Curse, Drink, Shag

6 Feb

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon.


24 Responses to “Curse, Drink, Shag”

  1. Marianne 6 February, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    Now your getting close to the territory my book will be covering. Because I couldn’t agree with you more about the ‘shadow’ motivations that draw us to and then keep us in this work and the importance of being willing to take a good look at them.

    Loving your writing lately, bro. I think it might be time for a Skyp chat again soon.

  2. Fanagalo 6 February, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Right. On. Thank you for adding a bit more legitimacy to my own “I will not get married and I will NOT have children” position. People keep telling me that I’ll change my mind…it’s been 15 years and that hasn’t happened yet, so one wonders what they mean.

  3. Robi 6 February, 2011 at 11:41 pm #

    So funny that you should bring up Eat Love Pray. I just finished reading it.

    I have a strange affliction… If I begin reading a book, I feel compelled to finish it, however dire it is. All the way through Happy Isles of Oceania I just wanted to slap Paul Theroux across the back of the head with a paddle and tell him that if he hated everyone he met in the Pacific, perhaps he ought to turn his little boat round and just go home, instead of inflicting his misery upon everyone he met and those of us stupid enough to persevere through his turgid tale of self-indulgent sniping. (yes – I’m aware of the irony. shut up.)

    So it was with Eat Love Pray. But I finished it, and duly relegated it to the “books I want to forget” bookshelf in the guesthouse, with an apologetic little note pencilled inside the cover, begging the forgiveness of anyone desperate enough to pick it up.

  4. c-sez 7 February, 2011 at 4:17 am #

    Always worth bringing attention to an instant classic of the genre:

    “…humanitarian expatriates are more likely to engage in casual sexual activity whilst abroad than any other type of traveler. Despite the well-documented dangers of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, more than one-third of the expatriates reported having had sexual contact with at least one person who was not their regular partner, and only two-thirds reported always using condoms.”

    Source: Health Risks and Risk-Taking Behaviors Among International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Expatriates Returning From Humanitarian Missions

  5. Rebecca M.E. Pointer 7 February, 2011 at 4:55 am #

    I don’t know why you think aid workers are supposed to have all the answers?? in my experience it’s because you think you are know it alls that problems get created — aid no it alls with their prepackaged notions are a huge problem when it comes to changing the world!

  6. Martha Cook 7 February, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    Re: post from Rebecca, I got my good guffaw of the day. For the record, I’m not an aid worker. But I do think that people who WORK in international aid likely have a better idea of how aid works than those who do not. Reminds me of the author who insisted that the pictures he sent me to go in his book would ABSOLUTELY be high enough resolution even though he had grabbed them from an internet site. Despite my varied and detailed explanation of the resolution necessary for print and how it relates to the resolution of images necessary for web production, he launched into a detailed argument about the human eye’s inability to see differences in resolution. I went with the pictures because I got tired of fighting. One year later, when he got his first book hot of the presses he railed at me at how bad the images looked. I’m sure he thought I was a know-it-all. I knew more than he did. Not all. Just more.

    The real reason for my post?…couldn’t get through the book eat, pray, love. Boring and juvenile. Maybe it got better in the end but I kinda doubt it.

  7. Adrienne 7 February, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    WOW! I’m not sure what else to say about this one…..first I am not an aid worker but have often dreamed about becoming one. Now I am not so sure but really we are all faced with the same struggles regardless of what we do for a living, but it appears things may be really amplified in aid work. I have subscibed to this site as I want to know more about this and really I want to know how does a person get into this type of work?

  8. terence 7 February, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    All the way through Happy Isles of Oceania I just wanted to slap Paul Theroux across the back of the head with a paddle and tell him that if he hated everyone he met in the Pacific, perhaps he ought to turn his little boat round and just go home, instead of inflicting his misery upon everyone he met and those of us stupid enough to persevere through his turgid tale of self-indulgent sniping.

    Yes! That is exactly how I felt reading Happy Isles. As for ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ I read it, and can’t say I loved it. On the other hand, it didn’t really bug me: here’s a person trying to weave a meaningful narrative through their life and, while it seemed kind of meaningless to me, it worked for them, and they got to write about it, which seems like a happy enough tale in it’s own way. Regardless of what it did to my gag reflex.

  9. Cynthia Barnes 8 February, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    “Former housewife?” You might want to rethink that. Elizabeth attended New York University, where she studied political science by day and worked on her short stories by night. After college, she spent several years traveling around the country, working in bars, diners and ranches, collecting experiences to transform into fiction. These explorations eventually formed the basis of her first book – a short story collection called PILGRIMS, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. She also worked as a journalist for such publications as Spin, GQ and The New York Times Magazine. She was a three-time finalist for The National Magazine Award, and an article she wrote in GQ about her experiences bartending on the Lower East Side eventually became the basis for the movie COYOTE UGLY.

  10. ert 8 February, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    I’m a student getting a master’s in ID, trying to begin a career in aid work. Since I’ve started reading this blog and other aid worker blogs, I have questioned why I want to go into a field where everyone seems to be cynical, bitter, and angry. I have wanted to work in development, I’ve wanted to improve lives, I’ve wanted to help reduce suffering, for as long as I can remember. And all I’ve learned since trying to start my career is that those goals (“helping people” “improving lives”) get laughed at, that all NGOs pretty much suck anyway, and aid workers are angry alcoholics that cannot have a stable family and sneer at everyone that travels the world that ISN’T an aid worker.

    Maybe I’m just getting the wrong side of the story but this and most aid blogs have made me SERIOUSLY consider getting into this field. It is not some badge of honor to be angry and cynical, but you all seem to be so proud of it. I do not want to end up like this.

    • RM 9 February, 2011 at 4:11 am #

      If, as you say, you “have wanted to work in development, I’ve wanted to improve lives, I’ve wanted to help reduce suffering, for as long as I can remember”, but have never had the self-awareness to ask yourself why you want do all that, then you’re right: you should probably reconsider that career in aid. You’re no purer or less selfish than even the most cynical aid workers. But you’re a hell of a lot more clueless.

      PS: Where are you reading the anger in the post? J. sounds disappointed more than anything else.

      PSS: “Angry alcoholics that cannot have a stable family…”
      a) should be “who”, not “that”
      b) you forgot chain-smoking.

    • Ellen 11 February, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

      ert–this post reminds me a little of a moment in a human rights law class I took. The guest professor, a very succesful mediator at the World Bank, launched into a speech about why no one should go to law school: you will spend 3 hellish years to end up with so much debt that you have no choice but to work 18 hour days as a junior associate at a big firm. Then you’ll get married and have kids, and be forced to work for a partnership so you can work 16 hour days to pay for the nanny who is raising your kids while you’re at work, and pay the divorce lawyer when your spouse leaves you. Some poor heartbroken aspiring-lawyer student rasied her hand and meekly asked if this was really the only option. My parents are do-gooder public defenders. My brother is a big firm associate who wouldn’t give it up for anything, because in spite of everything he loves his job.

      I can say from only a year’s work at a development NGO home office that the deadly dual bureaucracies of donors and home offices alone is enough to bring out the cynicism, the drinking, and the swearing. The thing to keep in mind is that 1) obviously this isn’t the only way of life for aid workers, as other people have pointed out, even if it’s true for many/most, and 2) people keep doing the work. In spite of every reason not to. In spite of all the let downs, cynicism, and destructive behavior. I think that actually says more about the nature of development work than anything else.

  11. Michael Keizer 8 February, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

    I really should write that blog post about the other side some day.

    Yes, this is (sadly) a good sketch of what aid life is like for the average aid worker (if that mythical beast can be said to exist).

    But life for me has always been a bit different. To take the examples from this post: I actually drink less when I’m on ‘mission’ than at home; I met my ex wife the first day of my aid career and we stayed together for seven years in the field, only to see our relationship break up when we settled down in a nice Australian suburb; I still believe that what I do helps some people some of the time — and that this is enough because it’s futile to try to change the world; and what I have seen from the world over the last ten years of aid work has made me much more optimistic about mankind than I ever was before (although I have to admit that I was a fairly hardcore pessimist to start with, so the bar might not have been very high).

    All this to say that, yes, I agree with you that Curse, Drink, Shag is a pretty descriptive title for a book about a majority of aid workers (although I am not so sure how large that majority is); but that there is a (sizable?) minority that live a very different life.

    • Michael Keizer 8 February, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

      Some day I should learn to close my tags properly… Apologies for the italics.

    • Joe Turner 9 February, 2011 at 5:35 am #

      It kinda surprises me that people are surprised when people are people rather than superhumans.

      curse-drink-shag is probably pretty much the pattern of anyone in any stressful situation.

      I don’t work in development so I’m sure it isn’t really for me to comment, but (hey I’ll do it anyway..) I’d think unrealistic expectations are not the only reasons for sending someone close-to or over the edge.

      As someone from a faith community, I’d say that a big factor is the level of support the worker gets from their ‘sending’ community, not just their colleagues. Of course, we see breakdowns as much as anyone else, but our rich history of long term workers surviving in desperate conditions is indicative of the benefits of mutual support. You are somehow not just working on your own but also with/on behalf of a wider group of people. That might prevent you from overstepping the line with regard to dangerous lifestyle choices, but also might help to bring emotional stability too.

      Of course, there are plenty of counter-examples of abuse and failure by faith communities too.

      Secondly, maybe we all need to get real about the danger of burn-out. Maybe there is a length of time that any development worker can be expected to take and stay sane. Maybe more of us (whilst obviously taking the points about professionalism and so on) need to take time out of our lives for development work rather than expecting individuals to shoulder a whole life of it.

      • Cottesloe Princess Does Safari In Stilettos 26 March, 2011 at 3:35 am #

        I really enjoyed your post and insight into expectations of humans. Sometimes I have expectations of myself that this field shouldn’t get me down, that I ‘asked for it’, that I could work harder, longer, every weekend, every night. Then my mother would tell me to go and have a pedicure and a massage at the over priced beautician here because I needed it, and it always made me feel better that my mother would support such ridiculousness ( In my mind). On the other hand I have family members who offer no sympathy and are ready to say “told you so” because they don’t see the point of what i’m doing or why I had to move away “and leave them all with out me”…. Suffice to say, I always call my mum when I’m having a meltdown!

      • Sarah 18 November, 2011 at 8:03 am #

        curse-drink-shag is probably pretty much the pattern of anyone in any stressful situation.

        Which in some respects in anyone who is in international anything! Until you get you master-yoda mind firmly planted, its all a rollercoaster. Sometimes it takes a journey to Mali, Bangladesh, Thailand, or Italy, India, Bali… Sometimes it takes that super chilled out person ( so say something that shifts thinking back to the not-so-ego-inspired-point. That is, if you don’t pick up curse/drink/shag addiction before you get to the really good aid/international experience.

  12. Kabs 10 February, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Just discovered this blog and will certainly be following it! Great writing J.

    As a young development worker, I do share some of ert’s concerns about the seemingly chronic cynicism of the veterans in the field. I wonder though if the experiences of aid workers from developed countries are very different from those who are from developing countries. Being Indian, I have seen that, at least in some parts of the country, incredible improvements to human life are possible through sensible changes in policy and well-run and well-thought out projects. Perhaps comparing before-after in these situations is more cause for optimism than comparing the home country of Western aid workers with the country they work in?

  13. transitionland 14 March, 2011 at 4:52 am #

    No one, not even the local warlord or thieving official, is the subject of more scorn in the private, binge-and-bitch sessions in aid worker watering holes than the happily-married, still bright-eyed thirtysomething colleague who did, somehow, get to have it all.

    And yet, I still hope to be one of the effin’ smug marrieds with a wallet of adorable kid photos at the UN bar someday. If I’m that lucky, you can throw all the scorn you want in my direction. I’ll probably deserve it.

  14. mery 15 March, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    I never had any problem admitting I was looking for meaning. I still are. humanitarian aid sector is not providing any, hence my current and scary crisis. and not because of that only, but becasue I cant really find meaning anywhere else too. thats my loosing of imnocence I guess, arather than the fact we cant save the world (this becomes quite obvious after the first field mission). Ill keep reading your blog as soon as I come back to internet access somewhere (in cuba is hard!). I feel touched and close to your thinking. THanks!


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