My Mom and South Sudan?

My Mom occasionally buys me books that she thinks I will like. She has bought me about ten books in the past couple of years, and all ten books were far from my usual reading selection. I try my best to have a diverse reading list, but my Mom is in a league of her own when it comes to getting me out of my comfort zone. The most recent example of her eclectic curation came from the book – What is the What by David Eggers. What is the What is a nonfiction book written as a fiction book…yes I did say my Mom expanded my horizons. It is technically a piece of fiction because it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng – one of the lost boys of the Sudanese war during the 1980s. Valentino was a child when the war occurred, and hence his first memories are not 100% accurate – but doesn’t take away from the real nightmare that made up the first two decades of his life.

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When Valentino was seven, his peaceful life in the southern region of Sudan turned upside down when war broke out. The war was between the SPLA, who wanted an independent South Sudan, and the government of Sudan who wished to maintain control over the area. Southern Sudan was primarily Christian while the political north was primarily Muslim. The Islamic government wanted to bring an Islamic state to the south, and the SPLA wanted to maintain its unique Afro-Christian identity. The conflict has been known to posterity as the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1987 and ended in 2005. During that time, two million people were killed – almost three and half times more people that died in the American Civil War – and thousands of children were left orphaned to fend for themselves.

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A large portion of those children were boys who were too young to enter into the SPLA and fled their homes to escape the conflict. Valentino was one of 20,000 lost boys who marched from South Sudan to safe havens like Ethiopia and Kenya. The boys walked to these places many times in small groups and had to endure starvation, government attack, and even predatory animals. Valentino witnessed his friends being dragged into the jungle by lions, shot by overhead helicopters, and eaten by parasitic flies after dropping dead from exhaustion. The walk he took consisted of hundreds of miles and months of toil – on several occasions, he laid on the ground for hours unable to move from extreme malnutrition and infection.

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Valentino was able to obtain some semblance of life at a Kenyan refugee camp that was funded by the United Nations. He lived in the camp for several years until the US allowed several Lost Boys to resettle in the states. While in the States he met Dave Eggers who recorded his story and wrote the book What is the What. Through funds of the book, Valentino started his own foundation to support education in Southern Sudan. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 but is still in conflict with various internal organizations – it is one of the most depressed countries on earth. I had no idea the turmoil in Sudan until reading this book, and it has ignited in me a desire to learn more about Africa in general. Oftentimes, we get consumed with our own interests that we miss seminal events around the world. All these things impact us, and we must continue to learn and help those who are suffering. Refugees need help more than ever, and we need to seek practical policies which benefit not only the “lost” but also the countries who take the “lost” in as citizens. Thanks, Mom, for expanding my horizon, and I always appreciate your eclectic tastes – I never thought I would be mentioning your name with South Sudan. Expand your world…I am continuing my expansion by reading a book that is far from my comfort zone – Emma by Jane Austen.

Here are 9 out of the next 15 books that I will begin in June:

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Tennessee Williams

The Count of Monte Cristo

“All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope”
-Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

The past couple weeks were quite busy for me because of Christina’s graduation and a particular book that I needed to read. This book was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and I was putting off reading it because of its sheer size – almost 1500 pages. To read this many pages in a span of two weeks required a lot of time, patience, and questioning. I say questioning because it is not every day you see a person walking around with a massive gray book. On a couple of occasions, young children asked me if I was reading the Bible or the Dictionary. People thought I was a Jehova Witness or some sort of hipster-encyclopedia salesman trying to pawn off printed editions of Wikipedia. The book itself became my second half and each night, depending on my mood, I would stare at it with elation as the best book ever written or dread as the longest book ever printed.

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I just finished it today, and without a doubt, it is one those books that forever changed the way I look at literature and the potential of writing to impact human thought. The plot is one of revenge and redemption: a young man is unjustly sent to prison, escapes, and returns to bring ruin to those who wronged him. Most people have seen the movie, but the plot of this novel is nothing like that of the 2002 film; a 10 season HBO drama would barely give it justice. To better understand this epic story think of those 200 layer salads your aunt brings to a potluck; at first, it looks too formidable to eat, but with each successive layer, you find yourself enjoying the complexity, and eventually, you crave reaching the bottom which contains that mysterious jello.

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The Count of Monte Cristo is a story about revenge, greed, death, despair, hope, love, and wisdom. Throughout the plot, there is an overarching theme of contrast – characters swing from the highest peaks of happiness to the lowest states of depression; opulence is juxtaposed with impoverishment. The main character, The Count of Monte Cristo, was at one point on the verge of death from starvation and at another the most wealthy host of a grand dinner party in the heart of France. This contrast is highlighted throughout the book because it represents Dumas’ ultimate point to the reader, “Wait and Hope.” Or put in another way, one must be patient in life and hope that God will look favorably upon their plight. The Count of Monte Cristo waited and hoped for his rightful revenge, and his wrongdoers were eventually punished.

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Alternatively, other characters in the book waited and hoped for their loved one’s safety and were rewarded with both a stronger relationship and a greater appreciation for life itself. A fuller life is the ultimate reward of “Wait and Hope,” because it allows one to not only reflect on the future but also appreciate what is had in the present. One of the best examples comes at the end of the book when the villain is eventually imprisoned. He has lost his family, his fortune, and his fame but still he waits and hopes that a savior will come. His savior does come in the form of the Count of Monte Cristo, who through his own ability for hopefulness forgives his transgressor. Life is burdensome, and when we don’t feel like it is in our favor remember that even in the lowest depths of existence, hope and patience are tools that can carve a way out of any indomitable prison.

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Escaped Chihuahua!

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Of all the dogs that run away each year, the Chihuahua is the least likely. A Chihuahua by nature is a helpless creature that parasitically thrives off the heat and comfort of its owner. No Chihuahua ever enthusiastically runs to the door to go wee wee. Most Chihuahuas feign the outdoors unless it mirrors their natural desert habitat. Max, my Chihuahua of 8 months now, is almost always by my side. He lies on my lap and I pet him like Doctor Evil. If I have a book in my lap, he lays on my legs. If I have something on my legs he lays on my feet. The dog is always seeking human touch. In general, he has more ADHD than a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. At any given moment he is alert to his surrounding environment-especially whenever the refrigerator door opens. I believe Max to be some kind of mix between a Chihuahua, a dingo, and Will Ferrell in Elf. I keep learning new things from Max that make me a better person. I would recommend to everyone that they own an animal. Animals teach responsibility, respect, compassion, unselfishness, and patience. So what has Max taught me on this glorious Sunday? Well, that Chihuahuas can run away.

As stated previously, Max is always by my side. So how the frick did a seven-pound-deer-headed-pea brained Chihuahua escape from the house? It all started with my desire to talk on the phone with my old roommate-while on the porch of my house. It being almost 70 degrees outside I wanted to bask in the glorious sun which has been absent for the past 4 months. I took my chair, my phone, and my Chihuahua outside. While talking with my roommate, Max sat peacefully on my lap while taking in the rare solar heat. All was well with the world until Max started to get comfortable. See, Chihuahuas are very timid up until a certain point. They have an action potential of meekness which is negated whenever they sit in one place for a period of time. By sitting on my lap on the porch, Max became the king of the porch-anyone who came close was in his territory. While chatting with Chris, his action potential was bathed in some sort of Chihuahua gusto, and Max began to bark at every single thing that came past his wooden domain. Adults. Dogs. Children. Grandmas. Leafs. Paper Bags. Nothing was safe from his wrath and I subsequently threw him inside because of the interruptions to my conversation. As earlier stated, Max must have human contact at all time. After constant whining, Christina opened the door and let him come to me; he quickly regained his state of superiority which subsequently forced me to throw him back inside. It was at this point that I must have not shut the door completely.

In about a half hour, Christina was heard through the window frantically calling for Max. I thought nothing of it because I figured he may be snuggled under a synthetic human substitute-his blanket. But there was no miniature deer to be found under the many blankets which are exclusively for his comfort. This sent a wave of panic through my spine and I thought he may actually have run away. The house was checked and now my wife was going all Filipino on me. I asked myself why would Max leave the porch? He has never left my side. Nevertheless he was gone and we were contemplating the worse – that a hawk swooped down and grabbed his rat-like body. Thinking that he couldn’t have gone very far, I scanned the neighborhood from my porch. I didn’t see anything at first but then my eyes caught a small figure in the far distance. It was Max, in the road, starring at a stop sign as if he could read it-with a car rapidly descending in the foreground. I called his name and as if nothing happened he ran back to me with haste. I embraced him with the utmost ferment as if this little dog was my own child. So why did Max leave the porch? I will never know the answer but it has taught me a lot about my relationship with this dog.

I actually care about him and would be extremely sad if he died. I actually appreciate that his brain and balls may be bigger than I had previously thought. I actually need to respect that he is a strong dog and not a mutated rat. The moral of the story is this: When life gives you a metaphorical Chihuahua, a situation that you don’t respect or appreciate, think twice before making judgments and discounting it. That Chihuahua may highlight your vulnerabilities, making you more emotionally sensitive and more appreciative of what you have. I know my Chihuahua did.