Ex, LDS, psychology

The “princess treatment”…

About ten years ago, I was a big fan of the Project Rant series on YouTube. This channel featured actors who would take the most entertaining rants from Craig’s List and recite them as if they were the people who wrote them. I can’t remember which rant attracted me first, but I was hooked after I saw my first video– which wasn’t actually their first video. I have a habit of catching on to things after they’ve been established for awhile. For instance, it took me four years to discover Desperate Housewives. I never got into Nurse Jackie until long after it was off TV.

This morning, I discovered a video by Project Rant that I hadn’t yet seen. It’s entitled “Bully”, and appears below…

This one is a bit darker than most of them… I had somehow missed its release. I like her parting shot.

I hate bullies. I understand on a cognitive level that bullies exist because they have unmet psychological needs, and they take out their angst on people they perceive to be different and/or weaker than they are. I still hate them, though. I have been on the receiving end of bullies for most of my life, and it’s caused me a lot of pain. It’s also made me surprisingly resilient and resolute about some things. As I watched the above Project Rant video, I related to the actress as she describes mean people provoking her to take action.

What is a bully? Simply put, a bully is “a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable”. I’ve seen some people and behaviors described as “bullying”, when they don’t actually fit the definition of “bully”. For instance, I don’t think mere criticism of someone counts as bullying. There has to be a threat or intimidation involved. There also has to be a perceived power imbalance– whether or not there is an actual power imbalance– which causes the bully to act.

This morning, Bill and I were discussing a sad and distressing situation involving a female bully and her victims. For years, we were the only ones who seemed to see what was happening. Other people have now noticed the bully and the bad behavior perpetrated by this person.

Having a relationship with a bully, particularly when it’s someone as close as one’s parent, is like falling into quicksand or being caught in an undertow. It’s very troublesome and exhausting to extricate oneself from those situations. Once you’re out of that metaphorical quicksand or undertow, you’re wise to stay out of the morass and avoid the area. That’s what going “no contact” is about. A person can go “no contact” with a bully and still forgive them, and even wish the best for them.

But, as the actress in the above Project Rant video points out, sometimes you have to take bullies down a notch. There are times when it’s appropriate and even necessary to take action against them. Sometimes, you have to fight back. Sometimes, the smallest and most subtle and obscure clues can be profound in how they illustrate an actual scenario of how a bully is operating. Context is important.

The above video is pretty funny… especially at the beginning, as the missionaries ring the doorbells to the stars.

This morning, Bill related a story he’d heard from someone who had served as a Mormon missionary. Mormon missionaries, as you may or may not know, are not often treated well by the public. They tend to get a lot of doors slammed in their faces. But every once in awhile, they run into people who offer unexpected kindness to them. It’s those people who are the most memorable, and who often have a profound affect on the missionary’s experiences in the field.

I have kind of a special affinity for missionaries. I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, which isn’t the same as being a Mormon missionary in terms of my purposes for being away, or the day to day lifestyle. How the experience is similar, however, is that Peace Corps Volunteers and missionaries are far away from home and typically don’t have a lot of money. Both groups of people can be somewhat vulnerable in a number of ways. And since they are so far from the comforts of home, some situations are magnified in terms of how they are experienced and remembered.

Sometimes, people are cruel, but sometimes they’re not. I think the LDS missionary and Peace Corps situations are also similar in that, a lot of times, missionaries and Volunteers find themselves daydreaming about being at home and feeling comfortable among material possessions and loved ones. However, it’s possible for a PCV to visit home during their service. It’s generally not possible for LDS missionaries to go home while they are “serving the Lord”, even if there’s an emergency. Being a Mormon missionary can be very tough, unpleasant, and uncomfortable.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Bill said that this missionary had been treated like a “princess” by a couple she and her companion met when they were missionaries. The couple, who were members of the church, helped them out by giving them a place to stay for a couple of weeks. For some reason, the sister missionaries had nowhere to stay, so the couple had taken them in on a temporary basis. Years later, she remembers the experience of staying with the couple and describes their treatment of her as “like a princess”.

It’s my understanding that the church arranges apartments for the missionaries. The apartments tend to be cheap and spartan in nature, and sometimes they aren’t in the best or safest neighborhoods. But supposedly, the onus is not on the missionary to go out and find an apartment on their own. I am left thinking that the missionary in this story was waiting for a spot to open in an existing apartment, but I’m not sure exactly what the situation was.

I was just awestruck that the former missionary felt this couple who had taken her and her companion into their home– strangers to them, except for being fellow church members– had treated her so well that she felt like a princess. Either the couple who had offered hospitality are extraordinary people who weren’t aware of the concept of what missionary life is supposed to be like, or the missionary’s life at home was extraordinarily terrible. Bill happens to know something about this particular missionary’s home life. Indeed, he knows about it quite intimately. And he can attest that life at home was probably pretty horrible for her.

Still… hearing that story this morning really gobsmacked me. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of accounts from former LDS missionaries. I know that for a lot of them, the mission is pretty tough. It’s physically, emotionally, and mentally uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s even dangerous. Sometimes missionaries come home with lifelong health issues related to their missions, or lose limbs or senses.

A number of missionaries have even died while serving. Some get sick with diseases like dysentery, or they become seriously ill because they don’t get adequate medical treatment. That tends to happen when the missionaries are in remote areas in developing countries. Some missionaries are victims of crimes. I remember in 2006, an “elder” (male missionary) from Utah was killed in Virginia when he and his companion stumbled across a criminal in the process of committing an offense. The criminal shot the missionaries, and one of them– Morgan Young– died, while the other was wounded.

Church members tend to regard those who die while serving a mission as somehow blessed– they had a special purpose that God needed them for in the Celestial Kingdom, or something. I remember, in particular, the missionary who died in Virginia, since that’s my home state and where I was living at the time of the death. His mother said her son had “died with his boots on”. Below is a quote from Gordon B. Hinckley, who was president of the LDS church when the missionary was murdered:

“I’m impressed with the thought that Elder Young has joined the ranks of a very select group who stand so very, very high in the estimate of God,” he said. “There is some special place and some special work for them to do under our Father’s plan.”

Some missionaries have accidents, which run the gamut from the garden variety car crash, to falling off cliffs while hiking, or even being mauled by animals. Many missionaries make it through the experience just fine, although some are left with emotional scars that haunt them. I’ve read a lot of stories by people who have been LDS missionaries and have left the experience worse for wear. But sometimes, the mission– as tough as it can be– is even better than being at home.

It’s not that different for Peace Corps Volunteers. Sometimes, PCVs die, have accidents, are victims of crimes, or contract exotic illnesses that affect them for the rest of their lives. I think that PCVs may have access to better healthcare. I know that they can be “medevacked” to the States or a western country for treatment, if it’s necessary. The LDS church, on the other hand, tends to do things as cheaply as possible. A lot of times, church members are tapped for help– donations of skills or material things, like a room in a house. So, say a church member is a doctor or a dentist. The church might call on that person to offer treatment for an ailing missionary free of charge, or at a much reduced rate. Sometimes people are glad to help, but other times, it’s an imposition.

I would think hosting two young women in a home, particularly since missionaries have to live by rather strict standards and rules, could be an imposition. I would not expect a missionary to be treated like royalty. But then, I also know that sometimes, just being treated with basic kindness, dignity, and respect when one has spent their whole lives being abused, can feel like royal treatment. So, knowing what we do about this situation, I guess I can understand why it felt like “princess treatment” for the missionary in question. She was getting treated like someone with value. And now, she wants to help others who are not being treated with value escape the morass, and get away from the bully who has victimized them for years.

It’s very satisfying to escape the toxic clutches of a bully. It’s even more satisfying to help someone else escape, and to help them realize that they can and should be treated with basic respect. But it’s absolutely mind blowing when someone describes being treated with dignity and decency as “the princess treatment”. I have no words for that. It’s possible that this missionary was really treated as if she was a princess, but I doubt it. I think being treated with warmth, friendliness, fairness, and love was so foreign and comforting to her that it felt like “the princess treatment”, much like a plate of bland vegetables or saltines tastes like the best food in the world to a starving person. It’s all about perspective.

Anyway… we hope we can help her take the bully down a notch. Maybe not with a literal baseball bat… but with something just as devastating and powerful. Time will tell.

book reviews, funny stories, memories

Repost: My very brief flirtation with multi-level marketing…

Here’s a repost about my experience with multi-level marking schemes. I posted it on my old blog in March 2015 and am reposting it because I just wrote about Plexus. Enjoy.

Though I’m sure I could find plenty of things to write about that might piss people off today, I’ve decided I’d rather share a memory from 1994.  It was late August and I was a brand new college graduate.  I had spent the summer working at a Presbyterian church camp, living in a platform tent.  Then I went back to my small hometown and lived with my parents, who were none too pleased to have me back in their house.

I needed to find a job.  I wanted a job that would pay enough for me to move, but I definitely needed a job that would allow me to pay my bills.  Back in 1994, we didn’t have Internet.  While I had taken part in job search seminars and job fairs, nothing had panned out.  I was armed with a degree in English with minors in speech and communications.  I wanted to find a job that would allow me to use my writing skills, but I didn’t know where to start.  And my parents were really piling on the pressure for me to GTFO.

I picked up the newspaper and saw a couple of ads for “public relations” jobs in Richmond, Virginia, which was about 90 miles from where my parents lived.  The ads were kind of vague, but I was desperate.  I picked up the phone and called and scored two interviews, one at 9:00am and the other at 1:00pm.  Happy about my success, I went out and bought a new suit (it was red and black) and a pair of heels.  It didn’t occur to me to be suspicious about the “jobs” I was applying for, even though the first guy I spoke to said he wanted me to come in and meet him so “we could see if we liked each other”.  The second guy told me to make sure I told the receptionist that “Kevin” had sent me.

Bright and early the next morning, I got in the ugly beige pickup truck my dad let me drive.  It was a hideous Nissan with a camper shell and a non-functioning cassette/radio, but it ran surprisingly well.  I drove to the first appointment.  The place was an outfit called United Consumer Club (UCC) and it was located in a strip mall.  I had never heard of UCC before and went into the showroom like an innocent lamb.  Unfortunately, I was about 15 minutes early.  The proprietor, a slim built man with dark, beady eyes, and a receding hairline invited me to leave and come back at 9:00.  He didn’t seem very friendly.  That probably should have been my first clue. 

DirectBuy… seemed shady in 1994, when it was called United Consumer Club.

I came back at 9:00 and was given a standard job application to fill out.  Looking around, I could see there were a number of other people there for an “interview” for the “public relations” job that paid $22,000 a year.  There were whiteboards everywhere.  I started to get suspicious.

We were all invited to sit at a table, where we watched a video about United Consumer Club.  You may know this business better as DirectBuy– a few years ago, their ads were all over TV.  In the cheaply produced video, we listened to people talk about how much they loved being members of UCC, where they could pay several thousand dollars for the privilege of buying furniture and building supplies at wholesale prices.  I noticed a couple of people got up and left while the video was running, but I had driven 90 miles and needed a job.  I was also curious.

After the video, the proprietor gave us a spiel about UCC and talked about the position he sought to fill.  Basically, it would be the successful candidate’s job to schmooze with potential club members, trying to get them to sign up.  The entire presentation was about money.  I didn’t like the proprietor and had a feeling I wouldn’t want to work for him because he seemed sleazy.  But I stuck around for the actual interview, anyway.

When I finally sat down across from him, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye with his beady little peepers and asked, “Why should I hire you?”

Feeling uncomfortable, I asked “Uh, before we get started, is this some kind of hard sell operation?”

The guy immediately got pissy and said “I REALLY don’t have time to answer your questions right now.  Do you want to interview for this position or not?”

I said, “I really would like to ask a couple of questions first.”

He said, “Well, based on what I’m seeing, you won’t be a good fit for this job.”

“I guess you’re right.” I said as I got up to leave, thinking I had just totally wasted my time.  Years later, I realize that it wasn’t actually a total waste of time, since I learned something from the experience and came away with a good story.  I forgot all about UCC until years later when I saw all the DirectBuy ads on TV.  Back in 1994, UCC prided itself on not using advertising.  I guess they changed their minds.

Glad I didn’t get the job.

I went to a local mall to pass the time before my 1:00 “interview”.  I was feeling bewildered and a little stung.  Little did I know that the morning interview would seem positively normal compared to what was in store for me that afternoon.

The “interview” I was attending was for a multi-level marketing firm called Equinox International.  Equinox has long since been out of business, but back in the 1990s, it was a burgeoning company that had celebrities like Kenny Loggins and Ted Danson shilling for it.  Of course, I didn’t know this when I arrived at the very respectable looking high rise office building for my “interview”.

I walked into the posh looking office and told the receptionist that Kevin had sent me.  She invited me to sign in and take a seat.  Once again, I noticed that others were there to be interviewed, too.

Kevin came out to meet me.  He was tall, handsome, and very Nordic looking.  I noticed he wore an expensive looking suit.   He asked how much money I hoped to make.  I said “Low 20’s.”  Remember, this was 1994.  Kevin just smiled at me as he led me to a room where there were rows of chairs set up.

At 1:00, Kevin and his very attractive partner, Karen, got up to make their presentation.  I noticed that Kevin and Karen were both really good looking and well spoken as they talked about Equinox, a company that made environmentally safe cleaning products and water filters.  They expertly explained why products one could buy in the store were unsafe. 

First came the water filter demonstration. Kevin showed us two containers of tap water, one filled with ordinary water and the other filled with water that had been run through an Equinox water filter. Kevin put a chemical in the ordinary tap water that turned it yellow, while the filtered water stayed clear. I had to admit it was an impressive display. Kevin told us that we were poisoning ourselves everyday with ordinary substances like tap water. Equinox had products that would keep us and our loved ones safe. And we could help save humanity by making the products available to the world! Who wouldn’t want that job?

Then Karen took the helm. She sprayed ordinary breath spray into a lighter.  The alcohol in the spray caused the flame to torch out impressively.  Then she did the same thing with water-based breath spray made by Equinox.  The flame was doused in a second.  Hmmm… not quite as cool as Kevin’s presentation, but still worth looking at.

Karen and Kevin took turns telling us about how we’d make money signing up other people, and how they’d make money signing up people.  I distinctly remember them telling us it wasn’t a pyramid scheme.  Only it was.  Equinox has been shut down and was sued by more than six states for being an illegal pryramid scheme.  Virginia is among those states. 

Next came the videos.  First, we learned about Bill Gouldd, the company’s multi-millionaire founder.  He lived in a huge mansion, drove expensive cars, spent time with beautiful women… and all of this and more was within reach if we sold his products.  Gouldd himself had started out as a lowly salesman who had found the secret to success.  We could learn the secrets by taking (and paying big bucks for) his seminars.  The American dream could be ours by believing in the program and investing our money in Equinox.

Next, there was a video by Kenny Loggins, who told us of his now ex wife and her many medical problems that were alleviated by alternative medicine, a healthy environment, and all natural products like those peddled by Equinox distributors.  I have always enjoyed Kenny Loggins’ music, but I have no idea why he got tangled up with this organization.  It kind of makes me wonder what kind of person he is.  Still, I have to admit that at the time I was really impressed… but still skeptical.  I knew they were going to ask me for money and money was something I REALLY didn’t have.

Kenny Loggins pitches Equinox.

I noticed there were people laughing at all the “right” times.  It became clear to me after the video that there were, indeed, Equinox people interspersed in the audience to “help” the facilitators.  The meeting was getting very long and bizarre… and towards the end, it seemed almost cultish.  There were even a few people jumping up and dancing around, cheering, singing the praises of Equinox… very weird.  Other distributors approached me and asked me what I thought.  They were friendly– too friendly– and most of them were attractive.  I liked it and found myself trying to think of a way I could come up with the $500 I would need to get started by “renting a desk” (people paid $500 simply to be allowed to rent a desk in the office).  Thank God I have common sense, and that there was a healthy measure of it on hand that day.  I could have landed in some real trouble.  Equinox is the only “job” I’ve ever considered that actually required applicants to pay a $20 “application fee”.   

As I was leaving, Kevin asked me if I wanted to sign up.  He was very charismatic and I have to admit, I was still thinking about it. But that’s exactly what I told him.  I said I had to think about it.  He winked at me, as if he just knew he was God’s gift to women. 

Then he said, “Well, if I don’t hear from you in a couple of weeks, I’ll give you a call…” As if perhaps I’d be waiting by the phone for the sound of his voice.

Thankfully, he never called and I was too afraid to risk borrowing money to get involved in Equinox.  I hate selling things anyway, and the idea of trying to get people to join that program left me cold.  But I have to admit, it was a sexy organization and the presentation was very seductive.  I could have been sucked in.  I can see how people might leave $60,000 jobs to go to work for multi-level marketing firms.

Years later, I researched Equinox International online and came to realize what a big bullet I dodged by not getting involved.  People lost their shirts.

In 2003, I read and reviewed Robert Morgan Styler’s book Spellbound: My Journey Through a Tangled Web of Success.  I am reposting part of that review below for your edification.

Part of a book review…

Rob Styler, like me, is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. At the beginning of this book, he had just come back from his stint in Guatemala, where he met and married his first wife, Marina. Styler had come back to the States with his wife with the intention of earning more money so that he could move back to Guatemala, because he had bought fifty acres of land there. However, Marina had some medical problems that required two surgeries. Because the couple had no health insurance, they quickly found themselves $25,000 in debt. One of Marina’s medical problems would be improved if she got pregnant, which she quickly did. But pregnancy required prenatal care and Marina’s OB-GYN refused to take care of her because she lacked health insurance. Styler decided that he needed quick cash. Like me, Styler consulted the want ads. Like me, Styler saw several ads that looked promising. He called and left a message. Later, he was invited to an evening meeting for his “interview” at an international environmental marketing firm. 

Styler showed up for his interview with long hair, a beard, wearing Birkenstocks and his best Peace Corps T-shirt. He was confused when he saw about sixty other people milling around the reception area, also there to be interviewed. But then they were all ushered into a big room where they were told they would be given a group interview. A jovial man stood up and gave an impressive demonstration of some of the products the “firm” sells. He also explained the concept of the pyramid scheme (although the man is careful to emphasize that this is NOT a pyramid scheme). 

By the way, for those of you who don’t know what a pyramid scheme is, here is dictionary.com’s definition of the term: 

Pyramid Scheme 

A fraudulent money-making scheme in which people are recruited to make payments to others above them in a hierarchy while expecting to receive payments from people recruited below them. Eventually the number of new recruits fails to sustain the payment structure, and the scheme collapses with most people losing the money they paid in. 

“Multi-level marketing” seems to be the more politically correct term for the pyramid scheme nowadays. After reading Styler’s account of what happened to him– he was recruited to join the company and asked to pay a huge amount of money– and what he did to others– asked others to join the company and pay huge amounts of money– I would conclude that Equinox International most certainly did qualify as a pyramid scheme! 

After the explanation of how individuals “make money”, the group watched videos highlighting the company’s president, Bill Gouldd (the extra d is for dollars- he added it on the advice of a psychic). Styler noticed the energy and excitement in the room and caught it himself. After the presentation, he wanted to know how to sign up. Then he was told it cost twenty dollars to apply for the “job” and $5000 to start out as a “Manager” with a lot of product or $500 to be a “Dealer”. Styler said…”But I don’t have any money.” The enthusiastic people at Equinox International say, “That’s okay, Rob. You’ve got OPM.” That’s other people’s money. The company encouraged enrollees to hit up family members, take out loans, max out credit cards… do whatever they had to do to get that money. 

Styler got the money and went into business. He found a couple of Spanish speaking guys to hit the Spanish speaking market and, after a great deal of concentrated effort and lots of OPM, ended up being among the rare people who actually made money at Equinox. But along the way, he saw people lose their shirts. He also pulled some amazing financial stunts himself, especially considering his terrible credit. Equinox encouraged its people to exude the illusion of wealth, even if they were days away from eviction from their apartments, they had no idea where their next meal was coming from, and their cars were running on fumes. 

People working at Equinox rented their desks for $500 a month, paid for their own newspaper ads, and paid for their own phone lines. Those who opened up offices had to pay for the leases themselves; nothing was covered by the company. Moreover, enrollees had to attend and pay for training seminars put on by Bill Gouldd. Bill Gouldd was frequently abusive to Equinox enrollees, never hesitating to humiliate them publicly. Styler himself was the victim of Gouldd’s abusive barbs several times. I was shocked reading what this man endured. And yet, here he was, writing about how he was an academic all star, former athlete, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, the son of a doctor and stepson of a professor, and now he was in this huge mess. 

Styler divorced Marina and married another Equinox enrollee. Bill Gouldd performed the ceremony. Styler sent $50 to the Universal Life Church so that Gouldd could become an ordained minister.  Gouldd was late for the ceremony and treated Styler with contempt on his wedding day. The second marriage lasted about six months; however, Styler managed to remain friends with both his first and second wives. At one point, he lives with both of his ex wives, his first ex wife’s new husband, his son, and his son’s half-brother. Very weird, in my opinion, but great for them if they can be friendly enough to live together. 

Gouldd also made a point of sleeping with the female significant others of top earners within the company. When anyone questioned Gouldd’s abusive tactics, Gouldd would immediately cut them down. Like an overly controlling lover, Gouldd was quick to keep his people in line. As a reader I was both fascinated and horrified by Gouldd’s abusive treatment of fellow human beings. I was also shocked that people would allow him to treat them that way… and PAY for the privilege! Then I was eternally grateful that I didn’t get involved with this outfit myself. 

Styler fortunately managed to pull out of Equinox before its big downfall. When he informed Gouldd of his decision, he stated that the business plan was too hard for most people to make any money. Also, Styler was sent to Mexico to start an Equinox program there; however the chances of the program succeeding there were nil since the economy in Mexico was so weak. Gouldd was expecting Mexicans to purchase company products at the same prices they were selling for in the United States and he had similar expectations of distributors. 

In 2000, Equinox International was sued in at least eight states for illegal pyramid scheme operation. Bill Gouldd has been barred from ever having anything to do with a multi-level marketing business in the United States again. 

I found this book very interesting and timely. How many of us have looked in the employment section and seen those vaguely worded ads for jobs that say “Wild and crazy, rock and roll atmosphere! Need twenty-five people today!” and wondered what they were for? I read the book in about two nights; since I actually went through an “interview” with Equinox, I could relate to Styler’s initial experience. In fact, I remember being very impressed with the slick presentation I saw. Thank God I had a healthy measure of common sense on hand that day as I sat through the Equinox presentation and didn’t get involved with with that scam. Instead, I got out of my parents’ house by joining the Peace Corps! 

It’s pretty obvious to me that this book was published inexpensively. The font used is large, the paper is cheap, and the artwork is kind of cheesy. It looks like maybe Styler self-published the book– not such a bad thing, but obvious that he’s not an established writer. However, the book is well-written and his story serves as a great warning about multi-level marketing schemes. It’s definitely a revealing book on a subject you might not otherwise think to read about.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission on sales made through my site.

Bill, nostalgia

Big proposals, and the big picture…

Last night, as we were enjoying German Father’s Day and Asuncion Day, as well as the sublime weather we’ve been having lately, I was reminded of a woman I used to know in Armenia. She is American and was in the group who came to Armenia before ours did.

I didn’t actually know her very well. I remember she was from Illinois, as a lot of people who were in the Peace Corps during that time seemed to be. She had trained to be a teacher, and helped during our “TEFL” training. TEFL, for those who don’t know, stands for “teaching English as a foreign language”. I was kind of glad they called it TEFL as opposed to TESL, which is the older term, “teaching English as a second language”. In Armenia, that wouldn’t have been accurate. Almost every Armenian, especially in those days, also spoke Russian. So English would have been at least their third language.

Anyway, last night I remembered this woman, I’ll call her Tracey, but that’s not her real name, was very driven and accomplished. She once did a really cool presentation on teaching Armenian kids critical thinking skills. I remember being so impressed by the lesson and excited by things I might get to do when I became a teacher myself. Of course, in my case, the reality of the difficulty of trying to teach in an Armenian school overcame my ambitions. I’ll also admit that I probably didn’t try as hard as I could have. Teaching was never one of my passions.

Besides being smart, driven, and accomplished, Tracey was also very pretty. She dated an equally handsome guy who had come to Armenia with her in their group. This handsome guy, I’ll call Al, had written a funny open letter to all of the new Volunteers in my group. I remember sitting at home in Gloucester, Virginia, reading all of the letters the “A2s” had written. They were all about the challenges that awaited us in Armenia. Some of it was shocking. There were a few letters that issued warnings. I specifically remember one letter warned vegetarians to stay away, because vegetarianism wasn’t a “thing” in Armenia. Another warned alcoholics that the drinking culture was strong in Armenia. While I agree that alcoholics may have trouble in Armenia, I disagree that it would be hard to be a vegetarian there. In fact, I knew several vegetarians in my group. Armenia has really beautiful produce.

But I remember that Al’s letter was especially entertaining… He wrote about “breaking in” his overprotective host mom. If I recall correctly, that woman also hosted a guy from my group. He still keeps in touch with her, but I doubt Al does. Al was handsome and charming. He played a twelve string guitar. He was popular with the ladies, and knew it.

One night, a Peace Corps friend and I were sitting at a bar and Al came in, looking roguishly handsome. He approached the two of us, bought us a round, and struck up a conversation. My friend was warming to him, but I kind of stayed aloof. There was something about him that I just didn’t trust. He was a very good looking man, and I had come to distrust guys like him. I found that they were usually glib and insincere. I wondered why he’d want to talk to someone like me.

Al noticed that I wasn’t reacting to him like my friend was. He was bold enough to address it. I don’t remember how he approached it… he may have just asked me what was wrong. I do distinctly remember that he said I was “standoffish”. I’m not usually standoffish to people, so that was an interesting and probably accurate description. I just didn’t trust him. He said the right things and was very good looking, but there was something about him that didn’t ring true. I felt like by talking to me, he felt like he was “slumming” or something– doing me a favor by noticing me. I hasten to add that I might have been wrong in my perception. That was just how it felt to me at the time. It was like he was offended that I wasn’t reacting to him in the way he felt I should, and he had the nerve to call me on it.

I never did get to know Al very well, because he quickly found a job in Armenia and didn’t actually finish his Peace Corps assignment. But he still dated Tracey, and they were kind of the “it couple” from the A2 group. They, and all of the other, popular crew in the Peace Corps, used to get together on the weekends in Yerevan and party with the second in charge at the U.S. Embassy. I think I was invited and actually went to one of the parties the “DCM” (deputy chief of mission) threw, but as I wasn’t “popular”, I didn’t feel comfortable going to them and hanging out with the “in crowd”. They weren’t mean to me or anything, but no one wants to feel like a fifth wheel. Those parties were awkward for a “nobody” like me.

One night, sometime during my first year in Armenia and Tracey’s second, there was a big party in the city of Vanadzor (formerly known as Kirovakan in Soviet times). I had come up from Yerevan, which was where I was posted and the capital of Armenia, to go to this party. I don’t remember if there was another reason I was there… There probably was. Maybe we had some official or unofficial event there, because I remember a whole lot of other Volunteers had also come up that weekend.

Vanadzor was home to an Armenian band called Snack. One of the other A2 volunteers was also in the band. They would play at parties, and in fact, somewhere in storage, I have a cassette of their music. I remember some of the songs, which were kind of charming in their simplicity and sense of fun. If I recall correctly, most of the songs were originals. Snack was playing at this party, and many people were having a great time, dancing and drinking. I probably have pictures from that party, but they’re in storage.

Unfortunately, I have never been very good at parties. I was especially bad at them in the 90s. I remember an Armenian guy at that particular party calling me fat in Armenian, which really upset me. People in Armenia called me fat all the time, and I was… but back then, I struggled with eating disorders, so every time I was confronted by those comments, they were kind of shattering. One of my colleagues and friends defended me, which I appreciated. It was still pretty embarrassing, though.

Right after the fat shaming episode, I decided to go to the bathroom, an adventure in and of itself in Armenia back in those days. You never knew if you’d have power or running water. I opened the unlocked door, and there was Al, on the toilet. He was rip roaring drunk. He looked up at me, grinning, eyes glazed by alcohol, and laughed. He said, “Oh, excccuuuusse me…”

I backed away and slammed the door. Next thing I knew, the party had gone silent. Al, who was still very drunk, was making a speech, and everyone had shut up so he could speak. He was telling Tracey how much he loved and admired her. Her eyes were dewy with emotion as she stood there, starstruck as her drunk boyfriend proposed marriage! I distinctly remember hearing him say, slurring his words, “I wanted to ask ‘Tracey’ if she’d be my wife.”

And I remember her overwhelmed response…. “Of course!” They embraced, everybody cheered, and the party kicked back up into full swing.

Sometime later, I remember hearing Al talking to someone about their mutual career prospects, once Tracey finished her service. He talked of them moving to Africa, embarking on global careers. He said she planned to study public health, and “Africa would be wide open” for her. I knew this to be true, since my own sister, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco back in the 1980s, also works in public health. And, like Tracey, she is very driven and accomplished, and she has a Ph.D in public health.

Tracey and Al invited ALL of the Peace Corps Armenia Volunteers to their wedding, which took place in Illinois. I couldn’t attend, of course, and wouldn’t have gone even if it had been convenient. I didn’t know them that well, and as fond as I am of drinking alcoholic beverages, I wasn’t all that impressed by Al’s drunken marriage proposal. I had a feeling their marriage might not succeed. I’m not completely sure, but I think they did eventually get divorced not too many years after their wedding.

I looked up Tracey last night. I wasn’t surprised to see that she has a doctorate in public health from a very good school. And, like me, she has master’s degrees in social work and public health, although she got hers from a more prestigious school than where I got mine. She is now the director of a MPH program at a private university. She’s still very attractive, and probably would love talking to my sister, who is the big achiever in my immediate family. They have a lot in common, including attending the same school of public health, although Tracey went there for both of her master’s degrees and my sister went there for her Ph.D.

Besides being a “doc”, my eldest sister was a ballerina who finished high school early so she could attend the Royal Ballet School in London. She moved herself to Virginia from England and went to William & Mary, then went to Morocco for two years with the Peace Corps. She has a Moroccan friend I have never met who friended me on Facebook. He still remembers her with great affection… he met my parents and recently wrote a touching story about my dad and a guide who was trying to rip him off. I have never met her friend in person, but if I ever went to Morocco, I feel sure he’d show me around. It’s really something when someone who knew you in the 80s is still so attached in 2020.

My sister went on to earn a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, and then got a Ph.D. from Chapel Hill. She speaks several languages, has two great grown kids, and a long, successful marriage. I look up to her, but have always felt like I kind of fell short.

Last night, I was telling Bill about all this, thinking about how my life has turned out. Looking objectively at my life, I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of, really. There are many people out there who are much bigger losers than I am. At least I’m not sitting in prison. But the truth is, I do feel ashamed a lot of the time, because I feel like I should be doing more… It’s hard not to compare your life to other people’s lives. There are a lot of accomplished people in my life who, at least on the outside, appear to be big winners at life. Some people might look at me and think I’ve done a lot, but I feel like a lot of other people think of me as insignificant. What they think of me isn’t my business, but it’s still hard not to compare… or to wonder if they think I’m as big of a failure as I sometimes feel like I am, but objectively realize I’m really not.

For many years after my time in Armenia, I felt like I hadn’t done much. That sentiment changed somewhat a few years ago, when I spied my very first Armenian teacher on Facebook. I sent her a message and we caught up a bit. I was in this lady’s very first Armenian language class, ever. We had three teachers over that twelve week training period, and Armine was my first. And that was her first year as a Peace Corps language teacher, way back in 1995. Armine now runs the language program for Peace Corps Armenia.

Right after we friended each other, I got a private message. It was from a guy, who rather shyly asked me if I remembered him. He’d been one of my students at that school where I felt like I’d done nothing of consequence. Now, he’s a program director for Peace Corps Armenia. I doubt I had anything to do with his ultimate success. He spoke English very well when I met him, and that was when he was about 16 years old. I think he went on to get a doctorate, too. But he remembers me, and I didn’t turn him off of the American people. I guess, in a way, he’s sort of my Armenian version of my sister’s Moroccan friend. I know I made a difference to at least one person, anyway. And I probably made a difference to at least several more people, and probably even more than that.

Maybe I wasn’t as accomplished as I felt I should have been, but I did accomplish something. It’s been really fun to get to know him now. I kind of wonder what he must think, having known me when I was in my 20s and, if I’m honest, a lot simpler and less mature than I am today. Looking back on it, it’s a wonder I succeeded in spending two years in Armenia. A lot of people spend their young lives planning to join the Peace Corps. I kind of joined on a whim, and did a lot of winging it. I certainly never came up with any brilliant lessons on critical thinking skills, like Tracey did.

Back in the 90s, when I was probably at my most attractive physically, I felt like a guy like Al would be “slumming” talking to me. He was very cute, accomplished, intelligent, and talented, and a lot of women found him attractive. He was definitely used to charming the women… and to be honest, it surprises me that he didn’t charm me, even though I thought he was good looking. When I was in my 20s, I might have thought of that guy as a “catch”, but the truth is, he’s probably not as much of a catch as he appeared to be. And I’m probably much more of a catch than I know. At least, that’s what 47 year old me would tell 24 year old me.

This is so us.

Now that I’m in my late 40s, I look at my husband, Bill, who may not have been a stud like Al, but he was also not drunk when he proposed to me. In fact, he took me to a beautiful restaurant in Georgetown, a place that he could ill afford at the time, and pulled out a lovely marquis cut half-carat diamond ring. He never actually asked, “Will you marry me?” He was very nervous… so it came out more like “Well, how about it?”

The next day, he put me on a plane to Jamaica so I could sing at my sister’s wedding. Then, a few days later, when I came back to D.C., he was waiting at the airport with a jacket for me, because he knew I’d probably be dressed for Jamaica and D.C. was cold. I’ll bet Al wouldn’t have thought to do that for his wife. Almost 18 years later, Bill and I are still happily together, living in peace and harmony. We’re getting to see the world together and I spend most days doing pretty much whatever I want. Last night, Bill gave me an adorable grin and asked, “Can I interest you in some ice cream?”, even though a guy like Al would probably say I don’t need to be eating ice cream. Bill cares about my happiness, not his image. Choosing a husband is definitely one thing I did right.

Even though I didn’t go on to use my lofty education in the way that Tracey has, I don’t regret going back to school. That experience taught me that I’m capable of doing things I never thought I could. If I really wanted to, I probably could get a doctorate. Fortunately, I am not that driven… because although I think I am probably intellectually capable of doing the work for a terminal degree, I don’t want to spend the money or the time. There are a lot of people who are much better qualified and more willing to take on the responsibility and the massive debt. I guess, in that sense, I’m glad I’m not that driven… it’s just good to know that I’m capable. And that maybe it’s a blessing that handsome men don’t look at me as someone they’d want to marry. I’d rather have a sober, private proposal from a sweet guy who asks, “How about it?” than a drunken, public proposal in front of equally drunk friends and a divorce just a few years later.

Though I have met some people, even a couple of Germans, who have made it plain that they don’t think I’m any great shakes, I also know that I’ve made a difference to at least a few people I’ve met here. I’ve even made a difference to some animals. Looking at “the big picture”, I think I’ve done alright. I probably don’t need to compare myself to anyone else. At least I’m not in prison, right?


Repost: Remembering Barbara Bejoian, diasporas, and amethysts…

This post appeared on my original blog on May 8, 2017. I am reposting it today, as/is.

Every once in awhile, I get reminded of people I used to know.  Sometimes I look them up to see what they’re up to.  I didn’t really know Armenian-American playwright Barbara Bejoian, although I did have the chance to meet her back in 1995.  At the time, I was a Peace Corps trainee in Armenia.  Ms. Bejoian was in Armenia on a Fulbright Scholarship.  She had come with her family and was teaching at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and, I believe, Yerevan State University.  She graciously came to see us TEFL trainees (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) one day.

I remember her as a woman in her youthful forties, with long dark hair, a bright and warm smile, and a very engaging personality.  She talked about her work in Armenia and introduced me to the word “diaspora”.  That’s not a joke.  There I was, 23 years old and a graduate of what was then known as Longwood College.  I had been an English major.  I had not come into contact with the concept of a diaspora before I moved to Armenia.

For those who don’t know, a diaspora is a group of people from a certain place who live in another place.  Life in Armenia has been historically difficult.  Many Armenians have voluntarily left their homeland and resettled in places that are more comfortable or hospitable.  Others were forcibly driven out of their country.  In the United States, there are large Armenian communities in the Boston and Fresno areas.  France is also host to many ethnic Armenians, as is Iran. 

Many Armenians lived in Turkey; some still live there, despite the Armenian Genocide that occurred in the early 20th century.  At one time, there were millions of Armenians in Turkey; now, their numbers are in the thousands and they are concentrated in the Istanbul area rather than the historically Armenian eastern part of the country.

Now I know that many people from different places are living in disaporas.  Diaspora is a word that is often used to describe Jewish communities around the world. But, as I found out when I was a Volunteer, Armenians have some things in common with Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  As a matter of fact, Adolf Hitler looked to what happened to the Armenian people as justification for his plan to exterminate Jewish people. 

I remember Barbara Bejoian, gloriously American in her Armenianness, talking to our group about her work as a playwright and what it meant for her to be living in the diaspora.  She led us through a writing exercise and had us describe Armenia in a creative way.  She was so encouraging and intelligent and I remember being inspired by her achievements.  I remember my colleagues coming up with very unique ways to describe their impressions of Armenia. 

One idea that sticks in my mind came from a fellow trainee who described Armenian homes like amethyst crystals.  The buildings many Armenians were living in back in 1995 looked bland, decrepit, and very Soviet.  Walk into one of those homes and you were likely to find it beautifully decorated.  It was like breaking open a bland looking amethyst and finding gorgeous purple crystals on the inside.  In fact, the year after I met Barbara Bejoian, I had an experience that reminded me of that “amethyst” concept. 

An Armenian couple I was friends with invited me to go with them to Lake Sevan for an afternoon.  We went, but missed the last bus.  So we started walking and my Armenian friend, a friendly but large man, thumbed a ride.  A man picked us up and took us back to Yerevan.  Before we parted ways, he invited us into his home for coffee.  Although the building was very shabby looking, the inside of this man’s apartment was decorated with paintings his son had done.  It turned out he was going to display some of them in Paris at an art gallery.  I remember being absolutely blown away by the experience.  Here I was with an Armenian couple.  We had hitchhiked, something I would NEVER do in the United States.  And we’d ended up meeting this man whose son was an amazing artist.  You’d never know it to see the outside of where he was living.  When I think of that experience, I am reminded of how Barbara Bejoian had inspired a colleague to compare Armenian homes to amethysts.

Like many Armenians, Barbara Bejoian had a gift for creativity and a love for the arts.  It’s no small feat to be a successful playwright.  Barbara Bejoian’s works had been performed in venues in several countries.  I could tell she was a very special person who had touched many, even though when I encountered her, she was still fairly young.  Below is a passage from her obituary…

Ms. Bejoian, winner of 10 National Endowment for the Arts awards, was a professor of playwriting, English, and creative writing. Her students ranged from children whose second language was English to undergraduates and graduate students at Brown University, New York University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Rhode Island College. One of her plays will appear in a future anthology of Armenian writers, to be published by Columbia University Press.

I did not know that Barbara Bejoian would perish less than ten years after she led her session during my Peace Corps training.  In 2002, she was stricken with metastatic rectal cancer.  In April 2004 at age 49, she died, leaving behind her husband and two sons. 

I don’t know what made me think of her yesterday.  I guess it’s just my wandering mind, which can alternatively be a blessing or a curse.  I was moved by memories shared about her in her obituary and suddenly felt very fortunate to have had the chance to meet her in person.  I doubt I would have ever heard of her had I not been sitting in Peace Corps training that day.

The older I get, the more I think that sometimes you end up in places for a reason.  I never aspired to be a Peace Corps Volunteer when I was growing up.  I really only wanted what other people had.  I knew I didn’t want to stay in Gloucester, Virginia, but I probably would have been alright with settling in a town somewhat like it.  I was driven to join the Peace Corps out of a need to leave my hometown, get away from my parents, and strike out on my own.  I never thought I’d be accepted into the Peace Corps, and yet I was.  It changed my life, if only because it vastly broadened my perspective of the world and opened my eyes to places like Armenia and people like Barbara Bejoian. 

I write this realizing that my experience is not everyone’s experience.  Some people have encountered disaster in the Peace Corps.  I will admit that I didn’t always enjoy the work or the people I worked with.  Twenty years later, I can see that once I made that leap, I couldn’t go back home.  Barbara Bejoian was part of that life expanding experience, as were many other people.  Actually, now that I think about it, I met a number of very interesting and inspirational people during those two years.  Several professors from the United States came to Armenia to lend their talents.  I was so fortunate to be able to engage with them.  I didn’t realize it then, but I do now.  I didn’t think I made a difference back then, but I do now.  What a gift it is to have had the chance to meet Barbara Bejoian and others like her.  Thinking about her today reminds me that one should always be open to accepting the gifts others offer.

memories, musings, nostalgia

Planting seeds…

A couple of days ago, my former student, Stepan, shared this photo on Facebook…

This was probably taken in 1996, when I taught Stepan’s tenth form class at Ruben Sevak School #151. Stepan was about 16 and I was about 24.

I taught Stepan “conversational English” at Ruben Sevak School #151 in Yerevan, Armenia. I came to Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and was a member of the third group to go there. My specialty was TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). I liked that they called it TEFL instead of TESL (teaching English as a second language), since most everyone in Armenia in those days spoke Russian as well as their native tongue, Armenian. When I met Stepan, he was already fluent in English. Ruben Sevak School was an English specialty school, and quite a few of my students spoke English very well. However, most of my students didn’t speak English, especially the young ones. I taught first form kids, too– seven year olds– and yes, a lot of my teaching was done in my piss poor Armenian for those children. It’s hard to believe they’re in their 30s now!

Anyway, Stepan shared this picture, which cracked me up, since I have another one taken the same day with one of his classmates, a guy named Arman, who was totally funny. Arman didn’t speak English at all, but he had personality plus. One day, he decided to jump out of the window of our classroom. Stepan later told me he’d done it to impress a girl. We were on the third floor. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt. I couldn’t believe my eyes… and he did it before I could stop him or even know what he was up to. The next day I saw Arman, he was very cool about his little stunt. I still can’t believe he did it, even today. When I ran into Stepan on Facebook a few years ago, I had to ask him if I’d really seen what I’d seen. And he confirmed that I had. I even remember one of his classmates talking and making the downward sound effect as Arman made his sudden descent.

In the above photo, I have that serious look on my face because, at the time, I had giardiasis and was trying not to crap in my pants. Although the water was generally safe in Armenia in the 90s, and I could drink tap water with no ill effects once I got used to it, there was a broken pipe in the water works that I hadn’t known about because I didn’t have a TV and hadn’t seen the news. I drank some contaminated water and got the worst case of diarrhea of my life. I couldn’t eat or shit properly for two weeks. The day that picture was taken, I had finally decided it was time to see the medical officer for some drugs. I remember going straight to the PC doctor (also my landlady at the time) and getting antibiotics. Within 24 hours, I was back to normal. Maybe I should have held out longer and lost some weight.

Such was life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1990s. I joined the Peace Corps mainly on a whim. My sister had been a Volunteer in Morocco in the 1980s and managed to carve out a career. I had trouble finding meaningful work after I got out of college, so I decided to apply for the Peace Corps myself. As the Peace Corps is competitive, I never thought they would accept me. But, I happened to join at a fortuitous time. The Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc had just fallen apart, and many of those formerly closed countries were opened up as their governments welcomed American Peace Corps Volunteers to come in and work.

There were a lot of places to go– Russia (eastern and western), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states– Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan all had programs. Since my day, a number of those programs have closed. A few others have opened in their place, or reopened, such as the case with Albania, which was open when I was a Volunteer, closed for some time, then reopened. Azerbaijan and Georgia both got programs years after I finished my service. Armenia is now on its 28th group… I think. It’s been 25 years since I joined, after all. I was in the group that was known as A3.

A gift from my days in Armenia… appreciation for the late, great Aram Asatryan’s traditional music. Yes Hay chem, bayts yes sirumem Hayastan… ես հայ չեմ, բայց սիրում եմ հայաստան

I didn’t have the easiest time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was very young and naive about a lot of things. I hadn’t been trained as a teacher in college, although I did major in English. I didn’t know anything about government service, although I was an Air Force brat and my sister had been a Volunteer. She’s thirteen years older than I am, though, so it’s not like we did a lot of talking. In short, I left the Peace Corps feeling depressed and hopeless about a lot of things. The year after I came home was one of the worst of my lifetime. I ended up in therapy and on antidepressants, and instead of using my year of non competitive eligibility for government jobs, I wound up waiting tables, a job I hated, but from which I learned a lot.

I often wondered if I’d even made any difference as a Volunteer. There were many times when I felt like my efforts were unappreciated and ineffectual. Sometimes, I almost felt like my presence was even resented by a few, although Armenians are very warm and hospitable people. Other times, I felt like all of my talents were useful in Armenia in some way. I had some experiences that were just incredible… I will never forget them, nor do I think I could have had them anywhere else.

For instance, there was the time I went to Lake Sevan with an Armenian friend and his wife. We missed the last bus back to Yerevan, so we started walking and my friend, a large, good looking Armenian man, stuck out his thumb. Sure enough, we were picked up by a guy headed to Yerevan. He took us to his home for coffee. I was a little hesitant about going into a stranger’s car, let alone his home, but it turned into one of those incredible experiences.

It turned out our benevolent driver’s son was an artist and was going to be exhibiting his art in Paris. The man’s apartment was liberally decorated with his son’s paintings… amazing creations that looked worthy of the best art museums in Florence, Paris, or Madrid. I sipped the thick, sludgy, sugary Turkish style coffee, my mind absolutely blown by the talent hidden behind the drab walls of the man’s Soviet era apartment. I don’t think I could have had that experience anywhere else but in Armenia.

Armenia was also hospitable to my musical leanings. I often went to jazz clubs to listen to live music and drink wine. More than once, I got to sing with the bands. People knew who I was, too, simply because I was that American girl who sang. There were so few Americans back then that it was possible to be known in such a way.

In Armenia, I lived without hot water, electricity, and basic literacy, since I had trouble reading in Armenian. I was actually better at reading Russian, even though I never studied it. And yet I kind of experienced a type of notoriety, too… I left that country a bit depressed, discouraged, and wondering if I’d made any difference. But I also left richer than I was when I got there, simply because my eyes were opened to another perspective– a whole new way of living that, as an American, I had never considered prior to joining the Peace Corps. Hell, just meeting other Americans from places other than the southeast was life altering for me, but also meeting Armenians, Georgians and Russians, as well as the odd Brits and Germans who came through, really expanded my horizons beyond the southeastern Virginia town from which I’d come.

So… when Stepan shared that photo, I was very touched. But then I read what was posted along with the photo…

Actually, in 1994, I had no idea I’d be joining the Peace Corps. That was an idea that came to me in early 1995. By April of that year, I had my invitation to Armenia.

Stepan now works for Peace Corps/Armenia. I don’t think I had much to do with his decision to work for the Peace Corps, although reading the above commentary makes me realize that I did make a difference by being there when I was. I was an American he met when he was a teenager and he didn’t forget about me. I didn’t turn him off to Americans, either. I remember days when I was walking home from school… I lived a pretty good distance, so it would take me about a half an hour or so to get home if I walked the whole way. I ran into Stepan more than once, and he’d walk with me and chat. A couple of his classmates did, too. One of them, a boy who didn’t speak much English, once surprised me in class by asking me how my weekend was in perfect English. I guess he picked it up from me, since I started Monday lessons by asking my students how their weekends had been.

I remember small children begging me to sing with them, “Lav eli, Miss Tolley, yergi!” (Lav eli is an Armenian expression that kind of defies translation– it’s basically akin to “Oh, come on!”) I remember how beautiful those children were, and how small they were… and now they’ve probably got their own families in an Armenia that appears to be very different from the one I remember.

I see all of the amazing things that the new Volunteers are achieving… very impressive feats indeed, even out in the “regions”, where all of the Volunteers serve nowadays. I see that the newer Volunteers start learning the language at home, before they even arrive in country, while in my day, we learned in grueling training sessions. They’re taught by my very first Armenian teacher, Armine, who now heads the program to teach new Volunteers Armenian. I was in her very first class. She was one of three teachers I had, but she was also the first. In fact, I sent her a private message and that was how Stepan and I got in touch again. Thanks to Facebook, I know what became of some of the people I knew in Yerevan… and I actually want to go back to visit, since I know the city, and yet I don’t know it anymore. But there are still friendly faces there for me… who will welcome me if and when we can visit.

I think about how physically difficult life in Armenia could be in the 90s. I’m not sure if it’s still that hard. I know that Yerevan, at least, is a lot better than it was in the 90s. Armine has told me that my group had a “real” Peace Corps experience and has implied that the newer Volunteers have no idea of what we faced back in the day. But I’m sure they face their challenges too. It occurs to me that even if the Volunteers in my day didn’t do as many really apparently incredible things as I’m seeing from the new Volunteers, we still helped pave the way for today’s Volunteers, which in and of itself, is kind of incredible and awesome. We helped lay the bedrock for bigger and better things to come. To this day, it makes me proud to see how very far Armenia has come in such a short time and how committed the people are to going even further. I am so happy I got to be a little part of that, in whatever small way.

I think, of all of the people who served in Armenia, the first group was by far the bravest. I think they were also the most depleted. I heard, when I was still a trainee, that about half of them either quit or were medically separated. A number of others found jobs. The same happened in the second group, although their group was significantly smaller than both the first and third groups. In my group, several people married locals. I was told I would marry an Armenian, too, but alas, it didn’t happen. I married a Soldier and moved to Germany instead of Armenia. I should probably thank the Peace Corps for turning me into the “overeducated” housewife. I went to grad school, in part, because I had been a Volunteer. That’s also why I got degrees in social work and public health– those were degree programs for which I would have had to study if I had been a Peace Corps Fellow (and alas, I wasn’t– for complicated reasons that worked out better in the long run– a story for another post).

No, I didn’t end up becoming a teacher after my service, although I did find the job somewhat rewarding at times. However, thanks to people like Stepan, I know that all teachers make a difference, and they do indeed “plant seeds” for trees under whose shade they may never sit. I would never say I was a particularly gifted teacher… but I will say that everyone has the potential to teach. We can’t help it. You can learn from anyone. I’m proud that I was able to teach Stepan something, and I’m grateful to know that I did make a difference to some people, even if it didn’t seem like I had at the time. Although my time in the Peace Corps was very difficult, I’m still grateful I had that amazing, life changing opportunity. I’m so glad I did it, even if it was a decision I made on a whim. Part of me kind of craves to have a new opportunity that will make a difference in someone else’s life. Maybe when Bill is finally retired… maybe someday, I might even use those degrees I earned thanks to the Peace Corps.

To Stepan, and any other Armenian who helped change my life, I say “շնորհակալություն” (thank you). You gave me so much more than I feel like I gave you… but I suppose it’s impossible to measure such things. It’s all about perspective, and mine was definitely changed by my time in Armenia. It will always have a part of my heart.