February 28, 2010

Say What You Need To Say

I am afraid to write what I really think. I used to say that I was afraid because I didn’t think people were ready to hear what I had to say, but that wasn’t true. The only person not ready was me. I was afraid of what people might think of me and how my relationships with people might change. I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to expectations. Life is too short. Too short for me not to be myself. I am still afraid, but I want to say what I think. I might not always be right but I want to be honest.

When we are honest with our emotions, however dark they may be,
We invite others to be real and to face their own pain.
And then real transformation can occur – that’s how we are going to fix this planet.

But when we suppress, when we are fake, we send a message out to others
that they need to be fake too and hold in their truth.
This is how things will remain the same.

Today, be real. You don’t need to be anyone else but who you are.
Being honest helps the rest of us find our truth.
Yehuda Berg

February 25, 2010

Stress Mess

Stress in Peace Corps is a crazy thing, by sheer volume and the nature of the beast. I've always been a pretty calm guy, but when the annoyances pile up and the ridiculousness gets taken to a whole new level it's no wonder that one little old lady stealing an ice cream cone out of my hand can really push me over the edge. Why?!? I don't have perfect advice, maybe ever, but my Peace Corps Medical Officer Amy asked me to write to my fellow Volunteers about handling stress this month, so here are some of the ideas I wrote for her to share:

  • TEXTING... Oh the magic of texting other Volunteers. But not just any old texts, I recommend Random Mongolian Lessons of the Day (RMLD), Mongolian Revelations of the Day (MRD), or whatever ridiculous name you prefer. Sum up as best you can in 918 characters the humor, the stress, or the insanity that you witnessed and/or took part in and then send it to your closest friends. It might start as a rant, turn into a reflection and end who knows where. Whatever the case, it will probably get good responses and start a chain of hilarious texts.
  • WRITING... Similar I know, but here you aren't limited to characters or the fact that you can't stare at someone in the eye while you speed-text like a maniac, like some people. Here you are only limited by your ability to sit still, think and get those thoughts out into words. Scribble if you want to, blog if you want to, you can even write a book if you want to. Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty prolific writers and it's a great way to gain perspective on yourself and the world.
  • EXERCISE... I know, I know. Thanks a lot Travis, I'm already tired and stressed out and your advice is to exercise. Perfect. Believe me, it's usually the last thing I want to do too. So if I get stressed out or angry, I usually just start with one push-up. It's hard to stop with one though. By the time I've physically gotten down on the floor or awkwardly stretched out in my office to do an incline push-up on an office chair, I usually just go at it. Everyone stares, but they do anyway, so whatever. Watch me, look at the crazy American! By the time I can't do any more, I'm usually so worn out I've forgotten why I was stressed out in the first place. If I exercise in the morning, I'm such a combination of soreness and crazy energy the rest of the day that I don't really care to be stressed about anything else. It's sort of like Tyler Durden says, "After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down." Except don't fight, you're in Peace Corps! Unless you are sited with Matt Becker, you can punch him for me.
  • SIT IN THE HOODO... I don't do this as often as someone I know but I think it's pretty awesome. Just go out into the hoodo (countryside) and sit. You'll probably fall asleep. Sugeer! (It's okay!) Sleep. Just relax, take it all in, and come back hours later. Text your sitemates to keep them in the loop if you want. This seems to work well in the 9 warmer months here, which we are rapidly approaching. Also, from the makers of sit in the hoodo, comes sleep in the hoodo! Way fun too, especially if you bring the inflatable mattress.
  • MAKE A LIFE LIST... I'm a huge fan of lists, so the idea of a Life List gets me jittery with excitement. Basically the idea is to think about your life and what you really want to do with the time you have (probably less than you think by the way) and then write it down bullet-point fashion. You can keep it secret on your silver laptop or you can share it with the entire planet on a site like 43Things.com. Whatever you choose, it's fun to have a reminder of what success and happiness mean to you and then work at it day by day. Aww!
  • EVOLVE & DEVOLVE... Don't read or watch just anything, read or watch with a purpose. Sometimes I read to improve myself (ZenHabits, PhilosophersNotes, spirituality stuff) but sometimes I try to do the opposite (Die Hard and any Samuel L. Jackson movie are perfect). I guess it's helpful to purposefully waste time by doing things that you know are ridiculous and not feel guilty about it.
  • WHY SO SERIOUS?... Oh Joker, you're so right. It's nice to take the time to realize that we have it pretty good. Pretty flippin' good. Think about some things you're thankful for, message people who love and you're glad are in your life, think about things from other people's perspectives, practice the theory that everything is an opportunity if you just choose to see it that way.
  • HARASS TRAVIS... If you made it this far, I deserve it. Be gentle. I'm gonna go watch Die Hard.

February 21, 2010

A Tall Order

 "Your work is to discover your world and then with all of your heart give yourself to it."

This challenge from Buddha is a tall order. I feel like I have been improving on achieving this, but I think it will be the challenge of my lifetime.

Discovering my world involves constantly stepping out of a comfortable place and painting a truer picture of our world as it is. We live in a beautiful and difficult place - thinking of the richest person and then the poorest person I know quickly brings that point home. My world includes all people, all places, everything and yet I know so little of it.

Giving myself to the world with all of my heart involves love at a level that few people dare to go, beyond partners, family and friends, to all people. It is likely the greatest and most difficult thing I will ever do. Service, love, compassion, kindness... These things don't have an occasional place in my life. They are my life. Thinking of the poorest person I know and then asking myself whether my next action is going to help that person is a task set before me every moment of every day.

February 18, 2010

On Consistent Internet

Having internet has been a wonderful thing during my service, allowing me to Skype with family, friends and new classroom friends, helping me keep track of exciting news and events like the election, research important information for my work in the hospital, keep up with joint projects with other Peace Corps Volunteers, and share my thoughts here on my blog and on my website.

Early on in my service I wrote a Travel Journal to highlight what was happening my first few months in Mongolia when internet was not a possibility, but now that internet has been quite regular for me I am getting much better about posting here consistently. I will be posting new thoughts twice a week and if you want you can subscribe to them via or RSS feed or email (which is my favorite way). I hope you like them! Thanks for all your great comments here and on Facebook!

February 15, 2010

I Love Papa Jack

If I love someone and they die, do I have to say I loved them? Can I no longer say I love them?

My grandfather died today. I loved my grandfather.

Jack married my grandmother more than 10 years ago, when I was still in middle school. Big Nanny, as we have always called my grandma, hadn't been married since divorcing my grandfather when my mom was in college. These decades of her life, making it quite fine on her own, required Jack to do quite some convincing. But he succeeded. They were married in Chicago, Jack's home for more than 60 years.

In our family we call grandfathers "Papa" and grandmothers "Nanny." Papa Leslie was my mom's dad, Papa Ward my dad's dad, Big Nanny my mom's mom, Little Nanny my mom's dad's mom and so on. John Sohl became Papa Jack.

I always enjoyed our conversations and was fascinated by the life Papa Jack had led. At 24, my age now, he was about to fight in Africa during the second world war. A decade later he was pioneering a new business and a couple decades after that he was transitioning the multi-million dollar company to someone else to run. He was a kind man, a calm man and a generous man. So much so that I will have a hard time living up to his standard. In his nineties, when I was able to stay with him and Big Nanny over the summer to study for the medical school entrance exam, he still spent his free time take daily walks, giving advice to young businessmen and businesswomen free of charge, donating his time, money, contacts and energy to service above self groups like the Rotary Club, and sharing his wisdom with young kids like me. That was the summer I really started to love Jack.

We talked about everything that summer, often the things we cared most about - things that would seem to separate us. He liked Fox News, I liked the Daily Show. He wasn't too keen on the United Nations, I wanted to be Secretary General. He wasn't sold on the value of the Peace Corps, I wanted to join with every ounce of my body. He liked deli meats, I liked...well, we agreed on that.

I never tired of talking to Jack because he never tired of talking to me. No matter the issue, no matter our opinions, we respected each other, we honored each other and we shared with each other our thoughts and our lives. I never once forgot that I spoke with a man more than four times my age. I never once forgot about the wisdom behind his words - the life experiences that supported his positions and lifted him up to see the world the way he did. I never once forgot that this man, with his tremendously valuable time, was sitting down and talking with me. He shared his laughter, his smiles and his warm handshakes with me as often as I let him. I did fine on the entrance exam that summer, but if I didn't study as hard as I could have it's because I was doing something much more valuable.

It has been said that "Greatness is always built on this foundation: the ability to appear, speak and act, as the most common man." I have to think this is why Jack's desks were always covered in letters, his walls always displaying plaques from dozens of organizations and the cars outside were always filled with friends ready to take him to the next club meeting - he gave himself completely to each of them. He gave his time and his heart to those who gave their time and hearts to him. He was a most common man and one of the greatest men I have ever met. Like all great men that continue to inspire me, Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, King, I will not use the past tense with him. I love Papa Jack.

February 14, 2010

Language is Unnecessary

Language is unnecessary. Sometimes. To express ideas we can often simply act. We can love. We can be kind. We can listen. We can be all of those things during the moments in which we normally just talk about those things. I have learned this especially with Tunga, who I often want to say many things to. I want to tell her that I love her, that she is special, that she is wonderful and that I think about her all the time. But I can show her those things. I can live in expression of these things. I can do that and she will know.

February 12, 2010

Project Expansion

We had a very important meeting this week with Tseesuren, our friend and embroidery partner in the Peace Corps Merit Badge project. We don't get to meet with her very often since she lives hours away in a small village, though we do get to see and work with her daughter Enkhnara every day here in the capital city of our province.

The project has expanded much larger and more quickly than we had anticipated, requiring all of us to adapt and think of new ways to approach this unique service project with its many business aspects. As you can imagine, communication here can be challenging and even more so when you consider how quickly Volunteers and translators come and go along the way. We are in the process of making this project sustainable for many years to come, allowing people around the world to order and pay for badges online, for those orders and payments to be transmitted easily and accurately, and for the products to then be shipped and in the hands of the customer within a reasonable amount of time. As you know we originally thought our market was a couple of Volunteers in Mongolia, we now know our market is tens of thousands of people around the world. We have currently sold over 300 badges and just received an order for 150 badges from the National Peace Corps Association and this is very literally just the beginning.

Tseesuren and Enkhnara got involved with this project as a favor to us, a few Volunteers who wanted some nifty little pieces of Mongolian felt to remind us of incredible adventures and wonderful memories. They have been very open-minded and had the vision themselves to allow this project to continue to grow, involved more embroiderers, family members and friends in the process and extended handshakes and hugs to people who want to join in. We are talking about a small and meaningful idea that is growing into a big and more powerful idea. By doing the small things right, by keeping this project about the individuals and the small communities that it impacts, we will do the big things right.

We are very lucky to have a strong and dedicated team that loves each other, loves Mongolia and loves Peace Corps and with that at our back, we will always handle operational challenges like online transaction fees, website optimization, payment methods, shipping complications and merit badge design with a high level of humility, humor and fun. After all, this project always was for that purpose: to help people and have fun. It's wonderful to see it achieving both those goals every day.

February 9, 2010

What I Want

February has always been a month of me getting what I wanted. My birthday comes at the end of the month and has always given me plenty of time to make wish lists, tell people what I would love to get and anticipate it with open hands. Now in Mongolia I have yet another reason to want. Tsaagan Sar is a yearly celebration here which celebrates crossing over the peak of winter and entering the wonderfully warm seasons of spring and summer. These two pictures are of Tunga's mother and I during Tsagaan Sar last year. It is a very important holiday, arguably the most important in the country, and surrounded by an incredible amount of gift giving. In someways it's a combination of American Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Cleaning, with lots of cooking, cleaning, family, friends and visits all over the country. Stores shut down for days, the country grinds to a halt and national foods like buuz are eaten by the billions, which is saying a lot for a country with a population of almost 3 million. It's awe inspiring.

So when my colleague and close friend Saradunai asked me what presents I wanted, what things I needed, imagine my surprise when, inspite of myself, I stared off into the distance and couldn't think of a thing. It wasn't that I couldn't think of anything to say, I literally couldn't think of anything to think. Risking being hokie, after a few minutes I told her in Mongolian, "I have everything I want. I'm very happy. I am surrounded by wonderful people I love. I have a wonderful girlfriend I love. And I have 100 tugrics." As I said it I was playing with the present she had given me somewhat reluctantly weeks ago: a pile of brand new 1 tugric notes which I had been wanting for months. I have used them in class, plan on sending them to my family and friends, want to include them in merit badge orders, use them as bookmarks...the list goes on and on. She laughed. Hard. Harder than I had ever seen her laugh before, which is saying something because she laughs more than anyone in our office. Maybe the entire hospital. She repeated what I said and laughed again. I smiled and laughed with her smiling, "Right, exactly." She laughed because I couldn't think of anything, she laughed because I was completely serious in my reply and she laughed for the same reason she was reluctant to give me those 100 one tugric notes in the first place - it's the equivalent of giving someone 100 1/10ths of a penny, or a dime cut into 100 pieces. They are hard to get because the bank doesn't even like dealing with them. Whatever the case, I love them and she thinks it's hilarious. 

"On second thought," I told her, "I know what I want."

"What?" she asked, wiping her eyes from all the laughing.

"Maybe another 100 tugrics?"

Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. 
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.Lao Tzu

February 6, 2010

Definition of Success

One of my most vivid memories of preparing to leave for Peace Corps was when our trainers asked us to open up our handbooks and write down our definitions of success as Peace Corps Volunteers. I think we were given 5 to 10 minutes. I thought to myself then that I wanted more time. I wrote for as long as they let me and I have continued to write for two years. I still want more time.

I think that is the single most important question any Peace Corps Volunteer can ask themselves. What is success? What is happiness? How will you know you are successful? Everyone, likely with their best intentions, will tell you their answer. Friends. Family. Fellow Volunteers. Peace Corps Staff. Even dead people will tell you. Thoreau. Spiritual Icons. World Leaders. Irrelevant. Your own definition takes time, your heart, your service, and whole your life to write.

February 4, 2010

Greatness and Roots

I find that often my frustration lies not in what is happening, but in my own inability to react to it properly. This could mean my perspective, or more often my management of projects and activities. I want to be a kind and effective person, engaged in healthy and meaningful work. This means avoiding the easy trap of doing what is urgent but not valuable, or immediate but not lasting.

Before Peace Corps, all the way back to high school, my friends knew me to carry around my planner all the time. It changed shape over the years, but always accompanied me so I would be on task. I was effective at what I did in large part because of the amount of time I put into planning, organizing and prioritizing things. However over the course of my service here I've had the chance to live in a culture much more lenient about time, and this has been a great opportunity for me to learn about the differences between greatness and effectiveness.

If effectiveness is doing things right, greatness is doing the right things. It requires value judgment, vision and having a clear idea of why you do what you do. It requires that you ask yourself what the ultimate reason is behind it all? How does your life purpose live out through doing this thing? It might seem unreasonable at first, to ask yourself how buying this thing or filing out this form or sealing this deal helps you live out your life purpose, but I submit that it is of utmost importance to consider it. Either that or get to the end of your life and wonder what the point of it all was.

One of the greatest things I've learned here in Mongolia has been that, between all of the pleasure and the pain, we are all after a deep happiness in life. We pursue it through our relationships, our professions, our projects, and most of all through our day-to-day interactions with the people we bump into. It's beautiful in a small town to see people helping each other and truly not leaving anyone out in the cold. I have never heard of a homeless shelter, orphanage or retirement home in our province. They don't need them. People open their homes to their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and relatives year after year. It's very likely, in fact, that we 5 Peace Corps Volunteer are the only people living alone in this population of 50,000 people.

When speaking about my life in Peace Corps, I have often said to my friends and family that I spend most of my time just trying to be a good person. I try to treat every interaction, every choice, every moment, as a chance to make a good decision. This is a lot harder than I thought it would be. At first, I thought it meant showing up to work at exactly 9am and leaving at exactly 6pm. It doesn't. Then I thought it meant working really hard on projects and getting lots of money for proposals and seminars. That wasn't it either. That was my efficient mind trying to quantify what I am going through. When my mind opened up to the idea of quality instead, the whole situation changed. I have often thought about what Thoreau, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." The difference between an effective project and a great project, or an effective person and a great person, is the difference between roots and branches.

It's still a daily challenge to do well and do good, but I think I'm getting better.

February 2, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship

While researching Muhammad Yunus I came upon this little game on PBS about social entrepreneurship which they call The New Heroes. It not only matches what is happening in our experience here in eastern Mongolia with Peace Corps Merit Badges, it even literally suggests that the person playing is a Peace Corps Volunteer and gives you the same multiple choice questions that we am facing right now. Very exciting. Try it out!

February 1, 2010

Muhummad Yunus

Muhummad Yunus is a Nobel Peace Prize winning economist who decided to leave the classroom where he taught the history of economics and instead began writing history himself. His inspiring story beautiful illustrates how simple it can be to change yourself and how much you are willing to give, even just a few dollars, and how that can quickly change the world. The Grameen Bank, which he started in 1983, now employees over 12,000 staff in over 1,200 branches and has extended over $4.6 billion in loans averaging under $200 each. Over 3.7 million people are now involved and live better lives because of the simple choice that Yunus made to no longer talk about the problems of the world, but instead change himself and do what he could to change the world. He is an inspiration to me and to millions of people around the world.

Read a recent speech by Yunus on Social Business
To learn more visit YunusCenter, Wikipedia and PBS