Sunday, May 15, 2011


This is an article I wrote for the volunteer magazine here:

I’ve got a lot of experience in all sorts of things. In kindergarten I had a brief stint in building log cabins and Stonehenge type structures for 4 inch tall people. I earned several awards for my work including a Gold Star and the prestigious Smiley Face. In elementary school I was an artist, specializing mainly in portraits of Ninja Turtles. My pieces were shown on refrigerators throughout the suburbs. A lot of housewives predicted big things for my future in the arts but an addiction to Rice Krispie Treats ended my career prematurely. By Middle School I was a cardboard rocket scientist. After two years and zero successful moon landings (or friends) I quit.

In high school I was an athlete playing in front of tens of people. But I buckled under the pressure and my career ended at the age of 18. (Ah, those were the glory days.) In college I got into the hard sciences. I did some really important work in looking at other scientists’ work and trying to rewrite it without looking at it, in under 50 minutes. I came out with a hangover and a lot of pieces of paper with numbers between 0 and 100 written on them. In graduate school I decided that the hard sciences didn’t have enough practical application for me so I switched to Environmental Engineering. I saved a lot of theoretical trees and water and gave some really revolutionary talks on what everybody else was doing wrong.

Finally I came to the Peace Corps. There was a community where the water was in one place but the houses were in another place. We put pipes in the ground and the water ran through them and arrived at the houses. The people were happy.

It’s not to say that I didn’t have fun or enjoy what I did before I got to the Peace Corps. But no matter what hobby or subject of study I happened to be trying out that month I could never convince myself that any of them really mattered. As soon as I got to a point where I had a relative grasp on something I got bored and moved onto the next one. As Americans we seem to have a need to “find our calling.” “I was meant to be an actor.” “I was meant to be a doctor.” “I was meant to pierce my nipples and hang heavy weights from them in front of an audience.” But that’s kind of bullshit, right? Biologically speaking you were born to eat, drink, breath, poop, and reproduce. And I’ll concede that companionship is a necessity as well. So in building this water system I was fulfilling one of the basic needs of human life and it made sense to me. I have come to the end of the project and I would still like to build more water systems. I don’t want to research the effect of water availability on peoples’ ability to solve the Rubik’s cube. I just want to bury tubes in the ground and put water in them. Or build stoves that take harmful smoke out of people’s kitchens, allowing them to breathe. Or make water filters that remove harmful bacteria from people’s water so that they poop the way biology intended. Or teaching Sex-Ed classes to allow teenage girls to choose when they want to reproduce. So then Duncan extended forever in the Peace Corps and lived a simple but fulfilling life. Well no.

I’m sure Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie will attest to the fact that it’s hard for an overprivileged white kid to live the Simple Life. No matter how much I like my work I still feel the need to leave my house each weekend and head for civilization and Americans, like a dolphin coming up for air and then doing a sweet flip and making a giant splash, soaking an obese lady wearing a visor and a fanny pack. I use technology (internet, television, Ipod, Furbies) and eat American fast food. I complain to other Americans about the lack of manners and politeness and honesty among these simple people. And no matter how much I like simple answers to simple questions I continue to complicate my mind with books and brain pushups. So I want all of these things. None of which is a basic need. None of which was born of simplicity. They were born of science and imperialism and entrepreneurism and religion and law.

So I find myself stuck between two worlds in an overpopulated place called hypocrisy. I want the comfort and familiarity of America but the work and freedom of the Peace Corps.

So I need to find a compromise. Equally rewarding and necessary work must exist in the United States. We, as Americans, have the same basic needs as anybody from the third world. We’re just disconnected from our basic needs. Our world begins when the food reaches the table and ends when we flush the toilet. I’d like to do something that expands that view to include the before and after. I want to let people know where their food and water comes from before it enters their mouth. Let them know where their poop goes after it leaves their body. And I realize what I’m describing is not a job, it’s an environmental studies textbook. Except that to understand an environmental studies textbook theoretically is one thing, but to understand it in the context of your life is another thing. And living in my campo has forced me to face the reality of how drastic the effects (human, animal, and ecological) of an “American lifestyle” are compared to that of the Third World. So I don’t want to fall right back into my previous life and forget everything I’ve learned here.

Instead I could push for a return to simplicity while living among the complexity of the United States; a simple/complex system that combines the best of the Dominican campo (local food, decentralized waste management, rainwater catchment, hanging out) with the immense amount of information and technology in the United States (urban farming, biogas digesters, conservation practices, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.). I will call it simplexity (Yes, I’m sure I’m not the first one to coin this term). So it’s not a regression to pre-industrialized USA. It’s more like packing up the really good things of the First World and taking them with us as we backtrack our steps to meet the Third World somewhere in the middle (the Second World?) to have an organic beer and shoot the shit. Oh yeah, and, ideally, I would just like to do this four days a week in a non-competitive atmosphere with decent benefits.

Moral of the Story: Please send all job offers to accompanied by a 500 word essay explaining why you want a semi-intelligent, sporadically motivated, beer-loving, manboy in your workplace. Or just write “Free Cookies!!”

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Law of Conservation of “S”: The quantity of S’s in a closed language does not change over time. S’s cannot be created or destroyed but they can change places.

We’re all familiar with this law from our freshman year Physics of Writing class but it’s rare that we get to see it in real life. Until we come to the Dominican Republic. They tend not to use the letter “S” in everyday conversation (or writing). Words like “busco” become “buco.” “Dos mas” becomes “doe ma.” “Yos Yos Mas” becomes “Yo Yo Ma.” Etc. They are aware of the fact that the letter “S” exists and that it must be used or the laws of physics will be proved wrong and the world will implode on itself and form a black hole. They hear the “S” on the news or in their soap operas or in the lisp of a Spanish aid worker. They just don’t realize that there’s a method to their S-ness. And so when it comes time to sound intelligent or sophisticated they put the “S” back in their speech but in the wrong words and places. Just wherever they decide it sounds nice. Usually in every word that can possibly accept an “S” (This has to do with the number of valence S’s that the word has. But we won’t get into Linguistic Chemistry right now.) So “Hola” becomes “Holas.” “Acueducto” becomes “Ascuedusto.” But “Dos Mas” remains “Doe Ma.”

Now that my water system is done and I am working in other parts of the country I only spend weekends at my mountain home. And with no work to be done there it has become more like a vacation home than before when it was more like one of those trailers that they have as offices at constructions sites. Now I look forward to waking up lazily and having a cup of coffee and traveling a total of 10 meters in a day.

I’ve been using some of my time to encourage the artistic talents of my five-year old friend Manuel. We color in a Toy Story coloring book. But not in a lame kiddish way. It’s more like neo-modernist, abstract art. Do we stay in the lines? Yeah, Right! Sometimes people are all like, “Hey, shouldn’t that pig be pink?” And we're all like, “Hey shouldn’t you shut your face.”

When Manuel is having a little trouble finding his creativity, I teach him an age old artists trick called “getting plastered.” He chugs a liter of rum and the creative juices start flowing. I sometimes wonder whether it is bad for five-year-olds to have unhealthy drinking habits in the developing world but the WHO doesn’t have any statistics about it so who really knows.

Anyway none of that really matters because I just found out Judgment Day is on May 21st and the people who are worthy will go up to heaven or something. I use curse words so I probably won’t get the E-vite. Then in October of this year the world is going to end. It’s strange, and a bit disheartening, that this date coincides with my finish date in the Peace Corps. Here I thought the world would be saved when I left the Peace Corps when in reality it’s going to end.

It’s Mother’s Day tomorrow. This blog is dedicated to my Mother. Happy Mother’s Day Mom! She’s a nice lady. She’ll probably be one of the ones who gets to go up to heaven in a couple weeks.