysteries, they would meditate on the first decade about the annunciation, on the second decade about the visitation, on the third about the nativity, then the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and then finding Jesus at the temple.  I don’t know the mysteries unless someone is announcing them (which they do when you pray the rosary in a group), but I like to think about one problem per bead or per decade, depending on how big the problem is.

Thinking about both the prayer and the problem simultaneously helps my mind not to wander off.  I don’t need a rosary to pray this way anymore – I can do it in my head or on my fingers, in English or in Spanish.   I think I associate the litany now with peace and calm, so even if my mind is too full of racing thoughts to meditate, trying to think of two things at once is just my (manic) speed.  When I start to feel panicky, I find myself automatically reciting the words in my head and I begin to calm down.  Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia, el senor es contigo…

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