Thursday, December 10, 2015

pass the test

The Bechdel Test (est. 1985)

  1. Two female characters (named),
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something other than a man.

A few weeks ago I found myself telling a new acquaintance about a film I had just seen (it was Bridge of Spies and it had been about 3 months since I'd seen any movie). Instead of telling her about the film, or whether or not I even liked it, I told her it failed the Bechdel test. Of course she had the same response any normal person would. The what? The Bechdel test. What's that? Oh, you don't know the Bechdel test? Let me tell you about it...

Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985, explained "the rules" that have come to be known as the Bechdel test.

I went on to tell said new female acquaintance how a story passes the test. Two named women, onscreen at the same time, speak to each other. Oh, and it's about something other than men. And really, the characters cannot be mother and daughter. I then told her one of the best known examples of an award winning film that fails the test. A film that, a few years ago, brought the Bechdel test into the mainstream for a while. That film is Argo. IMHO, it fails the test. On this, you can trust me. Or you can go watch it and see for yourself.

So what? Whether or not a film passes this test has no bearing on whether or not the film is good. Or great. It's a separate entity. So why do we care? First, I'd like to state the obvious. We don't care. We go to the movies to be entertained. We don't ask any questions about what we see. Was the movie accurate? Who cares. Was I entertained? Well, for $12.75 I had better be.

Yet, I still think about the Bechdel test. Maybe it's because I'm a feminist. Because, well, I am a feminist. But I'm also an avid fiction reader and film goer. As someone who likes entertainment, I happen to like seeing women on screen. Together. Being complex and dynamic. And having deep friendships with one another. And so, as such, I do think that the test evaluates the depth of the female characters. And what's wrong with a little depth in our movies? 

Not long ago, I heard something interesting on a podcast. In all honesty, it was a Gilmore Guys podcast, where two guys talk at length about each and every Gilmore Girls episode. As someone who has loved the show forever (and owns every episode on DVD), this podcast is enjoyable. So when one of the hosts mentioned the Bechdel Test, I was intrigued. He commented that though many episodes of Gilmore Girls pass the Bechdel Test with female characters, the show tends to fail considerably with the male characters (aka the reverse Bechdel). And admittedly, men aren't the focus of the show. On any given episode there may not be more than one man on screen at a time and this man may never speak to another man (that we see, anyway). 

So what does this mean? I don't know. Does this mean something to you? Or is it just something to talk about at a cocktail party to appear intelligent? I'm not sure yet. Since the Bechdel test doesn't indicate a script's quality, what does it do? I've heard it increases gender bias awareness in Hollywood. But is this supposed awareness doing anything to make the situation better? Is it closing the wage gap? Only time will tell. But right now, I'd say no.

So in the meantime, go out and watch a film. Any film. And ask yourself, does it pass the test? Why? Because you can.

If you're interested in what others are saying about the Bechdel test, check out:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

my dark day

For the many of us who have lost someone special, there are certain days of the year that make it hard to keep on moving forward, to keep on growing old. The deceased's birthday or the anniversary of the day he/she died is almost always harder for us than all other days in a given year. But since losing my older brother, the hardest day of the year for me has always been MY birthday. That's right, my own birthday. I still recognize my brother's birthday, the day of his diagnosis, and the day of his death. I light a Yahrtzeit candle. My family goes to the cemetery. We mark these events the same way everyone else does.

But the hardest day of the year, for me, is the day I turn yet another year older. Older than my big brother. From my perspective, he stopped aging at age 30. The day I turned 30, two and a half years after Dave passed away, I was a mess. But then I was okay. I was surrounded by good friends, who raised money for Brain Tumor Research. Well, I thought, I finally caught up to you big brother. Thirty's not so bad. 

But then I turned 31. I had officially outlived my older brother. I didn't do a single celebratory thing that day. I think I ate Taco Bell and went to bed early. I just didn't want to be around anyone else on my "dark day."

So last week, when I turned 35, I just felt awful. Turning another year older, I always feel awful. I'm used to it now. I can see it coming. And I do my usual ignoring of the inevitable, "what are we doing for your birthday" texts.  Because, let's face it: I'm now 35 and my big brother is 37 still 30. 

I know Dave would never want me to sit at home on this special day and wallow in my sadness. I don't do that (anymore, at least). I go out to dinner. I try to run a race or be outside. I try to learn something new, or travel to a different location. But I know this day is still going to be excruciatingly hard. And often the days leading up to the birthday are even harder. 

Sometimes I just disappear off the grid for a few days. Frequently, I try to ignore the darkness that I know is inevitably coming. Other times I just let the sadness envelop me and sit at home and cry. Mostly, though, I've learned to be honest with people. I find myself saying more and more to my close friends and family, "you know, my birthday is just a really hard day for me." They don't have to know why it's my dark day. They can just nod and move on. Knowing that the next year they will still ask me what I'm doing for my birthday. Because that milestone will come, whether I like it or not.

A few days after my birthday, I saw a former Business school classmate celebrating her 30th birthday. With a giant party. And a huge close-up photo of the stitches in the side of her head. And an announcement that, after eight years of beating her tumor, her brain tumor (just like Dave's) had morphed into the dreaded Glioblastoma (GBM 4 for short). She referred to her tumor as terminal and at that point, something changed inside my head. No, not really. I can't change my whole temperament that quickly. But I did have a bit of a reality check.

This lovely young lady is actually the true definition of a fighter. She will forever remind me of why we (I) need to celebrate life. And never give up. Regardless of her diagnosis, her words are always filled with hope and I love seeing her smiling face when we meet up in Golden Gate Park for the Brain Tumor 5K (almost every year). Next year, I will complete the race for her. But I know she will still be here to ring in yet another birthday, to complete yet another milestone. And she will once again remind me that it is not about feeling sorry for myself. It is about celebrating the gift I receive by being able to turn yet another year older.

#curegbm #greymatters #curebraincancer #braincancerawareness

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

working for the weekend

Lately I have been inundated with certain ground-breaking announcements. This just in: working over 60 hours a week is not productive. Actually, it can become counter-productive. So stop working so much overtime. Don't give up your personal life for more billable hours. Take control of your work addictions. Step away from the phone...

All of which is not really a problem for me. I'm happy to work my 30ish hours per week (many of them from home) and call it a success. That is, until I was asked to work over the weekend. Because, well, there was a mix up. A mistake. And a 50 page report that had yet to be completed. It needed to be compiled and written already. But it didn't quite exist yet.

So, at 4pm on a Friday I finally accepted my future; because there would be a report by Monday. And I would be the one to create it. I looked at my weekend calendar. I cancelled everything. I started to drive home from work, ready to get started on the report. But first, I stopped to go for a run.

Because that is how I work best. I need time for me. I need to calm down, to breath, to step away and come back to whatever I am working on with fresh eyes. I need to know that before I spend 80+ hours doing something for someone else, that I did something for myself. Plus, if I go for a run first, I'll do a better job in the end. It's just how it works for me.

When I finally got home Friday evening, I got to work. I printed hard copies of instructions, spread out in the living room, organized my emails and documents, and read up on what I needed to know to get started. Then I started organizing my thoughts. Hours flew by. Once I couldn't see straight, I knew it was time to stop for the night. So I went to bed.

I woke up the next morning and went to a class at my gym. Yes, I had an insurmountable amount of work to get through. Yet I still needed a little bit of time that day for me, an appearance of weekend. I had already cancelled all my other Saturday plans, but not this class. It was over before I normally get out of bed on the weekend and I was back home, back to work, before I knew it.

I worked until the sun went down. I ordered myself a pizza. It tasted amazing. I ate it over the computer screen. I worked and worked and again once my eyes started blurring the type, I set aside the computer and went to bed. I was making progress, but I had so much more to write.

This isn't a lesson in complaining about having to work. Or about how much more I work than anyone else (we all know that isn't true). It isn't even about how I manage to work every weekend. It's about how something good came from something that at first seemed completely awful. At first, I was afraid to tell my friends what I was up to that weekend. I immediately thought they'd judge me and my job for letting it control me and dictate my life.

But this couldn't be further from the truth. My job is amazing. The best job I've ever had. It's a treat to do my job, to go to my office on a beautiful college campus, to work with brilliant and caring individuals, and to help send low-income students of color to college. It's a privilege. Sometimes it just becomes like every other job; too much work and not enough employees or time. It's rare, but it happens.

Except that I've just learned it doesn't much happen in San Francisco. I'm shocked about this. When I did tell a few people I was working all weekend, they complained. No one around here works weekends. I thought that was crazy. Of course they do. They go in to the office on Saturdays. They work from home on Sundays. They are always checking their work email throughout the weekend.

But that's in Chicago, not in San Francisco. The last time I checked, almost every single member of my family works weekends. My dad, as a doctor, worked every weekend of my life. My brother, as a corporate lawyer, most definitely went into the office on Saturdays. My sister, as a lab tech, works a Saturday shift every week. My cousins and aunts and uncles all do this as well. They work during the week. And then on the weekend they work some more. Whatever it takes to get the workload done. To get the promotion. To get the recognition.

Except that it doesn't need to be done. After working 22 additional hours in one weekend I did get a promotion (I got a bonus). And yes, I did get a ton of recognition. But I also got the best gift of all: permission (and funding) to hire another staff member. In response to the "great jobs" I was receiving all around for my (to be honest) kick-ass work, I was able to say, "let's make sure it doesn't happen again" to people who are now making sure it doesn't happen again. Because I am not my best at 90 hours a week. I'm just not. And thus my organization is not. I don't know anyone who is their best self at that rate. 

If working this much is your life, I won't judge you. Maybe you have to. But maybe you don't. Maybe you work this much because you let yourself work this much. It's okay to push back every now and then (if you can). And it's absolutely okay to do something for yourself every day (if you can). For me, this is mandatory. Because in the end, it will make you happier, more balanced, and simply more pleasant to be around. And that will pay off in spades.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


A few months after I first got up on stage and told the sad story of the accidental death of my precious first pet, my cat Bella, I found myself yet again wanting to open up to a group of strangers regarding a second sad, yet slightly less accidental, animal death story. This story will ultimately become my next NorCal Story Jam story.

Once upon a time, in a Honduran village far far away, two chicks hatched. My very generous host mom named each chick. The first was mine; she was named Karen. The second was my site-mates'; she was named Jason. My host mom took care of these chicks, feeding them along with all the others. She told me that when our chicks grew up they would ultimately become ours. And the eggs they would go on to lay would be ours as well. It was a really sweet sentiment, while also saving us from having to purchase eggs, an integral part of our daily diet.

My host sisters showing my chick, Karen, to my brother

 As Karen and Jason grew they became teenagers. Then they became full fledged hens. Jason hardly ever lay eggs, while Karen, on the other hand, laid her fair share of eggs. She was just very particular regarding her egg laying habits. She would lay eggs only deep within the grass. She would leave the confines of my host mother's yard and lay her eggs in the grass across the street. She was particular in this respect. But I received her bounty every week. And she continued to lay eggs. Until one day she didn't. 

It quickly became apparent that Karen had just stopped laying eggs. There didn't appear to be anything wrong with her; it was as if her eggs had run out. So the question was raised as to what would become of Karen. Because my host mom continued feeding  her (at a cost) and no one was reaping the benefits of having a hen, I went back to spending my money on store bought eggs. Keeping Karen around no longer seemed like a benefit; she was now simply a cost.

Meanwhile Jason, the human Jason, was in the middle of a crisis of conscience. He had just announced that he would no longer eat meat, unless he killed the animal himself. While I'm a fan of knowing where your food comes from (that's farm to table, right?), I thought his rantings a bit extreme. However, it gave me an idea. I would kill Karen myself. Then I would cook her up. I know it seems morbid, but it's the circle of life. I realized that I too shouldn't eat any animal I wouldn't be willing to kill myself.

Well, willing is one thing. Actually doing is another. But, I thought  now might be my one and only chance to learn how to kill chickens as my neighbors did. It would be cultural bonding at its best. I felt like a true Peace Corps volunteer.

My host godmother, Marleni, prepares to teach me how to kill my chicken

So I took Karen (the chicken) over to my host-godmother's home. She would show me the ropes. The first step? To wring Karen's neck. How was I supposed to do this? I wasn't exactly sure. I do recall taking the neck and wringing it, waiting for it to snap. But it didn't work; there was no snap. And I couldn't tell if Karen was dead or not. So I was worried. I didn't want to her suffer. If she did suffer, I didn't think I could eat her. And then I would have killed my namesake for nothing.

So my host godmother, Marleni, quickly grabbed a bucket. She laid the chicken on the ground, turned the bucket over with the rim of the bucket crossing the chicken's neck and stomped down. Hard. I heard the crunch. Karen was dead. And I was horrified. Marleni had just completed one of the dirtiest chicken killings I could imagine possible. It was gruesome. Poor Karen.
 How could I explain to Marleni and her family how horrified I was? Her family had to eat. I felt that I had no choice but to pick up Karen, pluck her feathers and cut her up. Marleni needed to make her in to tamales for her entire family's dinner.

That's when I learned yet another Honduran custom. Not the one about using every part of the animal. I had seen that before. But the part where my host family argued over who would get to eat the tamale with the huevos in it. Even though Karen had long ago ceased to put out eggs, she still had her own ovaries. And apparently they, along with the rest of her internal organs, were considered delicacies. I then watched my godmother stealthily set the eggs aside and make herself a special tamale. I could barely stand as I watched her feast on Karen, huevos and all. But she had done the dirty work. She deserved the caviar of chicken parts in her tamale.

Yum, nacatamales de Karen

At that point, I had to get out of the kitchen for a few minutes. And in the end I didn't eat a Karen tamale. I'm not really a fan of nacatamales, a traditional Honduran food. Plus, Karen's death had been a bit too horrific for me. But she was enjoyed by all. And I suppose that's what really matters.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


There are very few things as truly San Franciscan as Bay to Breakers. It's a 40,000 person springtime Sunday party, a race through the city, and Halloween all rolled in to one. San Francisco is Bay to Breakers and Bay to Breakers is San Francisco.

I remember my first Bay to Breakers (B2B). I had been living in San Francisco for about five months, newly returned from the Peace Corps. I wasn't yet a runner. I had only a few friends. I wasn't a big drinker. But somehow I found myself in a Bay to Breakers group, complete with matching t-shirts, a float, and all the beer we could fit in a shopping cart. 

Our theme was the Duff beer guy

That first B2B had a lot of firsts for me. The first time I tried skateboarding. The first time I entered a race. The first time I tossed tortillas in the air and passed men and women in salmon costumes running the opposite direction. And I definitely didn't make it to to ocean (aka the breakers). Still true today, B2B 2007 was the only time in my life I have been drunk before 8am (that wasn't from the night before).

B2B costumes can get pretty elaborate. I'm always impressed.

Proudly, my Bay to Breakers 2008 was not a repeat performance. Over these past seven years I have slept through the race, watched the race in Hayes Valley with friends, driven my boyfriend to the start of the race, cheered on random runners near the end of the race, and run the race myself. I  long ago learned that the best way to avoid the late drunkenness of those walking the race with floats, yet still experience the costumes and massive groups of people, was to run the race myself. Alongside all the people. To be one of the people. To make it to the end and then hit the bbq. Because Bay to Breakers is also San Francisco's official welcome to summer.

 Racing through this amazing city with 40,000 other people is quite an experience!

Thus, as I found late May quickly approaching, I couldn't think of a more appropriate first race post-marathon. Which is why I chose to run Bay to Breakers 2015. It would be my return to running short races (a quick 12K or 7.5 miler). It would be my first race back from so many things; from the flu, from new orthotics, from running once a week, if at all. But most importantly, it would be my first race back from the marathon.

The starting line of Bay to Breakers 2015

It's a strange feeling, running a short race. I found myself exactly on pace. And enjoying the scenery. And the costumes. But I also found myself anxious to be finished already. To be at the finish line, enjoying coconut water and potato chips. To be home already and in a hot shower. But I was still in the middle of the race. But by mile six I was just ready to be finished. So I sped up.

But then I began to really think about enjoying what I was doing. To realize how fun it was to run with no preparation. How I didn't pick out a special running outfit the night before or bother with goo. How easy it was to run a negative split - finally! (A negative split means running the second half of a race faster than the first. It's always a mini-goal of mine and I knew I had done it this time!) I also knew I didn't PR, but I didn't care. Because, I realized, it was a little chilly and slightly overcast most of the way; my perfect running weather. 

 Making it all the way to the beach (in costume) is always impressive

Most days I honestly don't know if I'll ever race again. I ran a marathon, for crying out loud. What else do I have to prove? I don't know if I have the patience to start training all over again. I don't know if I can run that distance again. I don't know if I should. And I don't know if I want to.

I'm not certain what the future has in store for me and road racing. The same can be said for Bay to Breakers. Every year there are more restrictions on the race, more police presence, fewer floats. But despite the mayhem, the nudity, the drunken sh$% show that it truly is, Bay to Breakers still belongs to San Franciscans. It is still ours. For over 100 years now we've been running across town, from the bay to the breakers. And I can't imagine spending the third Sunday in May any other way.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

the end of the road

Veo al final de mi rudo camino, que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino. 
I see at the end of my rough journey, that I've been the architect of my own destiny.
- Amado Nervo

I feel pretty comfortable driving in Mexico. Actually, I feel comfortable driving just about anywhere. And I'm almost always the driver. Rental cars don't bother me. I like getting to test drive different cars. Every time I've gone to the Yucatan to volunteer with Proyecto Itzaes, I've rented a car. And the only mishaps I've had have been regarding the actual renting of the car. No matter what time you arrive, the process of filling out the rental paperwork and getting to drive away in your newly rented car takes several hours. I don't exactly know why, but it just does.

This is how much Mexican country-side I typically drive through

But then, while driving through the Yucatan last month, my car rental luck ran out. A rock hit the car's windshield. And at the very most top part of the windshield, half on the plastic that seals the glass to the roof. But just low enough to embed itself at least partly in the glass. But just high enough that I didn't know that was the case. However, once the crack started to spread in a long line down the window, I realized exactly what had happened. In the five minutes it took us to get home the crack had successfully run the entire length of the windshield. And it was only getting longer. I panicked. I didn't know what to do. This had never happened to me before. Not even in the US. I once had a windshield bashed by some thugs with baseball bats in Potrero Hill. But never a rock in the windshield. I guess it was about time this finally happened to me.

I quickly tried to decide what should I do; get an estimate from a nearby mechanic and pay for the repair before the rental was due back? Or break down and call the rental car company, knowing it would be a long painful process. I knew I couldn't drive the car again, so I had to do something. I called the rental agency. They were so nice. Surprisingly nice. With amazing customer service. I had never experienced this before. I was still skeptical this would go off without a hitch, but the nearest car rental depot (not the one we originally rented from) would send a driver out to our home, bringing a replacement car for us. It sounded too good to be true. Especially because I had to head to a village for an appointment and wouldn't be home for a few hours. They assured me they would sent someone in a few hours. It would all work out.

When we go home from Dzemul, there it was; a brand new, identical but red (our first car was turquoise) rental car, along with two patiently waiting agents. Though I had arrived only five minutes past my scheduled time, it seemed like they had been waiting for quite a while. When I asked the rental agents the length of their wait they politely responded that they had been there for an hour. Yet they didn't seem restless. Perhaps they were enjoying the sun, sand, and ocean. Yes, they assured me, the windshield will need to be replaced. ¡Que mala suerte!

So there we were, new and improved rental car at our disposal. Which was convenient. Because we were planning to leave the beach, drive south a few hours to my favorite ruins (Uxmal), and many hours later arrive at Bacalar, situated just south of Playa del Carmen. On the other coast. It was about a six hour drive but we planned to make it into one long day of driving and sightseeing along the way. We set out very early in the morning.

And we were driving along just fine. Highway driving in Mexico is pretty self explanatory. The highways are nice and new, although mostly two lane. Since the speed limits are high (at least 110 kph), it's completely normal to pass slow moving vehicles. When the roads aren't curvy or dangerous. I'm a pro at passing cars on single lane Mexican highways. It takes a lot of patience, but you can always eventually pass.

Which is why I was very perplexed when I quickly came upon seven cars going slightly slower up ahead of me. They were clearly waiting to pass a slow moving van. Wow, I thought, they must have some serious patience to wait so long to pass. But in time, I knew, we would all make it safely past the slow moving vehicle. We had many many more hours to drive; we couldn't exactly afford to drive so slowly for a very long time.

None of the cars ahead of us were going particularly slowly, nor were they inching to pass the slowest car at the front of the line. I thought about it for a split second before heading on to pass the cars myself. There was no use in waiting, after all. Except that the roads through the Yucatan can be windy. So I wouldn't have enough time to pass all seven cars at once. I started passing them two at a time. I passed the first two cars. They seemed content to be where they were. Hmm, I thought, maybe they're driving in a line. I wonder why. I can't be sure, but it doesn't seem as if they are trying to pass the front car. So I quickly passed the next two cars, and then the next two cars. Eventually I was right behind the slow moving van. And that's when I saw it. The giant picture of the Virgin Mary staring right at me. It was posted conspicuously in the rear view window.

It looked like a regular covered truck to me

Because it was a hearse. Carrying a corpse to its final resting place. And we had placed ourselves prominently first in line at a funeral procession. I swallowed hard. Was what I had been doing wrong? Was I not supposed to weave in and out of a funeral procession? Was there some tell tell sign early on in this process that I had completely missed? Or did I not know what was going on until just that moment? And once I realized where I was, was it wrong to try to head out and pass the hearse? So I did just that. I waited for a clear view of oncoming traffic and sped over and passed the hearse. What else was I to do? They were going far and long; but they were also going slow. They didn't need me embedding myself in their mourning processional.

So we drove on. And on and on and on. We were going to take Highway 184 from Uxmal to the Caribbean coast. Highway 184 would meet up with Highway 307, the main road from Cancun all the way down to Belize. We'd hit into 307, turn right, and drive a few miles down the coast to Bacalar. We'd been driving for hours, but we started passing the signs telling us that 307 was just ahead.

According to Google Maps, Highway 184 bisects Highway 307

Which it probably was. But we'll never know for sure. Because we never merged onto Highway 307. We never go that far. Instead, we drove on Highway 184 until the road just ended. That's right, the highway just stopped. So we stopped. And then we looked around. There were people coming towards us on foot. They were walking over with suitcases and backpacks. They were getting into taxis. They were driving away, the only direction the road went - back to where we had just come from.

I found a narrow place to turn around. And then attempted to ask a taxi driver for directions. He and his friends laughed as us. The road didn't intersect with the coastal road, at least not yet. The road would be built, someday. I couldn't believe it. The maps/gps indicated we could drive right on through. Except that we could see right in front of us; there was no actual road. Only a parking lot. The taxi driver drew us a map; we'd have to backtrack for a while, then turn off and pass through three villages before finally hitting 307, south of where we were. But we would hit it eventually. In only a few hours time.

So then I asked about the people coming towards us, from what appeared to be the other, coastal side. No one could answer me. Apparently there was an airport some place nearby. But that didn't explain the cars and people I could see ahead of us, driving inland from the coast to meet us. Except we wouldn't meet. Because there is a strip of highway missing. That just hadn't been built. Instead of continuing on the way we had planned, we had made it to the very end of the road. So we turned around, drove back back, turned off at a random desvio, and ended up in paradise. Because that's what happens in Mexico. Paradise is always just one wrong turn away.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

a place in the sun

La sangre sin fuego hierve. Blood boils without fire
- Mexican Proverb

I've spent a little bit of time in Mexico recently. Actually, it's been quite a bit of time. Yet it's never enough. There are so many things I love about Mexico: the food, the ocean, the people. But I can't forget about the sun. In Mexico, the sun is an entity in and of itself. It calls the shots; when we wake up, when we go to sleep, how we spend our days. It has been both lovely for me as well as painful. My first trip to Mexico I burned my feet being out in the sun too long, and they swelled up into giant tomatoes. I learned my lesson.

I try to never miss a sunset when 
I'm on the Gulf Coast of Mexico

The sun in Mexico is almost always shining. Even when it rains, a few minutes later the sun inevitably comes out. It's a sunny place. The sun shines down upon us, a constant reminder of the heat we must endure every day in this endlessly tropical climate. So it's not really surprising what I'm going to talk about next. The energy of the sun can only lead us to one possible conclusion. That's right, I'm going to talk about solar energy. I recently learned an important lesson about using the sun's energy.

I must admit that I'm still learning about solar energy. And a lot of what I do know I learned very recently, both in a classroom as well as in practice. I have lived in a hot, tropical, sunny climate. I have left a clear bottle of water out in the sun. Heck, I've even left one in my car on a sunny day. How hot was the water? Hot enough to burn. And hot enough to cook.

This is what the local people I visited in Mexico already knew; the sun can cook things (other than just their skin). Yet, they weren't, to the best of my knowledge, really utilizing the sun's power for cooking. I needed to find out why. There had to be a reason (or reasons). But before I could find out what people knew and didn't know about the sun, what the locals were or weren't using the sun for and why (or why not), I was beat to the punch. Because a group of generous souls set up solar cookers for these same villages where I spend much of my Mexico time. 

A new solar box cooker

Don Alejandro shows off a new & highly 
efficient wood burning stove.

What have I learned since these solar cookers were introduced to the villages? The sun is hot. And everywhere. And free. Except that it's not free; not exactly anyway. There are so many costs, some I saw coming, but some of which were totally unforeseen. I have to admit I was surprised how enthusiastic everyone was when they saw a demonstration of the solar cookers. There are a few types (solar oven, solar stove, efficient wood burning stove) and they're all impressive. However, they are all small. Too small. And expensive. Too expensive.

They cook one pot of beans. Which isn't enough. We know it's not. Because we asked. And because I thought about it. I can't remember the last time I used one pot to cook a meal for a group of people. Especially one involving rice, beans, meat and tortillas. 

They are cost prohibitive. This we also know. How expensive are they? Well, using the cheapest materials we could find, they are still too expensive. Honestly, anything over thirty dollars is out of the locals' price range.

However, seeing the demand for the solar cookers, I saw an opportunity from my capitalistic American point of view. They just needed to set up a stove factory. I was certain the completed stoves would sell like hot cakes. As long as we could get the cost down. So we would have to be creative. We would have to use alternative, and thus cheaper, materials and buy in bulk. We would have to design an equally efficient stove using new designs. And then we would have to get the stoves to actually work. But I knew it was a good idea. Build the stoves, I thought, and they will come.

I suggested to a few local friends that they might want to be the ones to capitalize on this untapped high demand marketplace. My friends looked at my like I was out of my head (more-so than normal, as I tend to offer up pretty nutty ideas to anyone who will listen). They couldn't imagine how to make the ovens more cheaply. But I pushed them on this point. I knew it would be possible. I just didn't exactly know how.

The original design for the solar box cooker (an oven)

The materials and ingenuity question weren't actually the biggest barriers my friends needed to overcome. They first needed start-up funds; they didn't have the necessary amount of cold hard cash. So I started to channel my inner venture capitalist. We would simply search for some start-up funding. It would be easy. We knew people in Merida. They would have money. After all, we were planning to set up a small solar cooker making operation, not a high tech computer company. How hard could it be?

The answer is hard. But also easy. Because i
t turns out it is possible to cut down the cost of the cookers by using alternative materials and increasing quantity. So we don't need a lot of funds. Just a few supportive friends with a little bit of money. Which we found we have. In spades. And just how will we design less expensive stoves? Turns out we have friends who know how to do this as well. We are rich in resources. 

I have high hopes we'll be able to drop the cost of the ovens significantly. But we still have miles to go before they can become affordable to the local population. But I know it will happen. We will figure it out. It is possible. Nada hay nuevo debajo del sol. There is nothing new under the sun.

Friday, April 10, 2015

fitness therapy

Coming down from my marathon high, I had to decide where to go next. While I wasn't about to give up running any time soon, I found myself longing for something new. And because of the weight I had gained while training for the marathon, I was also looking for a way to kick start my metabolism. Years ago, running had done that. A few years ago, after settling into my running routine, I started lifting weights with a trainer and, no surprise, the new exercise gave my metabolism another nice boost. So once again I found myself at a crossroads. Where should I go next?

With no shortage of workouts available to me, I chose TRX. Or rather, I decided to give a few new workouts a try and TRX came out on top. For now. I'm not an all or nothing kind of person. While training for the marathon, I would lift weights, run intervals, climb stairs, go for (short) bike rides, and practice Yoga and Zumba. The majority of my workouts were runs, but not all of them.

The past few years I've also tried working out at home. I'm a fan of Jillian Michaels - I find her voice less annoying than others and her workouts tough. But home workouts weren't cutting it for me. I could just crap out easily and no one (except my belly) would ever notice.

I first decided to sign up for a month of unlimited classes at a nearby gym. Actually, it's a gym located directly on my commute home from work. The gym had two very important components and these are the reasons I chose it above all others. It offered classes in the evening. And it had online class registration. It was very no nonsense. You sign up. Then you go. All I had to do was go that first time (always the hardest for me).

And I went. I didn't know much about the gym or the types of workouts it offered or what I was going to experience. I did know the gym wasn't CrossFit and I had heard (and read) great things about TRX. But I don't think I really understood how tough the classes would be. I had just run a marathon, after all. I could easily conquer anything they could throw at me.

Well, this particular gym has become my sanctuary. The classes are small. Everyone knows your name. So I continue to go. And work my butt off. The gym offers a small variety of classes. The two I rotate between are HIIT (high intensity interval training) and TRX (total body resistance exercise). HIIT is basically indoor boot camp. TRX is basically a trapeze. Except not really. It's a set of adjustable stirrups used to help you throw your own weight around. It requires coordination and is not a natural fit for someone as uncoordinated as myself. Yet I find myself loving it. My own weight has caused me to work muscles in my arms I never thought existed. TRX has caused me to feel the burn while holding a plank, feet still inside the stirrups. And pressing my own body weight has caused me to spend the better part of my first week in pain. And yet, I go back for more.

My TRX and the class set of TRXs

I tried a few other gyms on my quest to mix up my post-marathon workouts. From Orange Theory to track workouts, these programs involved too much running. As I runner, I know that criticism might sound strange. But running is the thing I do myself. If my goal is to work out hard, I don't really enjoy a class where half of it is spent on a treadmill (for so many reasons). I still run outside several times a week; varied short midweek runs and one long run every Sunday. This is my recovery/training program. And it feels like it's working. Every run is less exhausting than it was before. At times I even feel light on my feet.
A little motivation at the gym

Because in addition to my interval, short, and long runs, I go a small gym. Where everyone is kind. And there's no waiting in line. There are only people who swear by the TRX. I just mostly swear at it. I think I have a love-hate relationship with the suspension stirrups. But I can feel my body transforming. I can hold positions longer. I don't know how long this new fad workshop mechanism will keep me satisfied, but I'm enjoying the ride. Once over the steep learning curve, the TRX has quickly become the mechanism with which I will transform my body. And it definitely passes the time more quickly than the elliptical machine ever will. And that's good enough for now.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Every industry has its fair share of buzzwords. From social impact investing to emotional intelligence, it feels as though more and more industry terms are being inserted into everyday jargon with each passing year. The "new" term being passed around every board room in my non-profit industry last year was "collective impact." What does it mean? Well, it means exactly what it sounds like; a group (the collective) working strategically together can create a deeper impact. In other words, it's a shared vision for change. This is not a new idea. So why all the buzz surrounding this buzzword?

The difference between Collaboration (old concept) and 
Collective Impact (new, slightly different, concept)

We are all guilty of using these terms. We buy in to the buzz. From level five leadership to leaning in, no one is immune from throwing these terms around in conversation. But do these words really matter all that much? They sound like great concepts and will most likely help a lot of people. But I still believe that actions speak louder than words. Even louder than the most popular words of the year.

Because I still believe in actual sustainability. Good old sustainability, the biggest buzzword of them all (in my industry). I'm no stranger to the term; I've been working toward sustainability for the majority of my life. It's the very basis of why I do what I do. I am constantly asking myself, "why am I working so hard for change if it doesn't turn out to be long lasting? What will my program's impact really turn out be?" Despite all the new buzzwords, these are still the main things I care about thinking through and discussing.

Every day I find myself still relying heavily on measuring the "sustainability." But what is sustainability? And why do I care so much about it? Because sustainability is still the mother of all end results; it is meant to signify success. It's meant to move the needle. It's meant to bring about change in the world.

But how does one buzzword accomplish so much? Because it's not about the word itself nor its definition. It's about the thought process. That's what all these ideas and phrases have in common. They remind us to remember to act collectively. To remember to lean in (only if you want to). To remember to measure your ROI and to present your company as a social impact investment.

I recently heard the following quote, "if you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeros."1 This quote makes me smile every time I come across it. It's a pretty honest reminder to stay focused. To stay cheap and stick to your grassroots. But also don't forget about your sustainability plan. 

Keep sustainability in mind all the time. Even if it becomes your mantra. Even if you can't stand hearing the word even one more time. Let it guide every action you take. Don't throw a dart at a board, grab some money and run off to a place you know nothing about. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Be long-lasting. In other words, be sustainable. Be willing to change. And if you're like me, become a part of this change. Pick your passions. Start small if you have to. But don't be afraid to get big. 

I can see my big picture. I know what I want for the next generation. I want all high school seniors to graduate this year. I want every mother and daughter across the globe to get an education; the highest they can possibly find. I don't want women's rights or gay rights or minority rights to exist; can we please just eliminate the qualifiers already and look at the "rights" of all? 

Ten years later, my Honduran host brother is still studying. 
However my host sisters are not.

I can't do everything I want to and I don't plan to. If I do my piece well, then I've truly achieved something. Because perhaps through the course of my existence I'll have helped one or two or hopefully even ten people out of a vicious cycle of poverty. Because that's what is important to me. And I certainly don't work at it alone. I choose to surround myself with like-minded people; people who also want to be a part of the change. People who also thrive on this change, as tough as it may be. People who also want to watch change pass on through a few generations before calling it a success. People who want to see this change become truly sustainable. Because it means we're not needed anymore; our jobs are done. And it's an incredible feeling. One I very much look forward to experiencing one day.

For even more fun, check out this sustainability buzzword generator game.

For sustainable grassroots development, join the Peace Corps. Just kidding (maybe). 

And check out Proyecto Itzaes. The most sustainable education program I've ever come across (and that's saying a lot).


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

the killers

I find myself going through phases. Sometimes I'm a hobby person, other times I'm not. I find I have a wide variety of rapidly passing interests. Except for one. Most of my life I have stuck to one very specific interest. It's the same interest I've had since I was in high school; it has never wavered. I'm interested in true crime.

What do I mean by interested? Well, I spend my free time learning about different types of killers. Before you call the police and then go running for the hills, let me clarify what I mean by learning about killers. First, I'm not learning about killing. I'm not really interested in the gory part. It's just so...gory. I usually look away during a horror movie. I'm not into seeing nor reading about any of the blood and guts. That's not what I mean by learning about killers.

I mean learning about the people behind the killing. The individuals who have gone off the straight and narrow. Because, well, I simply find all people interesting. Everyone has a story and if you tell me yours, I'll gladly listen. I'll be all yours while you fill me in. I just find stories of murder and mayhem to be more interesting than other types of stories.  Because when it comes to the real serial murderers, they are by far the most compelling. Because they are real. And they all have some of the most incredible stories.

And in this regard I know I am not alone. The number of books about murder, the number of movies about crime, the number of TV shows investigating murders and murderers is never ending.

Ann Rule, a prolific true crime author, worked as a police detective alongside Ted Bundy in Seattle. 
She also had the privilege of figuring out just what Bundy was up to.

So why has this life-long hobby of mine become so incredibly popular lately? Looking at the prime-time TV guide lineup, there are no less than 20 shows centered specifically around serial killers (real and fictional alike). So why the massive number of serial killer shows? Your guess is as good as mine. According to the whole of the internet, audiences love sexy killers who can let loose and act out our own violent fantasies. I do not agree. I have no interest in the good looking TV killers; most real life US serial killers are white middle aged men and they're the ones I read about. I just love a good mystery. With a little psychology thrown in for fun.

My interest in serial killers began one week back in 1994. I watched one specific TV program every day: the Biography Channel's "serial killer series." It had all the greats; Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Ed Gein, Albert DeSalvo. Five hours of the real lives of the most prolific American serial killers in history was just enough to solidify my interest for life. These men were, in a word, fascinating. What makes someone kill like this; without conscience? Without remorse, and, for a while at least, without getting caught? I had to know more.

Twenty years later I know a lot more. I know that serial killers kill for one or more of the following reasons; greed, power, need for intimacy, fear of rejection, and perfectionism. Serial killers act with a high amount of control and a lack of morals. I find these individuals (mostly men, but there are a few women) utterly reprehensible. I do not like what they do. But I strive to understand why they do it. And I always want to know more. 

And I do know more. Through the years I've also learned that serial killers wet the bed until a very late age, experiment with killing and torturing animals, hide their victims in secret, keep trophies from the victims and never express remorse. These things only an avid serial killer profiler knows. Just watch an episode of Criminal Minds.

Except that I'm not a real profiler. I'm not even a psychologist. So what am I doing playing amateur detective/therapist? What are millions of people just like me also doing? We're all trying to understand the murderer behind the Fall or the Following. The mystery behind True Detective or the the hundreds of other shows just like it.

Last year I went to a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer. It was real footage taken from inside Dahmer's apartment when it was raided by police. They found no less than 17 skulls of young boys, all with differing holes in them. That's when I learned that Dahmer was trying to make a young boy zombie sex slave. He'd grab a boy and perform his own version of a frontal lobe lobotomy. The boy would be a zombie for a few hours, then die. So Dahmer would repeat the whole process again, the next time slightly altering the location of the brain hole. He knew he would eventually get it right. This is insanity at its very core. And yet it is totally, completely fascinating.

My own copy of a graphic novel created by a former High School classmate of Dahmer's. 
It tells a compelling, if not super graphic, story. It has also become incredibly popular. 

Perhaps I take my interest in killers a bit further than the average American TV watcher. But still I know there are millions of us; sitting at home, watching scary movies and reading true crime books. While serial killers aren't nearly as prolific as TV would lead us to believe, their stories are out there. And they're real. And captivating. And completely entertaining. If you like that sort of thing. Which I most definitely do.

Huffington Post recently recommended ten true crime documentaries currently on Netflix. While I've seen most of these movies, I still prefer reading about true crimes.

A few of my favorite true crime novels include:
Devil in the White City
In Cold Blood
Green River Running Red
The Stranger Beside Me
Death in the City of Light

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I have a lot of stories from my years in the Peace Corps. I have a least a dozen stories that involve all sorts of shenanigans, from the campaign to get Eddy Urbina front teeth to the time my mom hopped on a random stranger's horse and rode away, bareback.

But no other story holds a candle to the one involving two large men, a small cat, my living room, and a Spanish book of yoga poses from 1972. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've gotten more and more into storytelling this past year. Having a blog will do that to you. And just as I'm getting into writing stories, the Northern California Returned Peace Corps Association (NorCal) starts up a storytelling series, the Story Jam. Over the past year, Story Jam has consisted of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers getting up on stage and telling their stories. I'd been meaning to attend a Story Jam for months. Because before I knew it, I was standing on stage telling my tale of lost love. Below is my story.

Or you can listen to the audio version of the story here:
And the video version is available here:

In my home in Gualaco, Olancho, Honduras I had mice. They would pitter-patter every night on the side of my bed, trying to crawl into it with me. So I got a cat. I didn't have mice anymore. 

Instead, I had a best friend. This was a very special cat. "Mi Primer Mascota." My first pet. I named her Bella, bathed her, put a flea collar on her, brushed her fur, let her sleep in the bed with me, potty trained her, and even bought her Gati, special cat food only found in the capital of my department, over two hours away.

The kids loved playing with Bella

Everyone in the village knew my cat; my special gringa cat (pink and white striped "gringa" flea collar and all). I loved this cat with all my heart and soul. When you are the only person living in a small village without your family, you have two choices: you can either miss your family inconsolably. Or you can make your own family. Bella was my family. I named her after my Aunt. I would take pictures of Bella and send them to my mom. I had never had a pet before and Bella was 100% mine.

Meanwhile, I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, always looking for something to fill my time. Around the same time I left for my two plus years in Honduras, my best friend decided to quit her job and move to a yoga retreat in Hawaii. Despite my reluctance to accept yoga into my life at the time, she had sent me off with a deck of yoga cards. I couldn't think of a better project to occupy my time than translating the yoga cards into Spanish. Frequently people would see me around town, at the school using the copier machine, or at the internet cafe, translating the instructions into Spanish. It took up a lot of time.

My yoga deck of poses

One of the very best things about living in my village was the Sierra de Agalta National Park that surrounded us. A group of Gualacans (my people) were "guides" who knew the park like the back of their hands. They would lead me to the Caves of Susmay any time I wanted. They helped me climb La Picucha, the tallest mountain in our department. These guys had day jobs, but being guides was the thing they were most proud of. I spent countless days with these guys; they became my closest friends.

So it wasn't too surprising when I got a knock on my door at 9pm one night. I was almost in bed. But Moncho (real name Ramon) and Eddy were at my door and they were super excited; they had just found a book, in Spanish, of yoga from 1972. And they couldn't wait share this information with me. What the hell, I thought, yoga hasn't changed in a few thousands years, what's another 20? Their poses should be the same as mine.

Moncho asked me if he could show me what he'd been working on. I didn't see why not. It was late, but they were already here and they were so excited. So Moncho quickly swept my living room floor clean and started one of the most difficult poses in all of yoga; he would attempt to do a tripod, leading into a head stand. 

Here's the thing about Moncho Belis: Moncho is a great guy, heart of gold, but also a former alcoholic always one step away from falling back off the wagon. His years of drinking had begun to catch up with him and he was what Hondurans refer to as "panzon." He had a literal beer gut. This guy weighed at least 200 pounds.

Moncho & Eddy

So to watch Moncho attempt the headstand was nothing short of miraculous.  But, along he went: elbows on the ground, legs on his arms, legs heading straight up in the air, and then legs coming down faster than you could imagine. But that's when I saw it. I gasped in horror as Moncho sat up. I was the first person to see the blood that completely covered his back. Then I saw my cat. Bella then started running around in little circles, blood shooting out the side of her head. Finally she dropped down dead and I just took off running, screaming and crying. I woke up the entire town. "What's the crazy gringa going on about now?" they started asking each other.

Where I went wasn't all that much of a mystery. I went to the home of my then Honduran boyfriend. I banged on the door, screaming for him. He was the only other person in the town who could even fathom how much I loved this cat. I woke him up. I also woke up his entire family. I screamed, "Moncho la mato, Moncho la mato!" - "Moncho killed her". And that's when things went from bad to worse. See, my boyfriend's brother's name is also Moncho. So his mom and dad thought either a. someone had killed their son Moncho or b. their son Moncho had killed a girl. Either way, it was looking bad. Everyone was upset.

And then my boyfriend had to explain a completely foreign concept to his parents; Karen was inconsolably upset because Moncho Belis had just killed her cat. Relieved their own son Moncho was okay, they started to stare confusingly right at me. At that point they knew I was crazy; how could I get so upset about an animal? Animals were meant to be kept outside, literally at arm's length all the time. It's not like a family member was gone.

Once I had mostly calmed down, I knew I had to go back home, to confront the scene of the crime. I headed home. Moncho was gone, but Eddy was there waiting for me. The floor was mostly cleaned up, but it still looked like the scene of a very bloody crime. And it was beginning to smell like one.

Eddy told me that Moncho had gone home. That's when I realized what my running away had done; it had told Moncho that I couldn't look at him ever again. But that wasn't true.  It was a freak yoga accident that killed my beloved cat. It was absolutely an accident.

I knew I had to talk to Moncho right away, so I went right over to his house. He was so sad, I just couldn't be mad at him. He very apologetically told me, "Karen, I am a lover of all animals. I could and would never hurt your cat. My children can attest to this fact. I have never harmed another living creature in my life!" 

Remember I mentioned these guys all had day jobs? Well, Moncho was a fumigator. The emotional side of me knew it was just an accident; the logical side of me knew we'd have to some day revisit just what it meant to be a fumigator by profession.

Back at home we put Bella in a box. I apologized to everyone around me for my crazy outburst that night, but my period of mourning had already begun. I put a sign on the door. "Hubo un accidente, no hay clases hoy." There was an accident, there are no classes today. I wasn't about to start telling everyone what Moncho had done. 

But I lived in a small town; everyone already knew. By noon the next day, Moncho already had the nickname "Matagato." Cat-killer. The cat was out of the bag. Everyone knew Moncho Belis had killed my cat.

We ended up burying Bella in my backyard. Eventually I accepted what had happened to her. And what about me and Moncho? I really did forgive him and we ended up becoming great friends. Even if he is a matagato.

Watch out for the cat-killer!