Armenia, lessons learned, musings

What can you bring to the party?

Yesterday’s post about not having to be a star captured the attention of my friend and former student, Stepan, who is now working for Peace Corps Armenia. Since I’ve been working on writing about my Armenia trip on my travel blog, I thought today’s main blog post should be connected to yesterday’s post. I’ll try to be brief.

Two years after I finished my Peace Corps service, I decided to enroll in graduate school at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. Originally, I had hoped to be a Peace Corps Fellow, but that didn’t work out for me. In retrospect, the fact that the plan didn’t work out for me turned out to be a huge blessing. If I had been a Fellow, it would have altered my life quite a bit. I would have been required to stay in South Carolina for four years after I finished my dual master’s degrees in social work and public health. Since I ultimately got married six months after I graduated, and then moved back to Virginia, it would not have been ideal for me to be obligated to stay in South Carolina for four years.

The Peace Corps Fellows program I had hoped to sign up for went defunct the year I matriculated. Then it was reformed, so that it was really best for people who had served in Spanish speaking countries. While I did study Spanish for several years, I am definitely nowhere near fluent. I’m much better at speaking Armenian than Spanish. There aren’t that many needy Armenians in Columbia, South Carolina.

So, I wasn’t a Peace Corps Fellow, but I did know a couple of other former Volunteers who were in my dual degree program and had become friends. They served in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

One of the courses I took for my public health degree was a health promotion course. It was about coming up with public health campaigns that could be “sold” to people willing to invest in the cause. I remember the professor, a man with the last name of Ureda, presented this idea by likening it to throwing a party. He brought up concepts of planning the party and deciding who should be invited, so the gathering would be fun and successful for everyone.

I took that course in the summer, and it lasted about five or six weeks or so, if I recall correctly. Our class decided on a public health issue to present. We were divided into groups, and we had to come up with campaigns for our “parties”. My memories are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember that our class decided the issue we should address was bulimia. Bulimia, for those who don’t know, is an eating disorder in which sufferers binge on vast amounts of food and then vomit or use other means (compulsive exercise, laxatives, purgatives, etc.) to quickly get rid of the food before they gain weight.

Bulimia is a serious problem, especially among young women. I’m still not sure why that particular topic was chosen for our project. Maybe it was because we were on a university campus, and a lot of the people in the class were young women. In any case, I was pretty tired of writing and talking about bulimia by the time that class was finished. I had to write four long papers about it within the short timeframe of the class. But I managed to do it, and passed the class. And today, I’m reminded of the concept of planning “parties” while coming up with campaigns for helping people.

I don’t actually remember Ureda posing the question “What can you bring to the party?”. He was focused on saying “Come to the party!” But, when it comes to Peace Corps service, and the powers that be within it, I think “What can you bring to the party” is a good question to ask of any Volunteer.

In yesterday’s post, I wrote that I didn’t think Peace Corps should be super “results oriented”. I base that opinion on my experiences as a Volunteer, and how there wasn’t a lot of trust when I was serving. The earliest Peace Corps Armenia groups were kind of like “young pioneers” (see what I did there?) in what has turned out to be a very successful program. But, at the beginning of Peace Corps Armenia’s existence, some ice had to be broken. We couldn’t be expected to just go marching into a classroom or a business and expect everyone to immediately trust us. Building trust takes time, and two years isn’t a super long time to build a lot of trust… especially when you’re struggling to pick up language skills and get the lay of the land.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, almost every person has some kind of strength, talent, or skill… something they’re good at that has some value to other people. As I found out when I was a Volunteer, sharing those talents with other people is a great way to make connections and build trust. I am very fortunate, as one thing I’m really good at is singing. Armenia is a fabulous place for anyone interested in the arts. Whether you’re a singer, or a dancer, or an artist, or you play an instrument or act… all of these skills, as well as just about any other, are valuable and translate well.

Singing, for me, was a way I could connect to my three classes of first form pupils– seven year olds, who didn’t speak English at all and were just learning how to be in school. If I spoke to them, they’d talk over me. But if I broke into “The Hokey Pokey”, “Brown Squirrel”, or “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, they’d be quiet and we could get some things done. I used music with my older students, too. I remember singing “What a Wonderful World” with several of my tenth form students during my first year.

Using music also worked for bonding with adults. I remember joining some Peace Corps friends at a jazz club near Republic Square and there was a band playing. My friends wanted me to sing with the band, and they were kind enough to oblige. I sang “Summertime”, which was my go to song back then. I don’t remember the last time I sang it, but back in the 90s, I sang it ALL the time. And the sudden collaboration was a success. We bonded with the club owner and the band, and had a great time. That was one of the really GOOD times I had in Armenia.

Maybe your thing is basketball, instead of singing… Whatever you have to offer, you can bring it to the “party”.

Personally, I have found that music is an international language. I’ve connected with people in Germany, too, through the gift of song. But not everyone can sing or play an instrument. Some people have no interest whatsoever in the arts. Maybe they’re good at athletics– something I am definitely not good at! So they play a game with locals, maybe form a team or a club… I remember our training group used to play basketball or softball, and that was a good way of bonding with locals. There was also a guy who served in Vanadzor who formed a band with Armenians called “Snack”. They were great! They played at a lot of our parties! One of the band members married a woman in my cohort. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago, but he was a really nice guy who knew most of us. Somewhere in storage, I have a cassette tape with Snack’s music on it.

Stepan told me about one of the current Volunteers who dances. Recently, Peace Corps Armenia shared a video of him dancing with the locals. I thought it was really awesome, because they were obviously having a great time and strengthening a bond. Those kinds of activities are not only fun, but they also promote understanding and trust. They help break barriers and destroy stereotypes. This is how relationships are built so that positive changes can happen.

My sister, who was a Volunteer in Morocco, loved to go running. She’d run through her village in 80s era Morocco, creating quite a spectacle, since local women didn’t tend to do that. I remember she said they used to call her Superwoman. I don’t know if any of the locals ever joined her, but she did present an example of someone doing something different… she was someone venturing outside the “box” and presenting a new perspective. This is one way people evolve.

If someone asked me to issue a challenge to today’s Volunteers, I would encourage them to take an inventory of what interests them and the areas where they have natural gifts. What are you good at? What can you share with others? What can you bring to the party? It could be almost anything, as long as it’s legal.

I was known as a singer… and later, I shared my talents in the kitchen, when I got recruited to help some business Volunteers with a dried produce project. I used Armenian produce to create recipes. One of our most successful ventures was using dried tomatoes, onions, and peppers to make pizza sauce. We threw a pizza party that was very well received! Not only was it a potentially profitable enterprise for Armenians, it was also a lot of fun for me. I loved coming up with creative ways to use fruits and vegetables grown in Armenia. I even got to use an electric oven, provided to me by the US Department of Agriculture. That was quite a coup in the 90s. During my first year, I made a primitive oven with a big pot and my kerosene heaters!

Maybe I wasn’t a star teacher, but I was successful in other ways. And after my experiences as a PCV in Armenia, I know that there are many ways to contribute to a community effort. In fact, I learned that it’s a good thing that people have different strengths. If everyone invited brought soda or cake to a party, that wouldn’t be a good thing, would it? It’s much better when someone brings the plates, another person brings the ice, someone else brings beverages, and maybe someone bakes a cake and brings that.

Everyone has something they can contribute to the effort, and that’s what makes the whole party a success, and fun for everyone. Even if you can’t sing or play basketball, you almost surely have something to offer. Maybe it’s just two functioning arms to carry equipment, or a strong back. Never discount or underestimate the importance of those things. Any good project involves some kind of “heavy lifting”– whether figuratively or literally. A strong back and two strong arms can be the critical keys to the viability of any program. So can good critical thinking and communication skills. Maybe you’re not a singer or an athlete, but you are a good organizer. Maybe you’re empathic and good at managing people. Maybe you’re a whiz at budgeting. The possibilities are endless.

Back in the 90s, I lamented that I wasn’t a super talented and charismatic teacher… Or, at least I didn’t think I was. Maybe other people have a different take. But one thing I know I can do is sing a pretty song. I can make killer pizza sauce and bake delicious apple pies. I can write an engaging article– and when I was a PCV, it was I who put together the Peace Corps cookbook, with help from all of the Volunteers who also contributed. I can be entertaining in other ways, too… especially for those who like crude humor. πŸ˜‰ And, let me tell you, when I was in Armenia, I used every one of those skills and more. When it comes to living in a place where people don’t have much, those skills and talents turn into valuable tools that are essential for success.

So ends today’s “sermon”. I think I have two or three more Armenia blog posts left to write on my travel blog. Once those are done, I’ll probably return to my usual blog “programming” on this blog. So, if you’ve been missing my usual stuff here, hang tight. I should be getting back to that material in just a few days. For those who prefer this kind of post, fair warning that I’m not usually this mature. πŸ˜€

Today’s featured photo is part of the spread Bill and I enjoyed with Stepan and his daughter. We also had some killer khorovatz! It was a hell of a party!

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Armenia, musings

“You don’t have to be a star, baby…”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, lately, about life, and choices I’ve made in the course of it. My recent journey to Armenia has caused me to do a lot of pondering and wondering. The Peace Corps is the kind of organization that attracts all sorts of people. It is competitive to join the Peace Corps, and it can look really good on a resume. But while there are some real superstars who spend two years volunteering in austere places around the globe, the truth is, there are a lot of more average people who serve. And some people who seem to be shooting stars burn out quickly and can’t stay the course.

Obligatory mood music.

When I’ve written about my time in the Peace Corps, I’ve mentioned that I was never one of those people who had spent my whole life aspiring to be a Volunteer. In fact, I think the only reason I knew about the Peace Corps– beyond what I’d seen in the recruitment ads that aired in the 80s– was because my older sister, Betsy, had been a Volunteer in Morocco from 1984-86.

Betsy is a star. She has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and speaks several languages. When she was a teenager, she was a ballerina, and studied for a year at the Royal Ballet School in London. She finished high school by correspondence, and moved back to Virginia alone to attend the College of William & Mary, while my dad finished his last tour of duty at Mildenhall Air Force Base in England. Later, after she was in the Peace Corps, Betsy got married, and earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. I’m pretty sure Betsy was my parents’ favorite of their four children. I’m certain she was our dad’s favorite. She excelled at everything she did.

By contrast, next to Betsy, I feel pretty mediocre. I did okay in school, but I was not an academic star. I didn’t go to any very prestigious universities, like Betsy did. I’m not what you’d call a “go getter”, and I certainly haven’t turned into anyone important or exciting. I have achieved some pretty good things, and finishing two years in the Peace Corps is one achievement that makes me proud. But for years after my time in Armenia, I felt a little ashamed of what I didn’t do there. I felt like I hadn’t produced enough. I wasn’t a “star”.

Me and Stepan in 1996.
Me and Stepan in 2023…

I felt even more humbled by what I saw as my “lame” attempts to help the people of Armenia when I’d read about what more current Volunteers were doing. For example, when I was in Armenia last week, I asked Stepan (who I think is a star) about a young woman who had been a Volunteer in 2017. Her name was Hanna Huntley, and at just 23 years old, she died while serving in Armenia. She and her boyfriend were in a car accident.

I didn’t know Hanna Huntley, but I can see that we had a few things in common, besides having served with Peace Corps Armenia. She was the daughter of a Marine Corps officer, and her home of record was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which isn’t so far from where I grew up, in Gloucester, Virginia. My father was an Air Force officer, although he didn’t go as far in his military career as Hanna’s father has.

When I mentioned Hanna to Stepan, I could see a flash of pain and regret on his face. Hanna had been one of “his Volunteers”. She was serving as a Youth in Development Volunteer, which is the program Stepan runs. I could tell that Stepan was devastated that Hanna had died during her service. He clearly thought very highly of her. When I looked her up on the Internet, I could see that many people loved her. In her 23 years of life, she had become fluent in Hungarian, Spanish, and Russian, and she was learning Armenian, to which I can attest is not an easy language to learn. Looking at her resume, I can see that she had spent her young life serving other people. Hanna was already a star, and had her life not been cut short, she probably would have burned even brighter.

I look at Stepan, and what an extraordinary man he’s become. He’s very intelligent and talented, but he’s also kind, generous, and caring. He’s clearly devoted to his work, and committed to setting up his Volunteers for success. We had a couple of good discussions about Peace Corps service, and what the focus should be for Volunteers. Americans are very results oriented, and when I was a Volunteer, I felt pressured to produce results… to teach kids to speak English. And I felt like I failed in that mission, although many of the kids I worked with already spoke English pretty well.

For years after I worked in Armenia, I felt like I hadn’t done a very good job or tried hard enough. That was one of the reasons why I was a bit reluctant to go back there. I felt a little ashamed, and I worried there would be negativity. What if I ran into my former counterpart? I don’t think she liked me very much, even though I really was trying to do good things. There wasn’t much communication, though. I felt like I was expected to do everything on my own, with no collaboration. And there wasn’t much trust. Not that I can blame the Armenians for that. I was just out of college… 22 years old when I arrived, and 23 when I started working at the school. What could I possibly offer anyone?

I felt that students like Stepan deserved a “star” teacher. And I didn’t feel like I was a star, even though I did try. I got negative feedback from a lot of people– Americans and Armenians alike. I wondered if I’d wasted my time, even though I came away from that experience having learned new things and made new friends. By the time I left Armenia, I was angry, depressed, and burned out… and then I came home to a crisis, as my dad went into rehab for his alcoholism the day after my return stateside. He was kind of mean to me when he met me at the airport. I hadn’t been expecting him to be there, and when he met me, he treated me badly. When we got into the car, he told me he was going into rehab. I was relieved to hear that, but the ride home was long and unpleasant, and the dinner my mom had made for me was spoiled by my dad’s anger about going to rehab the next day. Rehab, by the way, didn’t work for him.

As the years passed, I started to realize that Armenia had changed my life on so many levels. My bitterness faded as time went by, and I started to feel nostalgic. I gradually forgot the worst of the bad times, and focused more on the good times. I did have a lot of good times in Armenia. It’s the one place where I’ve had the opportunity to use almost every single talent God gave me. I realized that I did actually have some successes, and I started to feel warm toward Armenia. I started to feel love, respect, and appreciation toward my Peace Corps colleagues. Some of them really were stars.

A couple of years ago, we lost Matt Jensen, a Volunteer who had served in Senegal and Armenia. I wasn’t one of Matt’s best friends, but we did spend a lot of time together during our second year in Armenia. I got to know him pretty well, and although we’d lost touch, I was genuinely heartbroken when I heard about how he was hit by a car in Brooklyn, New York, and left for dead. I was outraged when I heard about the criminally short prison sentence his killer got. I’ve written a bit about Matt in this blog, so I won’t go on about his premature death. But I do want to mention something that really struck me when fellow RPCVs held a memorial for him on Zoom. There were people from around the world who joined that Zoom call to honor Matt– Bill and I in Germany, several people in Russia, a person in Sweden, someone in Belize, people in Armenia, and of course, people all across the United States.

One of the people who had joined the call was a man named Hoveek, who lived in Vanadzor. Matt had worked in Vanadzor, and he’d had a profoundly positive effect on Hoveek. I sat amazed as I listened to how much Hoveek had admired Matt, and how much Matt had helped him. Tears were streaming down his face… and I realized that Matt had changed this man’s life for the better. Matt was so beloved in Vanadzor, that locals have created a memorial for him there. I wish I’d had the chance to see it in person. I did mention Matt to the Peace Corps staff, and was a little surprised that they hadn’t heard of him. Matt had not only been a Volunteer, but he was also the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) trainer for at least one group. Matt was, in my opinion, a star.

Which brings me back to Stepan and Hanna… Stepan was Hanna’s Peace Corps “boss”. But 27 years ago, Stepan was my student. Even though I didn’t feel like a “star” Peace Corps Volunteer, I must have done something right. Because Stepan later decided to work for the Peace Corps. Obviously, his interactions with me when he was a teenager weren’t a total turn off. Stepan is a star employee of the Peace Corps, working with today’s Volunteers. I can tell he loves what he does, and his Volunteers love him. Stepan is another link I share with Hanna, an extraordinary young woman I never knew, and will never meet.

Now that I’ve been back to Armenia and received such an overwhelmingly warm welcome, I realize that you really don’t have to be a “star” in the Peace Corps. You can do great things just by going there and talking to the locals, especially if you manage to do it in Armenian— at least at first. Stepan’s daughter, Susi, said it was “beautiful” when she heard Americans speaking Armenian. It’s not a language that gets spoken in many places, even though there are many Armenians in the diaspora. I’m sure it does sound beautiful to Armenians when someone tries to learn their language and doesn’t deem it “worthless”, as I recently saw it described in a scathing negative review of an Armenian restaurant.

As an American living abroad, I’ve seen how English is everywhere. It’s everywhere in Germany, and many people speak it fluently, even though they’re German. I’ve seen it all over Europe, and now it’s very common in Armenia. When I lived there, Armenian, or at least Russian, language skills were essential for success. Today, so many people speak English in Yerevan that not knowing Armenian isn’t a huge problem. But I made so many people smile as I gamely tried to speak my rusty Eastern Armenian. It opened doors for us during our visit, especially since so many people seemed to think I was Russian (one thing that hasn’t changed since the 90s).

Stepan said that he wants Volunteers to be happy, and he wants them to connect with the people. That’s more important than achieving “results” and doing a “good” job… whatever that means. Have I done a “good” job if my students can speak fluent English by the time I leave Armenia? Or have I done a “good” job if I’ve touched their hearts, put a human face on American people, and helped build trust? Or must I do both things to be considered successful? I guess it depends on whom you ask. However, last week, I found evidence that at least a couple of people who received my efforts at service in Armenia appreciated what I was trying to accomplish.

I think of all the people I’ve known who were Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of them were pretty amazing people with talents they could share. Not every Volunteer was a superstar who impressed everyone, but most of the PCVs I’ve known have been good, well-meaning people who genuinely wanted to make a positive difference. I think the focus of the Peace Corps should be less on producing tangible results and more on building relationships and trust. That’s how change ultimately happens.

Anyway… maybe I wasn’t a “star” like Hanna or Matt, or my big sister, Betsy. Or, at least I don’t see myself in that way. However, now I know that I did make a difference. In fact, I think I might have even made a difference last week, by going back to Armenia, speaking crappy Armenian, spending money, and showing them that not every blonde woman is a Russian. πŸ˜‰

It must have been meant to be that I taught Stepan. I don’t know why he wound up as my student. If my country director had had her way, I would have become a business Volunteer during my second year, and Stepan and I never would have met! She wanted me to leave Yerevan. But that wasn’t in the big plan. For some reason, I was supposed to teach Stepan, even though I wasn’t a “star” teacher.

Now Stepan is influencing people in the way I might have influenced him, so many years ago. And even if I wasn’t a superstar Peace Corps Volunteer, he sure made me feel like one last week. We got one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever experienced anywhere… and sadly, that includes the times when I’ve come home to my own family. I hope we can go back sometime, and I can show Bill more of the country. I think it’s touched his heart and mind, like it’s been touching my heart and mind for years, now.

Anyway… so ends today’s deep thoughts. I think I’ll get back to the travel blog. I’ve still got stories to write about last week’s Armenian adventure.

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Armenia, funny stories, memories, mental health, music, nostalgia, YouTube

“It’s the ninth week of training and… ‘Everybody Hurts’…”

I could write a rant about some truly ridiculous things I read on Facebook and watched on YouTube yesterday. I decided not to today, because that would take a lot of time and energy, and I spent most of the morning writing today’s travel blog post about our trip to Armenia. I may not be doing anything particularly heavy hitting on this blog until I’m done with that series. I want to do a good job with it, because Armenia is a very meaningful place to me.

Still, I did want to put something up on this blog today, so I decided today, it would be a music post. This afternoon, I decided to record the REM song, “Everybody Hurts.” I did so because yesterday, while I was practicing guitar, I happened upon that song and found that it wasn’t that hard to play. It’s also a great song for practicing fingerpicking, which I really suck at.

As I was playing it on my guitar yesterday, I realized that “Everybody Hurts” is very meaningful to me. In my life, I have suffered a lot from depression and anxiety. There have been times when it’s consumed my thoughts and made me behave in ways that were distressing, embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing. There have been many times when I’ve wondered why I’m here. I’ve thought I was worthless, and no one would miss me if I just gave up and slipped away somewhere. I know… to many people, listening to that kind of thinking is very tiresome, frustrating, and shitty. I have a friend from college who referred to that kind of self-pity as “brently”. I’ve written the story behind “brently” in my blog, and if you are the slightest bit curious, you can click here to read it.

Even though sometimes I get a little “brently”, I know it comes from depression… “stinkin’ thinkin'” that never leads to anywhere productive or positive. It used to be much worse, though. I was clinically depressed for many years before I finally did something about it, back in the late summer of 1998. It took a few months, but my psychiatrist found the right antidepressant for me, and it changed everything. I still get kind of blue and depressed sometimes, but not like I used to. I haven’t truly felt suicidal in many years. But, because I have experience with clinical depression, I understand where “Everybody Hurts” comes from. I also love the way The Corrs covered it. The key is nice for me, and their Celtic arrangement is lovely. I happened to have a backing track of their version of the song, so I decided to try it.

I think it turned out alright. I’m no sound engineer and don’t have the best equipment, but this is pretty solid for amateur work…

But there’s a different, much funnier reason why I decided to record this song today. It has to do with Armenia. Back in the summer of 1995, I was in Peace Corps training with 31 other people, many of whom were about my age. It was just a few years after REM’s album, Automatic For The People came out. Most of us were familiar with their work, and we were all pretty fed up with training.

Peace Corps training was 12 weeks long, and it was very grueling on many levels. It was extremely hot outside, and we had no air conditioning, because we usually had no power. We were doing our work on the ninth floor of a Soviet era building. We usually had to climb the stairs to get to our training sessions. The classrooms were uncomfortably warm and stuffy, and one person enjoyed removing their shoes during our afternoon sessions… It was one inspiration for learning how to say something “stinks” in Armenian.

One day during a training session, someone got a little snippy and cranky and snapped at someone else… I don’t even think it was me, although I definitely have a tendency to get snippy and cranky when the mood strikes. And one of my cohorts, a hilarious woman named Laurel quipped, “It’s the ninth week of training and ‘Everybody Hurts’.” That was all I needed to pull me out of the afternoon funk that often struck during those days in newly post Soviet Yerevan.

So, since I’ve been writing about Armenia this week, I decided today would be a good day to try “Everybody Hurts” and put the results on YouTube. I suspect it could be one of my more successful uploads. I’m not even much of an REM fan. I do like a lot of their songs, but I never worshiped them like some of my fellow Gen Xers did (and maybe still do). I think “Everybody Hurts” is a very consoling song, though… and there’s something moving about the vulnerable yet masculine way Michael Stipe sings it. However, I also love The Corrs’ more feminine styled version, and it probably suits me better than Stipe’s. So that’s the one I did…

I hope some of y’all enjoy it.

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law, true crime

An egregious case of justice not being served…

Ugh… it’s Thursday. That means it’s my day to vacuum.

It’s also a religious holiday… one that involves drunkenness, at least in Germany. Christi Himmelfahrt, otherwise known as Ascension Day to us English speakers, is also Father’s Day in Germany. Back in 2014, before we knew we’d be moving back to Germany, Bill and I stumbled across a Father’s Day celebration at a Biergarten in Bacharach, Germany. We watched in amusement as fathers and sons sang songs and drank lots of beer. I knew, when we were sitting there in the midst of the celebration, that we’d be moving back to Germany. Sure enough, that’s what came to pass. I didn’t know we’d be here for so long, though.

Given the absolutely batshit legal system in the United States and the complete chaos that has ensued since Bill and I left in 2014, I can’t say we regret coming over here. As politicians seek to punish and imprison women who seek abortions and their doctors who provide them, and they take aim against transgender people, other criminals get off practically scot free.

Today is also the second anniversary of my friend Matt’s death. I’ve written about Matt a few times in this blog. We knew each other in Armenia, as we were in the same Peace Corps cohort. He was a very special guy. On May 18, 2021, after having spent the previous evening celebrating his birthday with friends and relatives, Matt was walking home late at night in Brooklyn, New York when he was struck by speeding Rolls Royce and left for dead.

In February 2022, Tariq Witherspoon, a New York City EMT with a long history of traffic violations, was arrested for hit and run. He bonded out of jail and initially pled not guilty to the criminally negligent homicide, along with several other felonies and misdemeanors. In March of this year, Witherspoon changed his plea to guilty and made a plea agreement. Yesterday, he was sentenced to just six months in prison for killing a man who dedicated his whole life to teaching and helping others. If he had gone to trial, he could have spent several years in prison

Witherspoon had nothing to say to Matt’s family members, opting to have his lawyer speak on his behalf. What a fucking coward! If anything, we can all be grateful that the bastard won’t be working as an EMT anymore.

For two years, Matt’s friends and loved ones have waited to see justice served against the man who callously took his life. I don’t think most of them are aware of just how lightly Mr. Witherspoon got off for recklessly taking Matt’s life two years ago. He’ll be out of prison by Christmas, if he doesn’t catch any other charges while he’s locked up. Meanwhile, Matt’s friends and loved ones continue to grieve.

I’ll be honest. I am usually pretty much against long prison sentences. I don’t like to see people’s lives ruined in prisons, especially for non-violent offenses. I can’t say that Witherspoon’s crimes were non-violent, though, since his actions in May 2021 left a beloved teacher dead. The only thing that could be said in Witherspoon’s favor is that Matt was crossing on red. But, Witherspoon was speeding, and didn’t even stop to render when he hit Matt– who was about 6’4″. As an EMT, he would have been more qualified than anyone to help Matt after he hit him. Witherspoon just plain didn’t give a shit. It’s heartbreaking.

Matt’s sudden death is just a reminder that you can do everything to live the right way and still be plucked from life without any warning whatsoever. There’s no reason why Matt Jensen should be dead today. He was killed by a person who, in spite of his occupation as an EMT, plainly didn’t give a fuck about anyone but himself. It’s absurd that a man who served in the Peace Corps twice, taught countless students and other teachers, literally influenced people around the globe, and was an unforgettable light to so many, would be taken out by a man driving a Rolls Royce who didn’t even deign to offer an apology or condolences to the people who loved Matt the most and knew him the best.

I hadn’t spoken to Matt in a long time when he died. I never forgot him, though, and I have many memories of good times together in Armenia. There must be a reason why I happened to find myself in the glow of his light. I do take heart that we had what I thought was kind of an insignificant Facebook interaction just before he passed. We both commented on a mutual friend’s Facebook post, and he commented to me, “I always liked you.” That statement made me feel good at the time, but now it makes me feel downright honored.

If you are interested in reading more about what happened in court yesterday, I highly recommend reading this blog post— which is much better– if not more biased– than the Yahoo! article that was posted in the hours after the sentencing. The blog post has statements from Matt’s family members and some photos, including one of his sister, Pamela. I was interested in her comments, as Matt told me about his family. I remember him telling him about his sister, who had served as a second mother to him.

I don’t wish terrible things for Tariq Witherspoon. He should do his time and hopefully reform. But I do hope that somewhere beneath that indifferent exterior, there is some modicum of remorse lurking… especially since Mr. Witherspoon is himself a father now. And I also hope that something is done about McGuinness Boulevard, the dangerous street in Brooklyn where Matt lost his life. It’s been a problem for others who have also been hurt or killed trying to cross it. If the powers that be could make that street safer, perhaps Matt’s death will have been somewhat less in vain. My niece lives in Brooklyn, so I hope she knows how dangerous that road is.

I am very disappointed in Tariq Witherspoon’s prison sentence. I don’t think the punishment remotely fits the crime. Even if Matt hadn’t been such an incredible person, six months would not be sufficient time in prison for the crime he committed. In fact, I’d say it’s an insult to victims. May God forgive Witherspoon, because I know a lot of people never will.

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Bill, complaints, modern problems, music, rants

It’s already been kind of an exasperating day…

Like many good children coming of age in the South in the 70s and 80s, I was well-acquainted with the corny hillbilly variety show, Hee Haw, from an early age. This morning, I am thinking of Kenny Rogers’ ex-wife, Marianne Gordon, who starred on that show in the 80s, as a southern belle who regaled everyone with stories about her fictitious daddy, “The Colonel”. She always started her skits off by saying, “It’s been an exasperating day.” That’s kind of how I feel today.

I have to admit, I liked this show. It’s less toxic than ANTM is.

It started with washing the sheets… always a pain in the ass, but especially when I also wash the duvet covers. We also decided to rotate the mattress, to redistribute the lumps in the mattress. My lower back was hurting, so I wasn’t much help. Bill got it turned on his own. Then, I realized the issue probably isn’t the mattress as much as it is the feather topper. It either needs to be replaced, or we need to get used to sleeping without it. Really, we need a new mattress, but it’s not so easy to get an American king sized mattress in Germany.

Then, once I got that mess straightened out, I had to wrestle the duvet into the duvet cover, which is quite an annoying task with a king sized duvet. I managed to do it without breaking out in too much of a sweat.

I sat down to write this morning’s blog post, but then got sidetracked by my music library. A few months ago, I replaced my old computer, but not all of my music moved over on the cloud. Consequently, I’ve got some “greyed out” files on my new computer. I end up having to manually move the music by using an external drive. The files don’t always successfully make it on the external drive, so I have to do it again. It’s a hassle, but worth it to me, because I love my music collection that much. I think I spent about an hour on that today, and I’m not even done with the task. Every day, I move more files, and it seems like the job is never ending.

I finally had to quit moving files, because I was getting so frustrated. It is kind of satisfying to see the greyed out files turn black, though.

I recorded a couple of new songs yesterday. One song went off pretty much perfectly. The other one was a real pain to get right. It’s not actually as perfect as I’d like it to be, but I was determined to get it up yesterday, so I settled for less. I got a comment from someone who thought it was my equipment that caused the issue, but no… it was a psychological issue. You know how, when you try to do something and you mess up, you kind of psych yourself out when you try again? That was me when I was trying to record “All I Have”. I did it nine years ago and it turned out just about perfectly, but no one ever hits that video because it has photos instead of me on camera. Nine years ago, no one watched my channel. Now, I have more people who pay attention to it.

Oh well. Maybe I’ll try again in nine years.

Last night, I found out that a British guy I met in 2011, while on a SeaDream cruise, is going to be joining Bill and me next month on our Regent cruise. He and his wife hung out with us on that cruise and we kept in touch for awhile, but then drifted apart. Looks like we’ll be seeing each other again. What are the odds?

Actually, that kind of stuff happens to me a lot. I have a knack for running into people I either used to know, or who know people I know. Here’s an example. Back in the late 1990s, I waited tables at a nice restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia. One day, I waited on a couple with Irish accents. I asked them where they were from, and they said they came from Belfast. I told them I had a friend from there who lived in Newtownards (a suburb). We worked at a tiny Presbyterian church camp in the summer of 1994, then we traveled through Europe with his now wife, who’d also worked at the camp. The couple said, “Was your friend’s name Chris Sheals?”

Sure enough, it was… and it turned out he was their next door neighbor. What are the odds? There are lots of restaurants in Williamsburg, and plenty of waiters. Somehow, they found their way to my section.

Another time, a friend and I crashed at a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria for about a week. When we got back to the States, I went to the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC to do some career networking. There wasn’t an event going on, or anything. I just went there on a whim. Sure enough, I ran into that guy whose apartment we crashed in Bulgaria… he was from New York and had come to the office for the same reasons I did. Again, totally unplanned…

And, here’s a final example. In the spring of 1999, I went to the Peace Corps office in DC again, that time with a friend I knew from Peace Corps/Armenia. I had planned to meet that friend. We went into the office and ran into another person from our group, Matt Jensen. And it’s funny that I’m writing this today, because Matt died two years ago in Brooklyn, when someone ran into him and left him for dead. I’ve written about Matt before… and that was the last time I saw him, on that day in the Peace Corps office, completely by chance. Incidentally, we’re still waiting for justice regarding Matt’s death. The wheels of justice are moving way too slow.

Those are just a few examples I can think of offhand of my running into people, but it actually seems to happen to me a lot. I run into people, or find out I know someone another person knows… or I end up connecting them with someone else who has a connection. It seems to be one of my special and more memorable traits. So I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to be bumping into someone I met years ago on another cruise… My world seems to be particularly small. πŸ˜‰

Even meeting Bill was kind of like that. We met in a chat room in 1999. In 2001, before we met in person, he went to a convention in Little Rock, Arkansas… where he ran into my aunt’s brother, Ralph. Ralph was a member of the Kansas National Guard, while Bill was in the Arkansas Guard. But Bill wasn’t with the Arkansas people, because he was federalized. Ralph was in the Kansas Guard, but he lives in Virginia… Sure enough, they bumped into each other, and chatted. Later, Ralph told me he’d met my “boyfriend”. I laughed and said he wasn’t my boyfriend. We hadn’t even met in person at that point. Ralph said, “Oh, trust me, he’s your boyfriend. And don’t worry. He’s okay.”

I was nervous about meeting Bill, since we met online. Ralph also had the benefit of being a former Virginia State Trooper, which made him a pretty good judge of character. Twenty years later, you can see that Ralph was right that Bill is “okay”. And I guess he WAS my boyfriend, after all.

Well… I guess I should end this post. I am feeling calmer now, so I guess I’ll practice guitar and take Noyzi for a walk, then maybe make another video, or finish reading my freakin’ book. Later, y’all.

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