Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Better Way to Fight Poverty

I recently read this: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/out-of-poverty-family-style/?scp=1&sq=poverty&st=cse about an organization called the Family Independence Initiative (F.I.I.) which assists people in finding their way out of poverty. F.I.I. turns on its head the usual social services model, which is very similar to the foreign assistance model frequently used in developing countries. These models offer material goods and services to people deemed in need of them, whereas F.I.I. encourages people to use their strengths and those of their communities to find and develop resources to solve their own problems.

This approach is something in between the idea that money and people with good intentions are the best way to make things better, and the idea that people should be required to lift themselves up by their bootstraps with no help at all. Small amounts of money and very limited advice are offered by the organization, but essentially the community is required to find its own path forward. So far the results have been impressive. You can find the details at fiinet.org or just by searching online.

I was delighted to see this, because my biggest frustration during my time in the world of international development was seeing large amounts of money being thrown around by the big agencies on projects that were nearly useless but which provided a huge incentive for people with initiative to orient their energies toward participating in these lucrative projects rather than finding more creative, and in the long run more effective, ways to solve the problems their countries faced. I will be thrilled if the F.I.I. model becomes the standard one.

This is not to say that impoverished people, no matter what country they live in, shouldn’t be able to receive direct benefits, particularly very basic things such as food and essential medical care, but people with more material advantages tend to discount the skills of those with fewer, no matter how good their intentions might be. We would all do better to encourage each person, each family, each community, to find and capitalize on their strengths. I hope the work of F.I.I. is replicated all over the world, because the whole world could benefit.

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My father owned many paperbacks by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’m not sure if he had their complete works, but it must have been close. I read them all in quick succession sometime in my early teens and developed a deep affection for them. I recently reread The Big Sleep and it was every bit as good as I remember.

There is such originality and wit in Chandler’s writing. In the very first paragraph Philip Marlowe tells us, “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” The first bit of dialogue goes like this:

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to be.”

He packs a great deal into short descriptions, for example, “Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.” The wonderfully entertaining noir tone never flags, and the story is full of complications, with an ending that fits the characters and the world they inhabit.

For pure entertainment you can’t do better, and the level of craftsmanship is inspiring. I also love the descriptions of 1930s Los Angeles and the cultural references to that era. The movie version with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is great fun too, but if you have never read the book, you should treat yourself to the original.

You can buy it here.

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The Unexamined Text is Not Worth Sending

How many times have you been the sender or recipient of texts or instant messages or other communications like this one:

will b at jwdda giusw

followed by one like this:

sorry meant jeffs house

and how often do you see blog posts, comments, emails, etc. that are so full of errors you can barely comprehend their authors’ meaning? Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that those very same communications are often the ones most filled with nonsensical vitriol or other statements for which the authors later feel compelled to apologize?

What if we all took a little more care with what we write? What if we all took just a few seconds to read what we have written before we share it, to make sure we really want to say what we are about to say, the way we are about to say it?

You have probably heard of the slow food movement, based on the idea that it is important to think about what you eat, to prepare it with care, and to enjoy the full experience of eating it. I think the same principles apply to communication, particularly written communication. I haven’t come up with a catchy name for the movement yet. “Slow writing” and “slow communication” just don’t do it. Does anyone have a suggestion?

Of course some kinds of communication require a certain amount of spontaneity, but there is no form of expression before which there is no time even to take a moment, just a moment, to consider what you are about to say, or text, or tweet. With any written form of communication, it is possible to take the time to read it over before you send or submit or post it. The world can wait an extra second while you fix your typos or change a word to make your meaning clearer.

We all make mistakes on occasion, no matter how careful we are, (please let me know if you catch mistakes in my writing!) and I am not suggesting that people should be castigated for typographical errors. I just think we would all enjoy our communications more and be a healthier global community if we took the time to be fully aware of what we are saying and especially what we are writing, rather than speeding through it as if we were stopping at the fast food drive-through.

Do you think my idea is crazy? Do you agree with me? I would love to know. I will post any comments that do not contain inappropriate language or ad hominem attacks. I will not edit your writing. I leave that up to you.

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding

This book provided me with the most intense reading experience of my life. I know it is very famous, and most people are introduced to it in school, but when I read it I had never heard of it. I will never forget how I came across it.

I was about ten years old, and I was wandering around the house looking for something to read. Our house was packed with books, with floor to ceiling shelves in almost every room. I was the very definition of a voracious reader, consuming books like candy, and I had just finished reading something. I don’t remember what it was.

I went into my parents’ room, where my mother was making the bed. Scanning the titles on the shelves, I came across this one. Thinking it sounded just disgusting, I said aloud in my best tween sneer, “Lord of the Flies? Yuck!” My mother had the best possible reaction. She did not scold me or mock me. She simply said, completely calmly, “Actually, that’s a very good book,” and continued making the bed.

That made me curious enough to pull it from the shelf and read the back cover, and when I learned it wasn’t really about flies, but about children running wild on an island, I became interested enough to read the first page, and then I was hooked. I could not put it down. I did my chores with one hand, reading the whole time. My mother forced me to put it down long enough to eat dinner, but then I went right back to it.

I lay in bed reading long past my bedtime, but I absolutely couldn’t stop. Finally, at some point in the middle of the night, I finished the last page. I realized I had been holding my breath, so I let it out, and as I closed the book I couldn’t refrain from saying, “Wow!”

I already knew I wanted to be a writer, although I kept it more or less a secret, because somehow I didn’t think writing novels was a proper profession, but that book sealed the deal. I thought to myself, if I could write something that had the impact on other people that this book just had on me, if I could make people feel things that strongly just by putting the right words together, I would be completely happy. I would know I had accomplished something great, and I would need nothing else from life.

I suppose I was an odd, intense child, and I know I am an odd, intense adult, but for me the alchemy of writing and reading holds a kind of magic. I still dream of writing something that powerful, and maybe someday I will. William Golding certainly did.

If you don’t already have the book, you can buy it here.

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