Friday, January 22, 2010

Do I Dare?

In late 2009 I started helping out a Long Island charity run by Mary, the sister of my college roommate. Helping might be too strong a word but I did a bit here and a bit there. The organization is called Operation Hearts and Home and they provide aid to orphaned children in various parts of the world.

Right now their focus is on Ethiopia and trying to help three orphanages that are housing older children who are unlikely to be adopted. Instead, they want to prepare them to become independent adults by providing an education and materials needed to get that education like financial aid, school supplies, and shoes, because you can't go to school without shoes.

Last Thanksgiving, Mary called to say a volunteer going on a trip with her to Ethiopia had dropped out for medical reasons. She wanted to know if I could go in her place. I jumped at the chance but we couldn't make it happen. The other volunteer's ticket was non-transferrable (of course) and I didn't have the $2,000 it was now going to cost to go at the last minute.

The Thanksgiving trip was designed to make preparations for a second trip Mary was planning for this February when she would be bringing a group of volunteers with her. She wanted to make sure their housing and transportation were organized. Also she was trying to get materials together to do various improvement projects for the orphanages.

All along Mary has been sending me updates about the February trip. She organized a group airfare that was about $1000 cheaper. She sent lists of what the kids needed and asked me to forward to my network. Then she called me yesterday and left a long message about some options to help me pay for the still very expensive trip. I could find a rich corporate sponsor who needed a tax write-off. (I'm not sure there are any rich corporate sponsors left.) I could pay for part of the ticket and she would try to help me find the rest. She would pay me to write during the trip, as there would also be a photographer in the group.

There a million reasons why I shouldn't go to Ethiopia in February. It's next month for one thing. It doesn't make much sense financially for me. The trip is over my son's February break and Valentine's day. I'll be leaving my family for ten days. Yada yada yada.

On the other hand, there was a time when I would've said screw it, I'm going. My mom and I used to travel together when I was in college and when I got out. She'd say, "Hey want to go to Egypt then we could meet some of my friends in India?" I'd say "Sure! Just tell me when."

We had big adventures. In Egypt we took a tour with a crazy group of Americans, Brits, a New Zealander and a rather dour Canadian who took an immediate dislike to me because I didn't know where Banff was. I probably couldn't have pointed out Toronto or Vancouver either but I can now.

Egypt was so fun but everyone got sick. Everyone. I think it was the boat trip down the Nile. One morning I saw one of the crew dipping the tea kettle in the Nile. I was a kid. I didn't really put two and two together. The New Zealander was so ill he fainted on the toilet and smashed his nose on the sink. My mom and I repeatedly had to go outside potty, not number 1. I lost 15 pounds in a week and a half. But I saw the Pyramids. I saw the Nile and Karnak and Cairo. Incredible things.

India was another matter. We were meeting a friend of my mother's who had a daughter studying there. The friend is Jonathan Demme's mother-in-law coincidentally. We actually recovered physically in India although at that point I was pretty much on a strict diet of dal--smushed up lentils. India was out of this world. So beautiful and colorful but so poor. Where Egypt, at that point, welcomed Americans and our music, culture, movies. In India multiple people asked to take a picture of me. I was an alien to them.

We spent too much time in Srinagar on a houseboat on Dal Lake. It was freezing. We burned our books to stoke the fire. My mother tried to teach me how to play bridge. Famed LA divorce attorney Melvin Belli stayed on the same boat. In their guestbook he wrote, "Quoth the raven, Nevermore." The houseboat owner, Mohammed, didn't get it, but we sure did.

The thing is, I did it. We did it. We didn't stop to think about the dangers or lack of medical facilities or any of that. We just went.

I'm not like that anymore. Or I haven't been. I'm always talking myself out of even little adventures like going to hear a lecture in the City.

At Tulane, I had a professor who taught Yeats and other poets. Mainly Irish poets and writers. He was Professor Finneran after all. By the way Professor Finneran, nobody wears a blazer with elbow patches in New Orleans. Anyway we dissected T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Even then as young as I was, this poem frightened me. I could feel the life draining out of this man as he grew old. I could see how much routine and the pressures of society can turn you into a coward. I particularly loved this stanza:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces
that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Do I dare? Do I dare? That's the question right? Can I pick up and go to Ethiopia in three weeks? Should I?

Totally along the lines of Eliot and equally profound, one of my favorite movies as a teenager was The Breakfast Club by the great John Hughes who died unexpectedly last year. Ally Sheedy's character says at one point, "When you grow up, your heart dies." Told you it was profound.
Here's to hoping my heart won't die and maybe I'll find my mojo in Ethiopia.

And on a lighter note, another fave John Hughes film was Sixteen Candles. Click to see the memorable "No more yanky my wanky" scene.


  1. I found my mojo in Haiti many years back and now I'm bleeding inside not to be there with those wondeful people. You never regret what you do with purpose. Bon chance!

  2. Hmmm, do you dare? I just read a NYT article about a book called The Power of Half about a family who sold their house, gave half the profits to the needy in Ghana and moved into a smaller house. Whatever happened to the notion that charity begins at home? Why do we feel so compelled to do right and then do it somewhere far away? Is it more adventurous? More worthy?