Sunday, February 25, 2007

Microfinance – Philanthropy or Fashion Trend

My brother Andrew, who is currently pursuing a business degree at BYU, hopes to go on to a career in microfinance. For those unfamiliar with that term, it involves making small loans to people who are so poor that most banks won’t lend to them. In developing countries, where less than $100 can allow someone to start a business and raise their family out of poverty, microfinance is working wonders for literally millions of people. Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered the microcredit principle three decades ago in Bangladesh, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his ongoing efforts.

Andrew is currently applying for internships with a few groups involved in the microfinance movement. He commented to me recently that there seem to be two kinds of people working in microfinance: 1) True philanthropists who sincerely want to help others, and 2) Snooty people who get involved because it’s hip and exotic.

I’m sure the loan recipients in Third World countries are grateful for the help no matter what their lenders’ attitudes, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the self-centered, Type 2 folks. Bringing hope to so many could be such a joyful experience, but they’re so focused on themselves that they miss out on that.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Life's Better for Babies and Redheads

One the most intriguing books I’ve ever read is Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times. When she was preparing to start that job, she learned that every restaurant in town was on the lookout for her so they could treat her like a queen and get a good review. Determined to get the same dining experience as everyone else, she began going to dinner in disguise.

Reichl invented numerous personas—a middle-aged businesswoman, a blonde bombshell, a timid elderly woman, even her own mom. She didn’t want to just look different; she wanted to be different, and see how the restaurants treated her. The persona that interested me most, and the one that almost tempts me to try the experiment myself, was “Brenda.”

Brenda was dreamed up by Reichl’s coworker. She dressed Ruth up in a red wig and loud, vintage clothing, and created an aging hippie that was completely the opposite of Reichl’s normal appearance. Ruth wore almost no make-up, Brenda wore bright lipstick; Ruth wore lots of black, Brenda wore bright colors; Ruth tried to blend in, Brenda stood out wherever she went.

Even more striking than the visual difference was the way Reichl found herself acting when she dressed like Brenda. She stuck out, but she wasn’t self-conscious. She looked easy-going and friendly, and somehow she became just that. Strangers smiled at her and she grinned back. They came up and talked to her, and she didn’t find it unusual. Waiters at restaurants winked at her and gave her extra truffles. Reichl wrote that “Brenda’s world was a gentler place than mine: people wished her well.”

I find myself thinking of that line often as I exchange smiles with my baby daughter. She’s a cheerful little soul, neither judgmental nor self-conscious. Each of us feels happy and safe with the other. I hope her world stays gentle, and I yearn to make mine gentler. I suspect there’s a grinning, friendly Brenda inside each of us.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Simple Pleasures

I recently learned that at my daughter Joy’s current stage of development (she's two months old), she can start to carry on little conversations. She makes a cooing noise, then I coo or say a short word, then she coos again, and so on. We’ve had a handful of these little chats over the past few days, and I absolutely love them. Perhaps it’s the linguist in me, enjoying this sweet, simple form of mother/daughter communication. Granted, I’ve been talking to Joy almost non-stop for weeks, but this feels more interactive. Plus she smiles her cute little grin all through it--gotta love that.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Little-known Benefit of Exercise

I love Kellogg’s Vanilla Crème Frosted Mini-Wheats. When they go on sale, I’ve been known to buy four boxes to tide me over until the next time they’re discounted. They’re so good, and so good for you.

Now, I must say that KVCRM-W has always struck me as the type of cereal that would appeal mainly to upper-middle class women of a certain age (I’m neither that rich nor that old, yet). Its box is a soothing beige color, and the word “cream” in its name is written French style, accented è and all. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of cereal that would grab a kid’s attention.

That being said, I was surprised when I looked at the side of my cereal box recently and saw helpful hints for achieving—of all things—better video game scores. And what, you may ask, was the “secret weapon” to help gamers “Have more energy. Be more alert. Raise your self-confidence”? Exercise.

That’s right—the makers of Xbox are urging you to ride your bike, play sports, or even run around the block, then “Now that your heart’s really beating, get pumped about beating your best score!” Bizarre.

Considering the rising rate of obesity in our country, I suppose anything that gets kids exercising more is a positive thing, but encouraging them to work their heart a few minutes so their hours of sedentary game-play will be more productive just seems counterintuitive to me.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Now, That's Love

The man conducting our church meeting this morning noted that Valentine's Day is three days away. He reminisced that back when he and his wife were dating, he was too poor to buy her roses but he knew the local cemetary threw away all the arrangements on their grounds every Thursday at 5:00pm. His future wife's friends were always impressed by the enormous arrangements her adoring boyfriend gave her.

Quote of the Day - Joy

"Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls." - Mother Teresa

It's true - the people I most enjoy being around are those who are happy, friendly, and at peace with life. It isn't that their existence is trouble free - no one's is. Everyone's life is a mixed bag of blessings and problems, and your attitude depends on which of the two you focus on.

I've also heard that the main cause of unhappiness is the mistaken belief that tribulation is the exception in life, rather than rule. We think things will be better as soon as we solve all our problems, but stresses and setbacks are an inevitable part of each day we live. Fortunately, there always sweet and beautiful moments, too. My baby daughter fussed and cried several times today, but she also smiled a lot. I'd rather remember the smiles.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Small Talk Is a Tool

The other day I was talking with someone, and I noticed that he was very good at asking small talk questions about books I was reading, etc., but didn’t seem genuinely interested in my answers. In fact, he rarely seemed entirely comfortable, as if he was so concerned about thinking of things to talk about in the future that he couldn’t relax and enjoy the present conversation.

The experience made me think about my own interaction with people, especially strangers. A little bit of small talk (“Where are you from? What do you do?” etc.) is often necessary when you’re getting to know someone, but it alone doesn’t make for a very satisfying conversation. Rather, it’s a tool for finding common interests that you can discuss in real depth. In most cases, if you ask a few good questions you quickly find that a person has a shared interest or some experience you’d genuinely like to learn more about.

I hope I’m both persistent and genuinely curious enough about people to dig for the really interesting stuff, rather than just scratching anxiously on the surface and never really looking at what turns up.