I’d be dammed

I got some interesting facts.

On May 30 of this year (2018), Colombia signed the agreement of accession to the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The only Latinamerican countries in the OECD are Chile and Mexico, but after ratifying the accession, Colombia will become full member of the organization as well.

I’ve seen the OECD described as the club of wealthy countries. Well, not for much longer. I say this not because I think Colombia lacks wealth. I say this because I think, in fact, I know, most Colombians lack wealth.

Not long ago, the rankings of inequality were suggesting that Colombia was among the most unequal countries in the world. In 2011, the country was only behind Haiti and Angola. This is dismal. But our leaders say they are doing great progress lifting people out of poverty: more recent rankings say we are not the third but rather the eight most unequal country in the world. What a relief. C’mmon. Give me a break.

According to the United States Development Agency, just 0.4% of the population owns 62% of the country’s best land. The Oxfam says that 80% of land in Colombia is in the hands of just 14% of owners and that this concentration has actually increased over the last 50+ years. Despite relatively fast economic growth in the last years, approximately 45% of Colombians live under the poverty line. Most of them are rural dwellers. No wonder leftist guerilla movements popped up like mushrooms just about everywhere and haven’t gone away in the last 50 years.

That’s on the side of inequality. The story gets even grimmer when we consider social mobility. Today, I ran into a chart from the OECD of income mobility across generations. I’ll include it to the end of this post for you to see, but basically, the chart ranks countries based on how many generations it takes for children from low-income families to reach the average income in their country. Not surprisingly, the most mobile societies are in the Nordic countries: in Denmark it takes two generations for poor families to reach average income levels, in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, it takes 3. Most other countries in the list follow with 4, 5, and 6 generations. The OECD average is 4.5.

Towards the bottom of the list, are Hungary, China, and India, with 7 generations. Then, Brazil and South Africa, which are notorious in the international platform for their social injustices (remember the apartheid?), with 9 generations. And at the very bottom of the list, with 11 generations is: my beloved Motherland, Colombia.

So, it takes 11 generations, more or less 220 years, for a poor Colombian family to reach “average income levels in their country.” In other words it takes 220 years for families to go from very poor to less poor.

That’s sad, but is not surprising. What is truly surprising about this statistic, is that it took so long for OECD researchers to come up with the estimate. In my family we have known this fact for centuries. I’ll tell you how.

Don Jose Antonio Villegas Londoño was born in 1750 in Rionegro, Antioquia. His father was captain Felipe Villegas y Cordoba and his mother was doña Maria Manuela Londoño Piedrahita. Don Jose Antonio became an explorer and for his service to the Crown in colonizing new lands, he was awarded large portions of land in the Southeast of the Antioquia region. He was truly a wealthy man and founder of many towns in the region, including the town of Abejorral, the town where he settled and, eventually, died.

Don Jose Antonio had a big heart, big enough to hold his 2 wives and 17 children, and this was controversial. After all, he was a big public figure and played an important role in the life of the common man. Don Jose Antonio’s personal life must have been worthy of a telenovela, to the point that it threatened the good Catholic ways. If today, in a Colombia where by constitution State and church are separated, religion weights heavily in social, political, and economic matters, imagine how it was in the 1800’s. Don Jose Antonio’s liberal ways sparked the fury of local religious institutions, and the priest of Abejorral organized a public hearing. In front of everyone in town and, most importantly, in the eyes of God, the priest cursed Don Jose Antonio. The priest cursed him to a life in poverty. Moreover, the curse would fall upon his descendants, 10 generations of Villegas would be cursed to live in poverty.

I don’t know how many years were researchers at the OECD collecting data to find that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian family to become less poor. They should have asked me. I could have told them what the pattern was: it has been in my family’s genealogical books for centuries. But even if they didn’t ask me, they could have asked a priest. Apparently, in Colombia, poverty is not established by pervasive social, political, or economic institutions, it’s what God wants to keep his subjects in the moral path of servitude and submission. By keeping people hungry, leaders make sure the majority doesn’t get used to better times. In addition, the hungrier the people, the less energy they have to fight, and anyway they won’t fight if they are told God wants them hungry, polite, and quiet. And this strategy works!

It works: we are society of submissive citizens. This Sunday we are coming back to the ballots for the presidential elections, and I wouldn’t be surprised if once again, we vote for the “good old” status quo.

PS: In case you are wondering, I did some maths. If 1 generation is 20 years, 10 generations is 200. So, if Don Jose Antonio was cursed in 1800, I am generation 10. My children will be able to escape the curse. For that I work…. I mean, I pray.

http://www.oecd.org/social/broken-elevator-how-to-promote-social-mobility-9789264301085-en.htm

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What to lift for?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m into lifting weights. Heavy weights. As heavy as possible. I lift 5 times a week, and because I want to lift for many years to come, I gotta be careful about how I approach each training session. I follow a program to make sure I accumulate a lot of work while having enough time to recover between the intense days. Regardless of how careful and methodical and cerebral I am about my training, sometimes, EVERYTHING, even the “easy” weights, feels heavy. Yet, even those days when little things feel like big things, I choose to invoke maximum effort and lift that thing that weights me down: that heavy thing that I myself put on my back or grabbed on to with the intention of pulling/pushing/pressing.

That’s the only way to get stronger: to lift heavy weights. Whether they are heavy because they ARE heavy or because they feel heavy.

Why do I tell you this?

I tell you this because for a few years now, I’ve been on a personal battle against Catholicism: the religion of my family and my culture. But despite my fierce criticism of religion as an institution, I admit that sometimes, I find truly valuable lessons in Catholic stories. Here is one I want to reflect upon. One about lifting heavy weights.

Once, sometime in the last 5 years, I had one of the many break downs that have characterized my experience as a PhD student. And that time, as all the other times, I called my parents. That time, like all other times, I was out of control and could not contemplate any reason to defend the academic institution. Usually, my mom handles these situations. She just listens and tells me to pray and tells me to remember that God loves me and that this is happening for a reason. This never helps. It just tires me. So eventually, I just stop complaining, but I am never really “‘cured” from my anger/frustration/regret.

Anyway. The story is interesting because this one time, I actually felt better, in fact I even felt good after talking on the phone. This one time, unlike all other times, it was my dad who handled the crisis, by himself. My dad is an extremely smart and analytical man who is also deeply religious, but I forgive him that because I have a very high regard for his intelligence.

On the phone with my dad, I “expressed” (i.e. I cried and cursed and hit things very hard) my complete disgust for the academic institution and the unfairness of the whole process and the similarities between a PhD program and crimes against humanity. (After all, grad students are humans too, and deserve to have their human rights respected.) Then, my dad used his spiritual medicine and relieved me of my anguish. Surprisingly, to cure me, he also talked about God. This is how he did it.

He said to me: “I know you think all my jokes are bad.”

Which by the way is not true, I think all the jokes he has told so far are bad, it doesn’t mean all his jokes are bad.

“But please be patient and bear with me.

Once upon a time, there was a good man. A Christian who was deeply dissatisfied with his life. And the man would pray to God everyday, and everyday, he’d tell Him:

‘God, why did you give me this Cross to carry? It is too heavy for me. I cannot carry on with this weight. Why did you punish me?'”

Context parenthesis: In Christianity, the cross represents a man’s (or a woman’s) choice. In ancient times, those who had been condemned to die crucified, whether they were guilty or not, had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. It was part of the punishment. Christianity transformed the concept from punishment to redemption because, presumably, Jesus decided to die crucified. It was His choice to carry the cross and die in it (for whatever reason, hopefully a good one, you would think).

So, when us Catholics (yes mom, US CATHOLICS, me too!) speak of carrying our own cross, we mean there are things, heavy things, we must deal with that are inherent to our nature or our situation, and that we cannot let go of if we want to be disciples of God. These things are things we must carry with us even if we don’t want to, things like family, health conditions, paying the mortgage, cleaning the house, etc.

Now that I’ve explained that, let me continue telling my dad’s “joke”:

“One day, God sent an angel to bring the good Christian man to Heaven and have a talk. God said to the man:

‘son, I’ve heard your prayers. I understand you want a change. Come with me, I want you to choose your own cross.’

And God took the man to the warehouse where God keeps all the crosses in the Universe. The choices were almost infinite. The man was overwhelmed and excited at the same time.

‘God, are you sure I can choose any cross that I want?’

‘Any cross, son. Take your time.’

The man spent days in the warehouse sorting through the crosses, trying them on, walking around with them on his back, putting them back down, and trying them again, until eventually, he came to God and said:

‘God, I’ve found it. It is the perfect size and the perfect weight. This cross, this is the cross I want to carry. I can carry this cross the rest of my life.’

‘Very well my son. Take this cross and go back to your life and have full conviction that it is the right cross for you.’

‘Thank you, God. Thank you so much. But before I go, can I ask you a question?’

‘Ask my son.’

‘God, you know everything. Why didn’t you give me this cross before? Did you not know it was the right one?’

And God said:

‘My son. This is cross you brought with you to Heaven. It is the same cross you’ve had all your life.'”

And the joke ended.

Of course it is a bad joke. But it is a good story. Even for an infidel like me, this story makes sense. I know about carrying weight. I know about putting a lot of weight on my back. I know what it is to fail to lift some weight and yet choose the same weight for the next set. I understand about crosses. I guess.

My cross is a choice, a choice to be responsible and do what’s right instead of what’s easy. I choose to put weight on the bar to get stronger. That’s the only way. That’s what we lift for.

 

Solidarity: Who can stop the madness?

I have two stories in opposing sides of the spectrum of male friendships. One is a cute story of solidarity and mischievous, but inoffensive, complicity. The other is certainly about complicity but also about the “natural” rise of toxic masculinity.

I confront them to begin a dialogue over male relations. Are they a result of social institutions? are they a result of biological urges? When does solidarity become complicity? When does the guarantee of complicity become instigation?

I’ll start with the cute story first. I heard this about three years ago from a  dear friend who shall remain unnamed. A little boy, of age 4, was sent to live with his grandparents in their village for a season. It was the first time he’d been away from home without his parents for such a long time. Everything was an adventure for him. There was possibility of mischief at every corner, the cute kind of mischief: eating too many cherries, hiding in hay, keeping secrets from grandmother.

The village was small and remote, and people there lived the typical lifestyle of rural communities. One day, his grandfather called on him and told him there was something important for both of them to do. This was a matter for men, he said, and he stressed the importance of keeping it secret from women in the village. Particularly grandma.

It was time of lent. And in the small village, everyone was very religious and devote. Pious, is the word. Everyone had been judiciously refraining from any carnal pleasure in remembrance of the struggles of Jesus through his journey in the dessert, and with the intention to build strength in character and compassion for the dispossessed.

The little boy and the grandfather arrived at a house fairly off the road. Every door and window in the house was sealed. It was impossible to see what was happening inside. The grandfather knelt down, looked into the little boy’s eyes and asked him what he was going to tell grandmother of this trip. Nothing. Not one thing. Good boy. Now, we they were going to come inside this house and the little boy must not be afraid. There were going to be many other men inside. But grandfather promised to take care of him.

Because I have a dirty mind, at this point of the tale I thought the story had something to do with a whorehouse, and I was completely shocked at the idea that a grandfather would take a 4 year old to such places. I mean, I know these things are “fair game” when boys are 15. But 4? Obscene!

Worry not. Grandfather was not as twisted as I am. He knocked the door and the door opened, only very slightly. Just enough so that the person opening the door could see who was knocking. The moment the door opened, even though it was just a little bit, the little boy felt a violent wave of smell coming at him. It was a strong, strong smell of something delicious. Something he hadn’t had all week. It was goat. Roasted goat. It must have been cooking for hours and hours. And the smell was inebriating.

So grandfather and the little boy had their share of goat and other meat cuts, gave their farewells to all the other men in the house (who also were all the other men in the village), and headed back home where grandma was waiting to serve them a small, vegetarian dinner, as was appropriate for lent.

They arrived at home and of course their clothes were impregnated with the smell of all the meats they had been fed at the village’s “Gentlemen’s Club.” Yet, the little boy said nothing. In fact, he didn’t have to say anything because grandmother never asked. In fact, she didn’t have to ask anything. She knew everything, all along.

And the story ended, and nobody got hurt. Only the goats.

That’s one story. The cute one.

Here comes the other. In this one, there is also a “Gentlemen’s Club.” A real one though. More precisely, a whorehouse. Even more precisely, a place where men go to have sex with prostitutes.

Let me first say I have nothing against prostitutes. Sex is a service that I doubt anybody wants to supply in the market. But in this market, the demand is guaranteed. It is a guaranteed pay for the hour, even if it comes with all sorts of human costs.

The story is the following. Four friends are planning a trip. They want to take a three-day holiday away from their routine. They have to choose where to go. These guys are doing well, economically. They are well educated (most, if not all, have PhDs) and they have well-paying, white-collar jobs. Their choices are virtually infinite. Except that they are not. In fact their choices are very limited because they face one tough condition: one of the friends has a taste for girls found in gentleman’s clubs. But where they live, only strip clubs are legal, and he would like more “pleasurable” services than those offered at strip clubs. So they have to go abroad. They have to go to a country where prostitution is either legal or easily accessible. And they do. The four doctors go on sex tourism.

That’s it. That’s that story. I find nothing cute about it. In fact, I find it disgusting. Coming from a country were sex tourism is a thriving industry, I have personal experiences that lead me to completely disapprove this kind of masculine behavior. I have absolutely no sympathy or tolerance for men like the four doctors. They perpetuate illegal rings that exploit women, children, and even other men. With their money, they support slavery, human trafficking, the drug trade, and every black market that profits off of sexual tourism.

This is not solidarity. It is complicity, and if prostitution is illegal in the place they ended up visiting, three out of four are partners in crime.

That three guys were willing to “cover for” the fourth is wrong and too costly for society. But why did three male PhD’s not stand against the fourth and reasoned for another kind of pleasurable vacation? Were they afraid they would stop being friends? Do they approve of this fetiche? Can they be so blind or obtuse to neglect the scale of the implications from their “consumer” choices?

Obviously, I can’t pretend to know what goes on in their brain. All I know, is that this is not the only instance of “toxic masculinity.” In fact, it is rather prevalent around the world. They make movies mocking it, like The Other Guys. I would even say that the movie “Fight Club” is a good portrait of how ridiculous men can be when they are part of a group, and how they can very quickly escalate their fetiches to become huge enterprises that have no real purpose.

I want to talk a little bit about Fight Club. Just because I think it finds an explanation for the dissonance I exposed above: why three gown up, mature, responsible, educated, well-paid men do not confront their friend over a moral issue.

In Fight Club, a guy starts a club for men who want to fight recreationally. It is straight forward and simple. Dudes go there to fight. However, the fighting is often accompanied by recurring reflections over the role of men in modern society. Men who attend Fight Club are angry men who want to explore pain and failure. They want to rebel against the social norms that force them to avoid confrontation and live in fear of loosing “stuff”: status, a job, money, a girlfriend… things that men don’t really need anyway.

In the words of the director, David Fincher, men are hunters living in world where there’s only shopping. He says: “There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore.” The modern man doesn’t have a purpose or place other than to consume. As put by the founder of Fight Club: “We are the middle children of history… We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.”

Eventually, Fight Club gains momentum, and fueled by the stamina of these angry dudes, it becomes more of a social movement against materialism, corporations, and modern culture: the very institutions that have emasculated men. Ironically, this movement, Project Mayhem, works as a fascist group were individualism doesn’t matter. Suddenly, a bunch of guys following the idea that being “consumers” is not enough, have agreed to become undifferentiated “products.”

So the gist is that men want to take risks because they feel emasculated but in the end they don’t want confrontation with their “comrades.” When they are part of something bigger than themselves they become the very same thing they are rejecting.

What makes sense to me about the movie, is that Fight Club and Project Mayhem are both founded by a guy who is going through a psychotic episode. So yeah, men are willing to follow crazies (we’ve seen that over and over in history), and they are particularly unable to see the craziness in all of it when they are in groups (I would call this, masculine hysteria).

The question remains: when does cute, inoffensive solidarity become toxic, uncontrollable complicity? If Fight Club gets it right, it takes a lunatic to turn the former into the latter.  But who does it take to turn the second into the first? Which solidary soul (pun intended) can stop this madness?

To walk alone

I’ve been thinking about freedom, purpose, and whether freedom is sufficient to make a life worth living. You see, both my grandmothers are in their eighties and they are in very different stages of their aging. My mom’s mom is completely dependent on others. Although she remains relatively strong and can walk alone and even engage in light forms of exercise, she has developed dementia and lately, she is starting to lose control over her body. On the other hand, my dad’s mom is in admirable shape. She continues to live by her rules in her house with a lady she hires to cook and clean and help her carry heavy things. She is practically independent. Practically and not truly because she remains heavily dependent on routines and schedules and habits and rituals she has developed over the course of her life (which, among others, include the “habit” of pill taking).

I’ve lived with my father’s mom. I lived with her when I was working in the city so that I could walk to work and save money and time and life. My grandmother is a woman of incredibly strong character. She is a woman ahead of her time. Of course, she is impossible to live with. She is proud. Too proud. To the point of being narcissistic. Of course, over the last 28 years, which is how much I’ve been able to witness, her concerns and desires have shifted. But only marginally so, and always around her main true devotion: herself (although she might say God is first and then goes money).

At her age, the thing she is particularly proud of is her independence. To the point that despite being incredible smart and having an inflated sense of self-care and self-preservation, she sporadically challenges destiny and decides to undertake random solitary excursions around the Bogota, a city with very peculiar forms of chaos and danger. On these occasions, she “forgets” her cell-phone (a smart phone, by the way) at home and goes for a “stroll.” She denies to herself the very real possibility that she may trip and fall and break an 80-year old hip and have to go to an emergency room and then undergo all the complications associated with old age and surgeries.

Of course, at the end of these excursions she feels beat up, as any 80-year-old body would feel after a long walk in an agitated place like Bogota. She calls my dad to “inform” him of the situation, likely because she is scared that something may be out of place and wants him to be on the look out for any potential complication that may arise in the next few days. She calls and she says her legs hurt and then she spends 3 days at home recovering from her adventures.

I have witnessed the intensity of these little outings or “escapaditas” (which are more like sneaking outings). When I was living with her in the city, one day I was walking back from work. The evening is a heavy time for walking: the streets are congested, the sun is setting, it is perfect time for burglary. Keep in mind that my boss had approached me very concerned that I was walking back home, and had forbid me to leave the office later than 5:30. She said it was dangerous and that if for any reason I had to stay later in the office, she would drive me back to my apartment.

Anyway, I was just walking when I spotted in the next block a silhouette that seemed familiar to me. It was my grandmother doing I don’t know what. So I caught up with her and asked her why she was alone and what she was doing this late in the street be herself. I was very firm with her, this was no funny business. I was short of scolding her. Feeling like a child that has been busted, she demanded we stopped for a coffee so she could somehow show who was in charge. I looked at her with deep disappointment and fury and conceded for the coffee. Then, we walked back to the apartment together. We had to cross avenues and bridges and very congested alleys. At her pace, we arrived home around 7 pm and it was dark. And believe me, in Bogota you simply avoid being in the street at dark. I was furious. She was exhausted and in pain. Her feet hurt, her legs were tired. I called my dad and told her about how I had busted my grandmother sneaking out and being irresponsible. I didn’t talk to her anymore that evening.

My harsh treatment did not change anything. My grandmother still sneaks out and charges on the dark by herself. There’s no reasoning with her. She says these trips bring her a sense of freedom and independence and she feels young and strong. She will never accept that she does this out of pure arrogance and pride. In a sense, she walks alone, not because she is free, but because she is a slave. A slave of her pride.

So those are my two grandmothers. One, whose only freedom is to walk alone, and the other walks alone because she is not free. Because she cannot let go of her autonomy.

Autonomy. That’s the key word that got me thinking about freedom and purpose and the connection between the two. Is autonomy enough? I look at my grandmothers and I understand that autonomy is necessary to endure life with dignity and a sense of integrity, but to what point is freedom necessary, and to what extent does it signal having a life that is worth living?

It is inherent in our nature to depend on others. From the time we are born we are receiving help and being taken care of. Clearly, the kind of autonomy that matters is not the type of autonomy my grandmother prides herself of. Just because we need help doesn’t mean our lives are worth less. I believe it was Hegel who said “freedom is the recognition of necessity.” The necessity that at least my grandmother needs to recognize is the necessity of abandoning power. And something she does not seem to understand is that abandoning power does not entail losing control over her story. Here I may have founds something that seems like a much more meaningful purpose than simple autonomy: control over one’s story.

Philosopher Ronald Dworking wrote about the concept of autonomy, he said its value lied in the responsibility it created. He wrote, “autonomy makes each of us responsible for shaping his own life according to some coherent and distinctive sense of character, conviction and interest. It allows us to lead our lives rather than be led along them, so that each of us can be, to the extent such a scheme of rights can make this possible, what he has made himself.”

(Or as Spider Man would have said, with great autonomy, comes great responsibility.)

Dworking’s autonomy sounds more like the kind of autonomy that provides sufficient purpose for a life that is worth living. To strive to autonomous so that we can remain the writers of our own story and maintain the integrity of that story, even in old age. The autonomy to walk the path we want to walk, whether we walk alone or in company. The autonomy to connect ourselves to our past and our future, so that we remain related, in character and devotion, to who we were and who we want to be.

Devotion. Another key word in the quest of purpose and a meaningful life…

 

How many roads?

“Never again will we wake up in the morning and think Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work? For today we will finally learn once and for all the plain and simple answer to all these nagging little problems of Life, the Universe and Everything!”

That’s what the leader of a race of hyperintellingent pandimensional beings announced to his people.

Imagine, that. The answer to everything…

They had waited 7.5 million years, 75,000 generations, for The Answer.

The answer was 42.

It had been found by the greatest computer ever made, Deep Thought.

Of course, the answer was deeply unsatisfactory but the real problem was, as Deep Thought pointed out, that the programmers who wanted the answer did not know what the question actually was. Following Deep Thought’s suggestions, to find The Ultimate Question to The Ultimate Answer, the race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings decided to commit their resources to building another super computer that would find The Ultimate Question. Thus, Deep Thought designed the greatest super computer ever designed. It was named Earth.

Earth was built by the people of Magrathea, a planet whose economy ran on selling luxurious products. Explicitly, Magrathea produced and sold other planets, like Earth.

It would take Earth 10 million years to find The Ultimate Question to The Ultimate Answer. Unfortunately, Earth was destroyed (to make way for an intergalactic highway) only 5 minutes before finding The Ultimate Question. Bummer.

The hyperintelligent pandimensional beings were no other than mice. Mice had bought Earth from the people of Magrathea to run the program that would derive The Ultimate Question to The Ultimate Answer. The mice wanted The Ultimate Question to bring it to a prestigious intergalactic talk show and become hyperfamous, but their prospect of fame was profoundly weakened after the destruction of Earth. At that point, the mice face two options: they could pay to have another Earth built and spend another 10 million years to find out the question, or they could make it up.

Sure, if they made it up, The Ultimate Question they would bring to the talk show wouldn’t be true, but the mice reasoned that idealism, the dignity of pure research, and the pursuit of truth in all its forms were causes not worth the risk. After all, their race had been pondering over these nagging issues of Life, the Universe, and Everything for millions and millions of years, and they had begun to suspect that if there was any real truth, was that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe was almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs. And they did not see it fit spending yet another ten million years to find that out.

Thus, they made it up. They decided that Ultimate Question to The Ultimate Answer was:

“How many roads must a man walk down?”

It was great material to bring to the talk show. It sounded very significant and they wouldn’t actually be held accountable for meaning anything at all. Fame had been guaranteed without need for a new Earth.

——-

This is a fictional tale found in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” A wonderful little read that I highly recommend.

If you think about it, the irony of the situation is incredibly entertaining.

After all, humans are running experiments on mice all the time trying to find answers to questions that we don’t seem to actually know. If you think about the scientific process, the act of discovery is mostly random, and new inventions and truths derived from scientific experiments are normally not what the search intended to find.

Now that I’ve spoiled the book for you, let me tell you a personal story of discovery that started with mice.

I started my PhD in August of 2013. And to be honest, that first year of PhD is hands down the worst thing that ever happened to me. But it is precisely here where my story of scientific discoveries fits in: That first year took me to very dark places, and in trying to find the light, I stumbled into fire.

I tried everything to feel better. Everything that I knew had worked in the past: exercise, prayer, meditation, music, dance, and even pain. The thought with pain was to get myself to hurt so much that the PhD would feel relatively pain free. But nothing was working. I was still mostly miserable. Every day, all day.

Then, one day (May 3rd 2014) I ran into an article about mice in the Science and Technology section of The Economist. If I remember correctly, the article was referring to a study that had started because of the inability of researchers to replicate an experiment with mice regarding pain. Researchers had controlled every variable in the experiment, and yet the results could not be replicated. Until they realized they had been overlooking one variable: the researchers themselves.

Sometimes, the group of scientists were mostly men, sometimes mostly women, and sometimes all men or all women. Thus, researchers hypothesized that gender composition could have an effect on the results, and they set themselves to test this hypothesis.

To test whether the gender of scientists mattered, they tried the same experiment changing the ratio of male to female scientists that mice were exposed to during the experiment. To learned even more, the researchers even tried dressing female scientists in clothes impregnated with the scent of male scientists and vice versa. It mattered.

Mice felt less pain when male scientists were around. Furthermore, the results were the same when mice were exposed to a team of male researchers and when they were exposed only to their clothes.

I read that and something clicked. I needed to surround myself with the scent of males.

It almost goes without saying that during my first year as PhD student, I had no sex life. Zero. None. But that was about to change, for academic purposes, of course.

So I started my own experiment.

First, I needed to find the scent of men. No problem. I went to a party, I found a guy I liked enough and who liked me, and on my way home, I asked him to borrow his sweater. And I went home, alone with his sweater. I hanged the sweater from my closet’s door and the experiment began. Was I going to progressively start feeling less pain now that I was sleeping in an environment impregnated with the scent of a man?

As science would have it, it did NOT NOT seem to work. That is, I could not disprove the hypothesis but I wasn’t sure of the veracity of the effect. To be on the safe side, I thought I’d ramp up the exposure to male scent a bit. So I called the owner of the sweater and we started hanging out more often. Eventually we started dating. I was feeling better. Definitely.

Now, if you are skeptic, you will question whether I was feeling better because of the scent or because I was feeling a close connection with another person. That’s a good question. To answer that, let me tell you how the story ends: Soon after I began my experiment, I let go of the original male. Now I carry the scent of another male. The pain is still gone.

🙂

Go mice!

 

Dam failures: what no one likes to accept

The biggest dam in Colombia was scheduled to start operating in December of this year. The mega project, Hidroituango, is a massive feat of engineering that was designed to use water from one of the country’s largest rivers, the Cauca river, to produce electricity. A lot of it. In fact, enough to cover 16% of the country’s energy needs. Even enough to export some of it.

However, what was already being celebrated as one of the most recent signs of development and managerial excellence in the country, is likely doomed to fail. About a week ago, a crisis emerged in Hidroituango and today there is a real risk that the dam will overflow causing irreparable damage to local communities and the environment.

Under the worst case scenario, the flood that would occur from the dam’s failure would impact 12 municipalities in 4 states located downstream the dam. More than 100,000 people that live in the risk area could be affected. Compared to this number, the 1985 volcanic catastrophe (arguably, the country’s worst natural disaster in modern history) seems rather harmless (23,000 people dies in Armero’s tragedy). More than 2,000 people have already been evacuated and sent to refugee camps.

It’s a tragedy. A human and environmental catastrophe. What sucks is that very little can be done about it now. But what really sucks is that Colombians seem shy if not reluctant to put blame on the project’s managers for the failure of the dam. This is not the result of bad luck. It is not environmental disaster, it is managerial disaster. It is true that it is winter in Colombia and that there has been rain galore for the past couple of months. Heavy rains have added volume to the Cauca river and have caused landslides near the site, factors that certainly don’t give relieve to the current situation. However, the real problem is that nobody saw it coming. Or that if they did, they concealed that information until it was no longer possible to deny the need for urgent action. Who was in charge of monitoring the project?

This may be a case of lunatics running the asylum. Without jumping to cynic conclusions of corruption, let’s just say this crisis is evidence of profound inefficiencies in the Colombian energy sector in particular and in the construction sector in general.

Hidroituango, or the hidroelectric project of Ituango, is a billion dollar project like no other in the country. When it was first conceived, it was seen as a symbol of progress and development, a story of men rising over the environment, a story of engineers overcoming the limitations of nature, a story of state-of-the-art planning, construction, managing, maintenance, and financing: a story of growth. The project involves a dam that iss 225 meters tall, an impoundment capable of holding 20 million cubic meters of water, and an underground station with installed capacity of 2,400 MW. The project would generate 13,930 GWh a year and create thousands of jobs: 5,000 directly and 20,000 indirectly.

The company in charge of the project is Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), a favorite among people from the region that is directly impacted by the project (people in the states of Antioquia, Cordoba, Sucre, and Bolivar). EMP is a large public utility company in Colombia. Not large, HUGE! Over its 50 years, EPM has grown to be a huge and competitive company providing electricity, gas, water, and telecommunication, in Colombia and internationally. Energy-wise, the net capacity of EMP’s generation system is equivalent to 23.5% of the country’s total installed capacity and it distributes to over 22% of the country’s residences.

In terms of hydroelectric power specifically, EPM operates 25 stations. EPM’s mission is to be a leader in public service provision and it is a symbol of regional pride, just as a “paisa” (people from a region in the northwest of Colombia which includes the states of Antioquia, Risaralda, Quindio, Caldas and some regions in the valley of the Cauca river) whether they believe in God. First, they’ll scold you for even asking, then they’ll start listing and praising all their alliances: Saint Mary the Virgin, followed by all other saints, passing through their political leaders and patrons, and wrapping it up with EPM. This is in part a joke in part a comment of truth. People in this region are noticeably conservative, traditional, deeply religious, and proud.Very proud, and a reason to be proud is to be part of EPM’s distribution network, because EPM is a national leader in engineering, financing, marketing, and community involvement.

EPM has in general a clean record. Very clean. Too clean, actually. Surprisingly clean for a large utility company in a Latin American country. There may be a reason to be suspicious about such an integral and yet vastly profitable company. After all, it is no secret that EPM, as a public company, has close connections with the regional government. The regional government. The. Regional. Government… Anybody heard of a former president named Alvaro Uribe?

Well, Mr. Uribe used to work in EPM, he also was the mayor of Medellin (and governor of Antioquia) and as such had close relations with whoever was the general EPM. I am not saying anything different than what I am saying. I am saying that the people at the top of the utility company are accountable to their political allies, so maybe they have less reasons to be optimal.

Speaking of optimal, here comes the last point I want to make. The construction of Hidroituango is responsibility of a consortium of 3 firms: 2 Colombian and one Brazilian. All of them have worked with EPM in previous projects. These guys know each other from the past and there are questions of whether the contract that EPM made with the consortium was transparent and legal. Environmemtal and social activists have pushed for imvestogations of the legitimacy of the studies used to obtain the construction permit and about possible under-the-table type of actions. The kind that are so well known to Brazilian and Colombian construction companies. (Remember the buildings in medellin that fell becaise they were built using poor construction materials?) But as you may know, in Colombia, the environmental and social activist is an enddangered species that is deliberately killed by their political enemies. The enrgy sector, the, construction industry, the power of politics, are areas plagued by lawlessness and impunity where human rights are continuously violated.

I did a quick search on the recent history of dam failures in the world. Of all the failures, in the past 10 years, the majority have occurred in… Brazil. Not that that’s indicative of any causal effect. It may just be an awkward coincidence. But even then, why nobody in Colombia is studying the dam failures in Brazil, or elsewhere for that matter, to learn how to prevent some in Colombia? Maybe because it is not profitable. It appears that playing by the rules is not as lucrative as not playing by the rules in Latin America’s business and industrial landscape (in part because the rules are not well written and the legal systems are not well equipped to hold rule breakers accountable). In turn, speaking out loud against those violating the rules is not safe in Latin America. The power structure is so imbalanced that the game is rigged for the powerful to continue winning at the expense of the people, most of whom appear to have been blinded by fanatical love of “tradition,” which includes regional pride and unconditional support to the local top dogs, regardless of their moral integrity. Any resemblance to Rusian business or to fascism is not a mere coincidence.

So that’s the story of cozy relations between energy companies and politicians. Questionable contracts, suboptimal design, poor oversight, little accountability, preservation of power imbalances and even the rise of demagogue discourses: a tragedy. A failure in the democratic capitalist fabric of a terribly unequal society. A Dam failure.

How does it end? Right now, the wealthy continue to get billion-dollar contracts while there are 100,000 people at risk of losing everything.

(I found this article that echoes my sentiment and complements the critique, I invite you to read it: https://www.revistaarcadia.com/agenda/articulo/hidroituango-tragedia-medellin-antioquia-pablo-montoya-critica/69330)

 

Two is more than twice one

A team is as strong as it weakest component. Also, a team is more than the sum of its parts. In that sense, two is more than twice one and two are better together. Take it from a lone (though not lonely) rider.

I’ve never been “a relationships girl.” Not for any philosophical reason. I don’t think I am a hardcore feminist and I don’t have anything against men. In fact, most of my friends have always been male. I rather enjoy them. However, for the longest time, and I mean the longest time, I had no interest in getting emotionally involved, at least not seriously, with a guy. I don’t know if it is because I hadn’t met “the right one,” which is totally possible given that I’ve been a student all my life surrounded by kids first, teenagers second, undergraduates third, and weirdos last. The point is that for 24 years (that is, until 4 years ago) I was alone because I wanted it that way.

I really don’t think I am finding a way to feel better about my very long history of being single. Back then, as now, I liked men for the physical and intellectual stimuli. I won’t deny that, and I also won’t deny that whenever I felt like getting a bit more of that male stimulus, I went out of my way to find it. It wasn’t too often nor particularly compromising, but I am comfortable saying I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Did I not know what I was missing? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. But based on pure observation of my peers and their relationships, it didn’t look like I was missing much. I mostly saw a lot of drama and waste of energy and time in exchange for a little bit of additional confidence. I thought I didn’t have much time or energy, or if I did, I thought that I didn’t want to use them in going through the trouble of figuring out a dude I didn’t know, but whom I hoped was also trying to figure me out and who was going to help me learn something new about myself. It seemed like hasty gambling: risking everything I had (the little extra time and energy) for a little bit of confidence and the thrill of one very uncertain form of self-exploration. I thought there were other methods to learn with certainty something about myself, and I chose to follow those instead of getting into a romantic relationship. So that’s what I did for most of my life.

I am not trying to say I am better than women who have chosen the relationship way. Maybe they are more easy going, or maybe they have better raw models. Maybe they feel more comfortable opening up their privacy to a stranger dude, maybe they are braver or maybe they have larger support networks that allowed them to have the freedom and confidence that made them believe they could take the risks I chose not to. The only thing I am trying to say is that I just did not want to be in a relationship. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I was too selfish. I don’t know. I just was not interested.

But things change and eventually I got curious. I didn’t see the learning curve ahead of me and I want to say it took for a ride. But without much pain or sense of loss and with minimal trauma or long-lasting negative consequences, I managed to land an awesome dude. Not that you care, but recently it became crystal clear to me why being in a relationship with this dude is so good for me, and I’m about to tell you exactly what it is that I understand now about relationships that I didn’t know before.

But before, I need to give you a little bit of context. I am a powerlifiting aficionada. I started lifting weights about 2.5 years ago and slowly, slowly, I’ve been adding things to my training and making it more serious. First were the shoes, then the foam roller, then the hip circle, then the wrist wraps, then the wrist straps, and then the resistance bands and the lacrosse balls. Also, for the last year I’ve been following a program and recording both my progress in the gym and my progress in the bedroom… and in the kitchen. What I’m trying to say is I am also paying attention to how much I sleep and how much, and what, I eat. I recently added creatine to my routine too.

So yeah, I’m pretty serious about my thing. I am my own project and I love the process. I am pretty proud of the numbers I’m pushing and pulling and I just like the sport. I want to keep getting stronger, and after I am stronger, I want to get even stronger.

If you lift, you know something critical is missing: a belt.

For a self-proclaimed serious amateur, I have gone way too long without a belt. Longer than is optimal and probably longer than is smart.  Everyone says you need a belt to lift heavier than your heaviest and to lift more reps with high weight and proper form. But I am stubborn, and in the past, at least twice, I used belts and it never really felt right.

Now, to be fair, neither of those events was an honest try to wear a belt: first, when I used a borrowed good leather belt, it was a very wide belt made for a tall big dude, no wonder it crushed my ribs. Also, when I did use a belt that didn’t hurt me, it was a cheap worn out belt that everyone shares in the gym. So really, none of those were attempts done with the intention of truly understanding what the belt was for and how it was going to help me with my lifts… kind of similar to my historical attempts to flirt with the idea of entering a “relationship.”

Anyway. The truth is that I got stuck. I hit a plateau in my squats and my deadlifts and I had some problems with my form that did not allow me to lift heavier without getting worried about injuries. If I am stubborn, I am definitely a chicken. I don’t want injuries. I am really terrified of having to stop my training to recover from an injury, so I stopped pushing the weight and I became accepting, although resentful, of my plateau. I got to the defeating conclusion that I had reached my limits for this weight category and that the only way up was to gain weight and train more. But I am lucky and I have friends who know much more than I do, and one of them got me a belt. A good leather belt for a woman of my size. Also, it is purple: my favorite color.

I got my belt about a month from now and I’ve been hitting 2 and 3 PR’s (personal records) every week on the squat and my deadlift is getting super clean. In only a month, I know  am stronger. I know it because I have added more weight and I have lifted it.

When I got my belt  I did some research to learn how to use it. I read and listened to what strength coaches and athletes that are far more experienced than me had to say about using a belt. Some say that using a belt allows for more core activation and actually strengthens the abdominal muscles. Others say that it is very good for adding pressure in the abdomen through the breath and helping to properly brace and keep the tension during the lift. But in general, everyone agrees that what the belt is truly good for is for helping you be aware of your back muscles and back position and for identifing the muscles that need to be engaged to perform a lift. In doing so, it helps keep a better technique and prevent injuries, specially for the deadlifts.

Coaches recommend using the belt in the last couple of warm up sets and during the heavy sets. It is a tool to help the body get stronger. Gaining strength with a belt also means gaining strength without a belt, so that for example, increasing a one-rep max with a belt will increase a one-rep max without a belt. However, some coaches believe the majority of the work (everything but the heavy sets, essentially) should be done without the belt and advice against becoming attached to it.

In fact, sometimes, it is advantageous to train without a belt. You are forced to lift less without a belt. So it is a good way to limit the amount of weight I can physically lift and therefore limit the accumulation of fatigue. This is important in strength training because to get stronger, muscles need to recover. Actually, hypertrophy, or the process of getting bigger, is really just the consequence of ramping up the body’s natural healing process, and for those of us with a tendency to push beyond the “healthy” side of training (and by that I really mean those of us who can’t do anything in moderation), training beltless is a very good strategy to trick yourself into recovery.

So, now you have all the context you need to understand how I look at my relationship now. I was trying to tell my boyfriend why I loved him, and I told him he is like my belt. He helps me be aware of my weak areas, he makes it easier for me to identify the things I need to tighten up, he gives me immediate feedback that helps me do things better and he actually helps me prevent injuries by keeping in check my natural inclinations to commit certain abuses. He also provides a surface to push against (that’s supposed to be funny).

This is not romantic. I know. But the truth is that my dude makes me stronger. I am stronger when I am with him but also when I am not. Also, although I share with him the more intense parts of the day, I resolve on my own the majority of my problems and I determine independently the majority of my choices and aspirations.

He is more than “support,” he actually helps me get better and he respects and encourages my individuality. To strengthen my point (pun intended), consider that he is the friend that got me the perfect belt. I love him for that (the encouraging part in general). I am one but when we are together, I am a little more.