Tuesday, August 30, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 1: Lee Whittle

Mom and me, 1979.
The only plan I had for this series was to save the best for last.  I did not expect my mom to die suddenly a few days after I wrote the prelude.  All of us were stunned, since her doctor had seen her a few days before she died and said she was doing better than any time during the last decade.  At least my mom got to spend a lot of time with her kids and grandkids this summer.   She was overjoyed to meet her latest grandchild - my son - and watch him play with his cousins.

To say my mom was an iconoclast would be an understatement.  She came from a hard-scrabble immigrant family that did not know how to provide warmth to children.  For some reason, my mom decided that she would be different, and she set out to create for herself and her kids a life of love and affection.  Sometimes she drove us crazy with her compliments and encouragement, especially since it was never offset with any criticism.  It was only later in life that I realized how rare it is to grow up with such a mother.  Last week my sister found my mom's calendar, and on it was an entry for the following week that said "Wednesday: make sure to compliment [one of my siblings] on her photographs." That pretty much summed up my mom.

Let there be no mistake.  Mom could be irascible and stubborn.  One thing that drove me crazy earlier in life was her almost pathological inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the downsides of life.  But one dark day a few years back, when I was struggling with a setback, my mom called me on the phone and read me the following poem by Langston Hughes.  She knew the score.  And I will miss her something fierce.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 1994

Saturday, August 20, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Prelude

This year I turned fifty, which I expect is about the half-way point for me.  I have had my share of pain and struggles and failures and disappointments.  But on balance, I have had a rich and rewarding life, with great friends and a loving family.  And hopefully I have given something back along the way.

As I wrote recently, some of what I have achieved has been under my own steam.  I have worked reasonably hard (though not as hard as many people); I have a decent brain (though it's not the biggest around); and I am a fairly nice and thoughtful person a lot of the time (those who have seen my temper will snicker, rightfully, at this).

But I have also been lucky.  And in particular I have had many wonderful family members, mentors, colleagues, and friends along the way, and I have gotten at least one big lucky break for every several bad breaks.  For all of these, I am grateful, since they are in large part responsible for whom I am, and for the rich life I have lived.

So I want to devote a few posts - one hundred of them - to recognizing some people and things that have made a big difference in my life.  This is an experiment that may fizzle out fast.  Or it may go on beyond one hundred, who knows.  (In any case, I am sure that I will miss many people and things that have made a difference, and for that let me apologize in advance.)  There will be no rhyme or reason to the order in which the posts come.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In Defense of Aid

Someone asked me the other day if I believed in aid.  "You have been so critical of the aid system," he said. "Why don't you just do something else?" In response, I related the following.

In the 1970s, a combination of factors left a ten year-old boy living on and off below the poverty line, with four siblings at home and a single mother.  His mother stayed at home to take care of his pre-school age sister, because child care would have cost more than any salary she could make; she did not have a college degree and had few marketable skills.  The small city he lived in had few economic opportunities; it once had been prosperous, but its main industry (textiles)  had moved away, and the city was down at the heels and felt grim.  The boy delivered newspapers and scooped ice cream to make a little money, but it was not enough to make a fundamental difference to his circumstances.

Fortunately, there was a school lunch program that enabled the boy to get reduced price meals at noon.  He had to stand in a separate line with a separate color ticket, which he found humiliating, but there was nothing he could do if he wanted lunch.  As the impact of inflation reduced the real value of the family's fixed income, the school system even allowed the boy to get free lunches.  Free lunches involved yet another color ticket with even greater stigma, but the boy used them when he had to, and he ate decent lunches.

In a couple of years, when the boy's youngest sister was able to go to school, the boy's mother enrolled in a government-funded job training program.  It was not particularly well run, but it did give her some basic skills, and provided a structure for her to search for a job.  Eventually she got a few jobs, not great ones at first, but she kept at it, and after a time she found an excellent employer with whom she eventually stayed for many years. Her paychecks helped stabilize the family's income, and helped make up for the effects that the big inflation of the '70s had taken on it.

As the boy moved up through the grades, he was determined to make something of himself and he studied hard.  But he also got lucky.  A private school thirty miles away offered him a full scholarship, including room and board.  This was a big break for him.  The school was good academically, and it made the boy much more worldly by introducing him to networks that would make it easier for him professionally in the future.  He was not the top student in the class, but he did well enough so that a private foundation offered him a full scholarship for four years at an excellent state university.  The foundation was so open-minded that they even gave him a grant to travel around the world one semester to study international development.

When he decided to go to graduate school, that school offered him a generous scholarship funded by a private donor.  And the school helped the boy (well, he was 24 years old by then), take a year off to work in the Philippines to get some real experience, so that he would be more marketable on the job market.

At age 25, after finishing his graduate degree, the boy got a real job - a good job - where he was able to pay his own way.  He spent the next 25 years in international development, (hopefully) doing some good in the world.

That boy received a lot of aid along the way.  Some of it was public aid, and some of it was private aid, some in the form of loans, but most in the way of grants.

That boy was me.  And that success story is why I remain optimistic about aid, despite its many failures and disappointments.  I think that if we try hard, think critically, and work together, we can make aid as effective for millions of others as it was for me.