Saturday, May 28, 2011

Coming Clean

So: How much should I pay Sirish to clean apartment?

Not that my apartment really needs cleaning, because for a guy I'm pretty phastidious.  In case you are not as hip, or as black, as I am, I took the word "fastidious" and swapped out the f for the ph, which I hear is the way that urban youth roll, which shows only that I am neither hip nor black.  Like you.

I make my bed, even though no one is going to see it but me.  But one can hope.  (Kidding!) To give my bedroom the "lived in" look, I sometimes leave a pair of jeans artfully draped.  If you looked really close, or used the before-mentioned sniff test, you'd know that those sheets have just been washed, even though I realized that with four beds in my apartment I could just move around and sleep each night in a different one, giving each set of sheets the chance to smoke a cigarette and maybe get a drink before I came back again.

I wash my dishes promptly.  Promptly means "when I wash them".  Given how few dishes I have, it's not like I need to buy stock in Palmolive, although after clicking on this link I realize how much fun my life is lacking, if it lacks Palmolive.

Yeah, ok, my desk gets a bit sloppy, but I usually clean it when I'm avoiding an important project, or trying to remedy self-loathing, or pointlessly seeking control over the external world, or something, so a bit of mess is just fine with me.

This is all to say that I don't need Sirish to clean my apartment.  He asked me if he could clean it, though, saying he could use the money, and I do earn a ton more than he does.

I'm pretty egalitarian, and I'm uncomfortable with social distinctions.  I try not to suck up to those who might think they are higher on the food chain than me.  I don't think any tasks are beneath me.  Like Jimmy Carter, I carry my own luggage, although it really did look stupid for The President to be hauling a Samsonite.  I didn't say I was completely egalitarian.  But then again maybe Carter was just messing with us.  As you might remember, if you have been reading this blog, and if you have not I strongly encourage you to start from the beginning, because what you think it's easy to write like this?, at first I resisted having a Tea Boy bring me coffee, until I got over it.  My instinct is to be self reliant, and to clean my own apartment.

So, of course, I told Sirish:


How much do you charge?

At this point, the economists among us -- if there are not any, you should recruit five or so, to get at least five if not more economic perspectives -- would probably assume that Sirish would ask for as much as he thought he could get, I would offer as little as I thought possible, and we would negotiate some mutually agreeable number.  Because there are lots of potential cleaners here, that price would be pretty low.

That's not at all the way it worked.  Sirish said "Pay me whatever you want."  Rather than thinking how hard I could screw the proletariat, and by that I mean my fellow human of integrity, I asked someone in my office "How much should I pay him?"

I was told: 50QR, plus cab fare for him to get home, for 2 hours of cleaning.

That's what I told him I would pay, and he accepted.

Perspective #1: That's about $6.75 an hour, you cheap ass douche bag.

Perspective #2: Sirish is paid about $1.75 an hour to serve coffee, and you are offering him 3.5 times as much, you munificent saint! Besides, really, I could clean the apartment in about 20 minutes, since it basically needed light dusting.

Later, I told one of my colleagues about our arrangement and he said "Mark, 50QR is a little light (you cheap ass douche bag). You should offer him 75QR."

The next day, I gave Sirish 25QR more, thanking him for his good work.

Here's where it gets interesting, so prepare to start getting interested.

Sirish says: "I clean for professors X and Y, and they pay me 100QR (you cheap ass douche bag)."

My inner egalitarian is now totally spinning, because not only did I underpay him, I underpaid him even when I tried to make up for underpaying him!

When I drove him to my place this past Thursday to clean -- yes, I drove him! And I opened doors for him when we walked to the car! -- I gave him 100QR to clean, another 25QR to make up for the first time, and cab fare.

I tell my colleague about this, glad that now I'm finally being a good, solid, generous, decent human.

My colleague says: "He told you that he's getting paid 100QR? No way.  He just pulled a fast one on you."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Life's Unfair

My parents would tell me this when I whined  about something my brother Curt got that I didn't get.

They were right, of course, as they usually were.  If we think we're always going to get what we "deserve" then we're bound to be disappointed.

Or, maybe, not.  When I reflect on all the things that I have that I really don't deserve, I'm reminded: yeah, life is unfair....and it's mainly been unfair to my great advantage.

Meet Sirish, my "tea boy".  That's what guys like him are called here.  Every morning when I arrive at my office, he brings me coffee, OJ, and a glass of ice water.  (More on this later.)

Sirish is 26, Sri Lankan, and getting married soon.

He makes 1000QR a month.

I'm paid 36 times that amount this month to teach a single class, plus my normal salary.

Oh, my posh three bedroom apartment, where I live alone, is paid for.

Sirish lives with 7 other guys in his apartment, and as far as I can tell they all live in the same room.  (His English is not so good, but it is far better than my Tamil.)

Do I really deserve to be paid that much more?  Well, yeah, in one sense: that's what the "market" says we're each worth, and the market is never wrong.  (Right?) Besides, he's delivering drinks on a tray, and I'm offering highly sophisticated, carefully crafted, enormously skilled guidance to students, and that guidance required years of study and effort to develop.

But, really?  Do I really deserve to be paid that much more?  Is that really fair?  Here's how I see it.

I was reflecting on such matters while lounging on this day bed in the private lounge just outside the Dean's office.  The lounge is off limits to commoners, in this case including me, but I walk in the place as if I own it and no one has seen fit to question me.  Also, the Dean is out of town, so let's keep this a little secret between us, ok?

Here are some reasons why I might deserve to be paid so much more than Sirish.....

It's God's will that I should be so blessed.

If that's true, than God truly does work in mysterious ways, by showering this non-believer with riches while allowing millions of His devout followers to live in misery.  Of course, there might be payback for me in the Great Beyond....

I deserve my wealth because I'm a good person.

Ahem....well....I've tried to do some good works, but I've done a whole lot of sinning, too.  I'd guess I'm about average on the good works scale, maybe.  I'm pretty sure I'm not 36 times gooder than Sirish.

I deserve it because I work hard for it.

This thought came to me while I was sunning myself by the pool.  As Sirish was inside cleaning my apartment at the moment, it didn't seem wise to pursue this idea further.....

Now that I've torched those [what is the gender neutral term for "strawmen"] to the ground, here are the three main reasons I think I'm getting the coffee delivered, and why Sirish is delivering it.

First, I was wise (um, lucky) enough to be born in the US.

Imagine every person in the world, including me, is put into a really big hat, like this one.  Now imagine that God is going to reach into the hat, draw each person out one at a time, and place them in a country based on how many people currently live in that country.  Got it?

There's only a 5 percent chance that any person -- say, you or me -- would be lucky enough to be placed in a country where average incomes are as high as in the US (roughly $47,000 per person).

[Statistical note, which you better read, even though when you saw the phrase Statistical note your first thought might have been "aww, fuck that".  Average incomes are not good measures of typical incomes, but I couldn't find better measures.  Averages are misleading because "the average" income of you, me, The Donald would be maybe $30 million or so, which is not typical of you and me.  Besides, The Donald is kind of a dick, and I don't really want him in my average, anyway.]

It's just as likely that I would have ended up in a country like Uganda (average income: $1200 per person) or one even poorer.

Think about that for a second: as a matter of sheer luck, it's as likely that you and I were each born in a country as rich as the US or as poor as Uganda.  Half of the world's population lives in a country where the average income is $7,500 (like China's) or less, so it's as good as a coin flip that I would be living in one of those countries.

Ka-ching!  Simply by being born in the US, I won the (economic) lottery!  Whoo hoo!  Well done, Mark!

Sirish was born in Sri Lanka: average income, $5200.  Sorry, Sirish.

Next: I chose my parents very, very wisely.

They passed along some pretty good genes.  All right, I got screwed on the height and hair genes, but I'm pretty good at math and words, and I inherited those things, and as it turns out they are pretty helpful at making money.

Oh, one last thing: I lived in a place where I wasn't shot at, I wasn't beaten, I wasn't starving, I wasn't cold, I wasn't humiliated, as if anyone would choose those things.

Life isn't fair.  I won the nation lottery, the parent lottery, and the environment lottery.

Do I really deserve to be paid so much more than Sirish?  No.

I am lucky to be so fortunate.  Life is unfair.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Shirt Don't Stink: Other World News

Yes, I said "shirt".

In DC, by the end of the day my clothes are thoroughly, um, lived in.  I bike to work and clean up the best I can sans shower.  I dash around campus, hauling books, computer, papers, and my ass.  I climb three flights of stairs to my office several times.  Now, I'm not saying I'm a world of funk when the day is done, but....

I have, on occasion, also used the "sniff test" to see whether I really need to wash some clothes.

You have too, right?

If you haven't, please raise your hand.

Um, perhaps you really should try it.

The only time I sweat here is at the gym, in workout clothes (me, not the gym). Otherwise it is from air conditioned apartment to air conditioned car to air conditioned office and back again...

The ballroom was also chilled for Professor Rashid Khalidi's talk at the Hyatt, where I avoided both pool and lounge.  Most striking to me were these comments (my interpretation):

1. The Arab Spring protests and revolutions were about the desire for prosperity, dignity, and freedom; they were against poverty, humiliation, and coercion.

2. Americans (and he is one) were often too focused on the bogeyman of Islamic extremists rather than on common human aspirations.

3. So long as the US tries to lead the "peace process" between Israel and Palestine, the process is bound to fail.

And there's more!

One of my students is from Bosnia.  In answering the question "Tell me one interesting thing about you that I won't learn in class" (I give the students a survey on the first day of class), he responded:

"I've watched people die."

The next stop for me, was the library: Here's the book I'll start later tonight.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Eye Opening

You are reading this, which means you are not reading about the "situation" in the Middle East.  You could be, of course, but let's face it: you apparently would rather follow my blog, which is really truly very flattering, and I'm blushing, but all things considered I do have to question your choice.  I mean, really.

Let me help you kill two birds with one metaphorical stone, as I am writing about the situation.  Ok, I was writing about the situation, but as you are reading this I clearly no longer am.  But you get my drift.

Speaking of birds, last Friday I ate my first pigeon.  Yes, pigeon

Pigeons are served in pairs (Mr. and Mrs, I presume) at Egyptian restaurants.

It tasted pretty much like pigeon.  It was stuffed with rice, which made me think about the life cycle of pigeons, which I shouldn't have, because...well, if you are eating while reading this, which you probably are, admit it, and I'm guessing it's something not very healthy, don't want to disrupt your digestive system anymore than it already is. Or will be, if you think of what I thought of while chewing the rice.

Before I came to Doha, I rarely read about the Middle East either, at least not more than you would think a person who reads a lot, and who studies politics professionally -- and I am a pro -- would read.  Sure, I checked out the headlines to see how much -- or how little -- progress was being made in our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Arab Spring protests and revolutions made for some great, inspiring, images and I was especially interested in the brutal crackdown in Bahrain, as I had visited there last summer.

I definitely didn't read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Following that, for me, was like following All My Children:  the drama lasted forever, but nothing really happened, nothing really changed, it was pretty clearly not "relevant" to me, and if I did want to catch up I could do so in about 15 minutes.  The chances of a breakthrough were about as good as the chance of Susan Lucci winning an Emmy.  Yeah, right, like that could happen.

Now, my eyes have been opened.

I thank my students.  One of them, a Palestinian, suggested that we watch Occupation 101 in class.

Fascinating, and heartbreaking.  I hate to comment on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, because others know so much more, and often have such strong opinions, but this I do know:

The status of the Palestinians as an occupied and/or dispossessed people is a tragedy and a shameful blot on the community of nations -- with US policy contributing to the shame.

President Obama gave a speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week and, as expected, he has been blasted as too timid, too bold, too unrealistic, too little, too late, and too 'fill in your favorite negative word here'.  Or, as the noted international statesman Gene Simmons, of KISS fame, concluded: Obama has "no fucking idea what he is talking about."  (Gene: KISS off! Badabing).

Last night I, along with about 600 other souls, went to the Doha Hyatt to attend a talk on the "Arab Spring" by Professor Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.  This raised a big question for me:  Should I just skip the talk and head to the pool?

That was a rhetorical question.

Wasn't it?

The lounge was pretty tempting, though, and what better place to consider the plight of the dispossessed?

I'll sleep on that -- no, neither the lounge nor the dispossessed -- with "that" referring to what I was talking about.  Whatever that was.  Tomorrow, I'll open my eyes again and report back.  Peace.

Friday, May 20, 2011


If I had been blogging this week, I rightly could have been accused of procrastinating on finishing my grading, so I didn't blog.  I did procrastinate, but it just wasn't so obvious to anyone but me.  Now, I hope, I'm finished.

But my hopes will be put through the garbage disposal of the sink of life.  I'm sure I'll hear grade protests, as the standard model for measuring student learning is pre-test, post-test, protest.

Earlier I was the one protesting.  When I entered my Doha apartment, it was swarming with "Blue Books."   I was inundated.  They were everywhere.

They filled my refrigerator, and covered my bed.

Don't even ask to see the mess in the bathroom.

Blue Books, which are used for undergraduate exams, are the cicadas of university life -- they emerge at regular cycles, they are generally annoying, and yet they never completely go away even though they make no apparent contribution to the public happiness.  Cicadas, like Blue Books, are also virtually impossible to read.

I put my gloves and gas mask on, and got to work.  One book at a time, Mark, one book at a time.....

Grading student papers is much like being a parent, with the work incredibly important, often tedious, and commonly thankless, except being a parent is not tedious or thankless, at least not in comparison to grading.  

Grading IS important to the students for almost every reason one might imagine, and others, too, if one had a better imagination.  Students care a LOT about getting the right grade, too, in the sense that the right grade is "at least as high, if not higher, than the one you gave me".  

Nothing wrong with that: I myself was, um, "grade assertive".  In college, I challenged one final grade a professor gave me all the way to the University President's office. (I won.)  My claim was not just that I got a lower grade than I deserved (ok, yeah, it was the dreaded B+, or maybe even an A-), but that the professor's grading system led to inconsistent and incoherent outcomes and so it should be reformed to eliminate those problems and, oh, by the way, I would receive an A under the new scheme.  But I was only an accidental beneficiary or the reform!  It was the principle at stake! It was a victory for justice!

The grading was going slowly.  Too slowly.  I was getting desperate.  I almost turned to Marco, Ismerelda, and Thatcher to see what happened in the next chapter.

I finally filed the grades.  Now: would anyone care to guess what the ratio of complaints to praise will be?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Close Shave

I knew I missed a spot shaving today when I felt the barrel pressing against the few stray whiskers on my chin.

I heard the cock of the gun and the sound of leather, as if someone was juggling footballs, when she crossed her legs. Sure, those legs were long, but not as long as her arms, which reached from the carpet to my chin.

Marco, she whispered: You must choose.  Who gets it?  You or Thatcher?  I think I knew which one my readers would save, after they take one look at Thatcher....

To be continued...

Ok, actually, I got up with the alarm, had a healthy bowl of cereal, juice, and cardamon-flavored coffee, caught a taxi to my office, did the routine check in stuff, faced various technical problems in my office and the classroom that couldn't be fixed, checked out some films at the library, ate rice, fish and salad for lunch, worked at my desk, went through the hassle of getting a rental car, fought traffic home, did three miles on the treadmill, fixed eggs and toast for dinner, and caught up on desk work.

So: Which story should I continue?

You wouldn't shoot me, Ismeralda, I hissed.

Thatcher knows your secrets.  And he'll chew those boots to shreds the moment you take them off.....

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Arab Spring

It's spring in Doha, and throughout the Arab world.

The air is filled with sand...shimmering heat....and democracy.  Well, maybe the breezes have not yet blown democracy into Doha, but democratic aspirations are swirling around the Gulf.

So I wonder: what will come out of the fragile shell?

Will there by a sunny upside -- or a sunny side up?

Will many eggs be broken before the omelette is done?

Will just the broken shells be left?

Who knows?  Eggs can be tricky: they can form the perfect souffle or the perfect stench.

The students in my "Ethics and Values in Public Policy" class -- middle easterners, all -- will have much to teach me, and I hope to learn from them.

I do hope I can tell them apart.  My class's photo roster indicates they all look like Jack the Bulldog.

Time to finish the syllabus.  Class begins tomorrow morning, Sunday May 15, at 9.45 a.m. Qatar time.  I wonder what the air will be like....