Perry Ellis profit drops but beats estimate

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Perry Ellis International Inc.’s third quarter profits fell 17.2 percent but still beat expectations, partly due to the company’s closing of under-performing businesses.

The Miami-based clothing designer found in departments stores such as Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Nordstrom’s had a net income of $4.1 million, or 31 cents per diluted share, in the quarter ended Oct. 31.  That compared with year-earlier quarterly income of $5 million, or 33 cents per diluted share.  The estimate by four analysts polled by Yahoo Finance was 21 cents per diluted share.

Quarterly revenues were $178.6 million compared with $222.8 million, a decrease of 19.9 percent.

“The bottom line is they went back and went through every company and business when the economy started to slow down and we’re seeing the fruits of that right now,” said Eric Beder, analyst with Brean Murray, Carret & Co. LLC.

Beder said, “They did a very good job of getting rid of unproductive lines and aggressively looking for new opportunities.”

George Feldenkreis, chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis, said in a conference call on Wednesday that the company would consider acquisitions. “A lot of our competitors are in a weak position. Some of the deck has been cleared with companies out of business,” Feldenkreis stated.

Anita D. Britt, chief financial officer of Perry Ellis, said in the conference call, “We have conscientious optimism for the holiday season.”

Perry Ellis expects earnings of 80 cents to 95 cents per fully diluted share in the fiscal year ending in January, an increase from its previously announced guidance of 70 cents to 85 cents per diluted share. The company expects that annual revenues will decrease in the low double-digit range but foresees revenue growth and gross margin improvements in the remainder of the current year.  Analysts polled by Yahoo Finance estimate earnings of 82 cents per diluted share  and sales of $762.4 million in the current fiscal year, compared with a loss of 89 cents per diluted share and $851.3 million in sales last fiscal year.

Net income in the nine-month period ended Oct. 31 was $4.7 million, or 36 cents per diluted share, compared with $8.7 million, or 57 cents per diluted share, in the year-earlier period.  Revenue fell 15.5 percent to $557.8 million from $660.1 million.

Perry Ellis’s stock closed Tuesday at 14.99, up 11 cents.

Akorn Inc. swings to a loss

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Akorn Inc. swung to a loss partly due to lower vaccine sales, but still performed slightly better than an analyst’s expectation. The stock edged up.

The pharmaceutical company, specializing in ophthalmology, anesthesia, antidotes and rheumatology, had a net loss of $5.1 million, or 6 cents per diluted share, in the quarter ended Sept. 30. That compared with a net income of $2.4 million, or 3 cents per diluted share, in the same quarter the prior year.  The estimate by an analyst polled by Yahoo Finance was a loss of 8 cents per diluted share.

Quarterly sales were $19.4 million compared with $31.9 million in the year-earlier quarter, a decrease of 39 percent.

Akorn attributed its net loss to lower vaccine sales, an increase in the unit cost of combined tetanus-diphtheria vaccines, and lower sales to wholesalers.  Also, Akorn took a charge of $1.1 million in the value of warrants issued in conjunction with the company’s renegotiated revolving line of credit and subordinated debt.

Akorn launched two generic drugs: Ketorolac Tromethamine Ophthalmic, the generic form of Acular, used to relieve seasonal allergy eye-itching, with estimated brand sales of $119 million in 2008, and Hydralazine Hydrochloride, used to treat hypertension, with estimated sales of $23 million in 2008.

Vaccine revenue for the quarter decreased by $8.5 million from the year-earlier period. Akorn attributed this to a flu vaccine supply shortage and to strong third quarter 2008 sales after the introduction of a single dose vial tetanus-diphtheria vaccine.  The company will not distribute the flu vaccine after the 2009 flu season.

The Akorn-Strides LLC joint venture provided Akorn $500,000 in equity earnings and sales of approximately $3.8 million during the third quarter.

The company did not provide fourth-quarter guidance but an analyst polled by Zacks Investment Research has a full-year estimate of a 17-cent loss per diluted share compared with 2008 full-year earnings of 7 cents per diluted share.

In the nine-month period ended Sept. 30, Akorn lost $22.7 million, or 25 cents per diluted share, compared with a loss of $6 million, or 7 cents per diluted share, in the year-earlier period.  Revenue fell 17 percent to $57.7 million from $67.6 million.

Akorn’s stock closed Tuesday at $1.61, up 6 cents or nearly 4 percent.

Hospira’s third-quarter profits up 42 percent boosted by chemotherapy treatment sales

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Hospira Inc. saw a 42 percent third-quarter profit increase mainly due to the launch of oxaliplatin, an injectable chemotherapy drug, as well as restructuring and cost cuts.

The company’s profit rose to $116.2 million, or 71 cents per diluted share, in the quarter ended Sept. 30, up from $81.8 million, or 51 cents per diluted share, in the year-earlier period. Analysts polled by Yahoo Finance had a consensus estimate of 69 cents per diluted share.

Sales at the Lake Forest specialty pharmaceutical and medication delivery company increased to $1.01 billion from $925.5 million, an increase of 9 percent.

Oxaliplatin was launched by Hospira in the U.S. in August and is a generic version of Sanofi-Aventis SA’s Eloxatin, an injectable colon cancer drug that had $1.4 billion in sales in 2008. Increased sales volume of Precedex, a sedation drug, also helped Hospira’s profits, as well as the introduction of other products.

In March, Hospira announced a two-year restructuring and cost-cutting plan that includes the closing of manufacturing plants and laying off about 10 percent of its global workforce. Hospira said it expects restructuring costs between $140 million to $160 million during that period.

Hospira closed three manufacturing plants between 2007 and March 2009 and is in the process of closing a fourth plant in Morgan Hill, Calif. For the quarter ended Sept. 30, restructuring costs were $13.8 million compared with $4.5 million in the year earlier quarter.

“Looking ahead to 2010, that one-time boost from oxaliplatin will fade quickly as more players enter the market said Morningstar Inc. analyst Brian Laegeler. “As of yet there’s no change in hospital cap ex spending, given the uncertainty of the economic recovery right now, so those factors will weigh against growth in 2010.”

In the nine months ended Sept. 30, Hospira’s capital expenditures were $118.7 million, compared with $126.9 million in the year-earlier period.

Analysts’ estimates compiled on Yahoo Finance have a fourth-quarter consensus of 83 cents per diluted share. A year ago, Hospira’s earnings were 78 cents per diluted share.

The company did not provide fourth-quarter guidance but said it expects to earn between $2.25 per diluted share and $2.30 per diluted share for the full year. Hospira’s earnings guidance at the end of the second quarter was between $2.10 per diluted share and $2.15 per diluted share.

On an adjusted basis, the company expects to earn between $2.85 per diluted share and $2.90 per diluted share this year. Analysts polled by by Zack’s Investment Research have a full-year consensus of $2.84 per diluted share.

In the nine-month period ended Sept. 30, Hospira earned $307.2 million, or $1.89 per diluted share, compared with $216.3 million, or $1.34 per diluted share, in the year-earlier period. Sales rose 4 percent to $2.82 billion from $2.72 billion.

Hospira’s stock closed Tuesday at $47.11, up 81 cents from Monday’s close.

Continued increase in leading economic indicators points to recovery

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The Leading Economic Indicator Index increased 1.0 percent in September, the sixth straight monthly increase and a sign that economic conditions will continue to improve in the near term, the Conference Board said.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had expected a 0.8 percent gain in the index, up from a revised 0.6 percent gain in August, originally reported as a 0.4 percent increase.

Eight out of 10 leading indicators increased in September. The interest rate spread between 10-year Treasury bonds and overnight federal funds was the largest positive contributor, demonstrating a healthy yield curve. The only two negative leading contributors were average weekly manufacturing hours and building permits.

“This is going to be a long, tough, slow recovery. The good news is, it’s begun,” said Ken Goldstein, Conference Board economist. He said Americans may not feel the recovery any time soon, but noted that natural gas prices have plummeted and winter heating bills won’t be as high in the Midwest.

Asha Bangalore, vice-president and economist at Northern Trust Company, agreed. “Once again, the index has provided valuable guidance about the course of the economy,” Bangalore wrote in a note Thursday. “This string of gains is a convincing indication that an economic recovery is underway.”

Bangalore noted that the index of leading indicators has moved up 1.8 percent on a quarterly basis from a year ago, the first such increase since the fourth quarter of 2006.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect the third quarter GDP, to be released Oct. 29, to rise by 3 percent, which would be the first increase since the second quarter of 2008. GDP fell 0.7 percent in the second quarter and 6.4 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

The Coincident Economic Index remained unchanged in September, following small increases in the previous two months. Employment continues to fall, while industrial production has risen for three straight months, the Conference Board said.

September Index of Leading Economic Indicators

Positive leading indicators:
Interest rate spread
Index of consumer expectations
Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance (inverted)
Stock prices
Real money supply
Index of supplier deliveries (vendor performance)
Manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods
Manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials

Negative leading indicators:
Average weekly manufacturing hours
Building permits

Federal Reserve’s Beige Book notes cautious optimism about the Chicago economy

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The decline in economic activity in the Chicago area has ended and many businesses remain cautiously optimistic for the remainder of 2009, according to the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book.

The Federal Reserve’s beige book is a summary of economic activity gathered from the Fed’s 12 districts. The beige book, noted for the color of the report’s cover, is published eight times a year.

Economic activity “improved marginally” in the Chicago district during September and early October, according to the report. Business and consumer spending, excluding vehicle purchases, decreased at a slower rate, and credit conditions improved but remain tight. Manufacturing activity showed more signs of “firming,” the report noted.

“We are improving in the sense that we are probably stabilizing a lot of things that have been in free fall,” assured Adolfo Laurenti, deputy chief economist for Mesirow Financial Holdings Inc.

The steel industry is experiencing an increase in demand due to lean inventories and strong demand from the auto sector, the report noted. One contact in the industry told the Federal Reserve that previously idle capacity would be ramped back up as a result but that it would take time to do so. Automakers and auto suppliers were helped by the Cash-for-Clunkers program, but some suppliers said that fourth-quarter orders are “shaping up to be weaker.” Automakers, however, expect demand to slowly improve the remainder of the year and are maintaining plans to increase production.

“The best news that we’re seeing right now is coming from manufacturing,” Laurenti said.

Laurenti believes that even people who have avoided splurging may do so during the holiday season. Companies will need to restock their shelves after the holiday boom, although he said he’s not sure if the product demand will be sustained or will fade at the beginning of the new year.

The Beige Book said health care, education and information technology experienced “notable” hiring.

“There has been a dearth of skilled workers for these positions even before the recession,” said Fred Hoch, president of the Illinois Technology Association, a trade association for information technology industry.

The Fed reported that the rate of job loss and reduction in hours worked continued to slow.

However, Bill Hummer, chief economist for Wayne Hummer Wealth Management, expects the unemployment rate to remain around 9 percent in Illinois through next year. It is currently 9.9 percent in the state and 9.6 percent nationwide.

“Employers are cutting payrolls to preserve profit margins and that’s not likely to change too soon,” he said.

Though higher credit standards are still a challenge, Laurenti said it’s a good time for businesses to look for merger and acquisition opportunities. Though there’s not much capital available, if a company is financially positioned to buy, it can probably buy companies at a very cheap price right now, he said.

Residential real estate conditions continued to improve in September and October, with home sales increasing and housing inventory coming down, according to the report. Commercial real estate conditions, however, worsened.

An increase in energy prices was reported, although a Fed business contact noted that “very high levels of stored natural gas will likely lead to lower heating costs this winter.”

Agricultural price pressures were mixed, according to the Beige Book, and early reports indicate a lower-than-expected corn yields. Harvesting the Chicago district’s corn and soybean crop will take longer than normal due to wet weather and late maturity of crops.

Burr Oak Cemetery for sale

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CHICAGO | In a bankruptcy court hearing Tuesday, Judge Pamela S. Hollis gave permission for Perpetua-Burr Oak Holdings of Illinois, L.L.C., owner of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, to sell the cemetery that became infamous this summer for a grave desecration scandal.

Perpetua filed for bankruptcy protection in September in the wake of a criminal investigation. The company told Hollis it had hired American Cemetery/Mortuary Consultants Inc. as a consultant to assist in selling the cemetery.

Attorney Robert Fishman, of Shaw Gussis Fishman Glantz Wolfson, in Chicago, said Perpetua doesn’t yet know of any buyers but hired a consultant with expertise in cemeteries.

“All the pressure of the world is on us,” said Fishman during the hearing, when Paul J. Gaynor, chief of the Illinois attorney general’s Public Interest Division, expressed concern too much money is being spent on court costs.

Gaynor said he wants to ensure “as much as possible for victims. The state is concerned about people and families.”

Burr Oak Cemetery opened its gates at 9 a.m. Monday to more than 50 lawyers representing claimants in the grave desecration scandal. The cemetery has been closed to the public since the scandal broke this summer.

Attorney Larry Rogers Sr. of Chicago firm Power Rogers Smith, representing claimants, said the goal of opening up the cemetery for legal counsel was to provide the opportunity to locate family gravesites for his clients.

He lamented it was difficult to find anything useful because many graves are unmarked and a database being compiled by the sheriff’s office is not yet complete.

The cemetery has a primarily black clientele. Among prominent Chicagoans buried there are Emmett Till, Dinah Washington along with Negro League baseball players Jimmie Crutchfield and John Donaldson.

Monsanto Co. posts wider loss in its fourth quarter because of restructuring costs

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St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., producer of seeds and the popular herbicide Roundup, experienced a wider net loss of $233 million, or 43 cents per diluted share, in the quarter ended Aug. 31, compared with a loss of $172 million, or 31 cents per diluted share, in the year-earlier period.  The company reported increased profit for its full fiscal year but predicted lower earnings after restructuring costs in its current fiscal year.

The company had restructuring costs of 53 cents per diluted share in the 2009 quarter.  This included the cost of staff reductions, streamlining brands, office and facility consolidations and realignment of resources of its global seeds and traits business.

According to Yahoo Finance, analysts expected the company to earn 1 cent per diluted share before restructuring costs.

Quarterly sales declined 8.4 percent to $1.9 billion from $2.1 billion.

According to Daniel Ortwerth, analyst for Edward D. Jones & Co. L.P., Monsanto was the main provider of Roundup herbicides during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but since then, Chinese manufacturers of herbicides, which were temporarily shut down to decrease pollution, have opened back up, creating more competition and lower sales for Monsanto compared with prior years

“Looking into the future, 85 percent of the business will be seed,” said Ortwerth.  He predicted seed sales will grow at double-digit rates because Monsanto is the industry leader.  The company’s press release indicated the 85 percent seed growth rate is targeted for fiscal year 2012.

Net income for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31 rose 4 percent to $2.1 billion, or $3.80 per diluted share.  That compares with a net income of $2 billion, or $3.62 per diluted share, in the prior year.

Analysts polled by Yahoo Finance had a consensus estimate of $4.41 per diluted share for the 2009 fiscal year.

Monsanto guidance expects $2.85-$3.11 earnings per share in fiscal year 2010, including projected restructuring costs.  Monsanto did not provide sales guidance, but Ortwerth expects sales of $11.5 billion in fiscal 2010.

Monsanto expects seeds and traits will increase from 6.8 billion gross profit in fiscal year 2009 to $8.6 billion to $8.8 billion in fiscal year 2012.

The stock closed at $74.33, down $1.03.

Bankruptcy filings on the rise

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Chicago bankruptcy filings increased 38 percent in September from a year earlier. There is no sign of decline.

“I can only predict there’s more to come,” said Kenneth Gardner, clerk of the Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court.

In September 4,302 cases were filed, compared with 3,121 a year earlier and only 1,884 cases in September 2007. Last month’s Chapter 11 filings, mostly used by corporations seeking to reorganize while protected from creditors, increased the most. There were 34 Chapter 11 filings in September 2009 compared with 14 in September 2008.

This jump could be attributed to the increasing number of individuals forced to utilize Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of their high income or large debt, a result of the 2005 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. “I think this is going to continue until the recession runs its course,” said Chicago bankruptcy attorney Jay Fortier.

Chapter 13 filings by wage-earners, however, decreased to 992 in September from 1,052 in September 2008. In Chapter 7, liquidation, 3,152 cases were filed last month, compared with 2,055 a year earlier.

Bankruptcy filings peaked in 2005, in anticipation of the tighter restrictions on bankruptcy enacted that year. After a sharp decline in 2006, filings have increased each year at an annual rate of about 40 percent.

Kara Krystavel, public service team trainer at the Chicago Bankruptcy Court, said that on the last day of September alone, 481 new cases were filed.

Paul Bach, a bankruptcy attorney in Chicago, said there’s no simple answer for why there is an increase in bankruptcy filings, but he agreed with Gardner’s comment that bankruptcy filings won’t decrease anytime soon.

On Writing and Inspiration

Each new book I open has provided a goose-pimply sense of inspiration. I’ve chosen very intentionally which books to read this year, knowing they’ll help frame my journey and provide possibly much needed respite from reality.

A moment of inspiration strikes and I run to my room or search hurriedly though my bag for my lone mechanical pencil.

Inspiration is strange. Shashi Deshpande in Small Remedies writes about the awkwardness of moving into a families home for an extended stay, which is often how I feel at the hostel or while visiting a friend’s family. She says, “This is like my first few days in the hostel, when the thought of being with so many strangers was daunting, my loneliness emphasized by being in their midst.” Within the first few pages of her novel, I was hooked.

People often ask what inspired me to volunteer in India. What planted the idea? I think my mother is right; it began with our world map shower curtain. Pastel colors delineating each country, some of which were renamed and lines re-established in those years of my childhood. I remember being scared of Berlin after hearing about the wall coming down. Africa was a vast and confusing place, bigger than the United States but mysteriously powerless in my mind. India was not on my radar.

Freshman year of college I did a research project on the Indian and Pakistani population in Chicago, focusing my study on the Devon area, filled with restaurants, fabric stores and ornate jewelry shops. During one of my excursions, I bought a non-English Indian newspaper and was asked by the shop-keeper in honest, dumbfounded curiosity, “Are you Indian?” Maybe that was the moment for me. My strange moment of inspiration.

Now I’m in India and I experience strange moments daily. Waking up to the fusion of melodies that collide when the neighboring temples and churches all celebrate simultaneously. Smelling the next meal being cooked. Cinnamon colored sunsets and green, fruit-filled landscapes. The man who delivers curd by bike and the woman who cooks rice for the kids at the Lower Primary school in a tiny wooden hut over a huge pit of fire.

Inspiration comes as a mix, a masala containing beauty and harshness, pleasure and frustration.

Many of the women I live with are in the hostel because their houses and families were hurt by the Tsunami. The teachers at the LP school are from the poorest class in India, most are members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) because they say, “that party supports the poor.” Recent rains flooded streets and homes. “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) are being constructed on prime farmland, bought at a low price by companies from farmers deep in debt. Chikungunia hurts the poor children and senior citizens with already weak immune systems. Women can’t leave their homes after six in the evening. College students study what will afford them the best job rather than what they find interesting.

These are inspirations in a different way. These moments make me feel lucky to have a United States passport. I realize that being a citizen of a superpower affords more opportunities than I can list. But my “Western” world view is extraordinarily limited. India is teaching me about extremes: happiness and sadness, hunger and fulfillment, need and desire.

The other day as I read “The Hindu” newspaper, Ammamma said, “Hair is darker. You are becoming an Indian.” I stood up to eat lunch, spooning rice into my mouth with my fingers and slurping curd from the palm of my hand. I cannot believe that I am in India…

“Vendu”

I was bombarded with saree fabric choices and decisively picked out the muted rose colored material, silk fabric with gold-colored trim. I have no trouble saying, “vendu” (I don’t want it) to clothing (food is a different matter). Ammamma and Ambily voted for bright royal blue and teal. “Vendu!” They took me to the tailor to have my rose-colored blouse stitched. I waited a week and when it was ready, the show began! Ammamma was folding the pleats into the draped shawl while Ambily tucking the skirt. “Oh, you are veeeery short. I must tuck sooo much,” she direly announced. It took twenty minutes to tuck, pleat drape and pin. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my hands in the air and clapped whenever they did something that somehow made it look more like a saree than one huge piece of fabric. “Chirikuduka!” (Laughing girl) they called me and smiled when they saw my excitement. Previously I told Ammamma how I do not like when people call me “Madama,” the general title for any white foreigner (images of the missionary I fear or an authoritative, powdery old British woman come to mind). “Ishtamala,” I said and she laughed saying, “Chirikuduka, your nickname, is better.” I agree. They were finished and I looked in the mirror. The difference between a churidar and a saree is incredible. I felt like I should be doing something powerful with graceful confidence (like leading the Congress Party?).

After a day of walking I changed my mind. Graceful confidence turns to mush when you are stuck between a truck and a puddle in 9 feet of silk held together by pins. Churidars allow for freedom, and that wins over grace all the way. For my second shopping outing, I decided to get one less formal saree and another churidar. Sounds easy, does it not?

I visited Ambily’s home in Pala for the weekend. On Saturday we were taking a special road trip to Ernakulam for shopping. Ambily had just received her first paycheck in a year and had promised all the members of her family a special treat care of her. At the time, I did not know this was the goal of the day. We entered Saree Heaven. It was six stories of saree splendor; the world’s largest saree showroom, apparently. We quickly separated, Ambily, I could tell, had a mission to fulfill. I found the cheap saree rack and began digging, soon to find a salesperson at my elbow pulling from piles and showing me sarees. “Vendu,” I think I said it fifteen times until I looked at her and had to be honest, “I am very picky. I am a difficult customer. I am sorry.” She understood, smiled, but continued to throw sarees at me to my frustration. I knew what I wanted: Cheap price, good quality, unique pattern. She and I were not on the same wavelength. I finally found one I liked. “Venom” (I want this) and she seemed relieved. I then went to the churidar floor and things got worse. Another salesperson dragging out fabrics when I just wanted to browse in peace. I think I searched for an hour. Things were much more expensive than I had expected and I didn’t like the colors. After an hour with a salesperson, I felt awful saying, “Eh, no thanks” so I opted for a churidar that was out of my price range but very unique. Her relief could not be contained. She whisked me off to the cashier.

Two weeks later I have yet to get my new saree and churidar stitched. Maybe I am afraid of what unexpected debacle might occur. Maybe I do not want to open the bag and remember the day of shopping 9AM-5PM that got the better of me.

Thunder Storms and Sambar

I am sitting in a wicker chair in my room reading, “Globalization and its Discontents” and listening to the thunder of an impending storm. The rain will arrive, the power will go out, and people will either grow quiet and studious or become goofy and rambunctious. After the storm, the climate will cool, the still wet laundry in our rooms will smell mildewy and the power will return. The unpredictability of the storms lately fits well the mood of the last two weeks: tumultuous.

It started with a Students Federation of India (SFI), the communist political group, strike on-campus on the same day I had scheduled to interview the SFI leaders. The interview was cancelled; I knew when I heard flag-bearing SFI members chanting in a protest around campus. I saw a few SFI leaders take a padlock and lock the gate of the campus (the main and sole entrance and exit). I heard rumors of a “list of demands” and a “meeting with the principal.” Lunchtime arrived and the gate remained locked. I refused to miss my rice and sambar, so I marched myself to the gate. A familiar SFI face quickly opened the gate and let the American girl leave.

The next day I got the details. SFI demanded around twenty changes from the principal, most of which were reasonable and granted on the spot (a source of fresh water for students to drink on campus, for example). The gate was locked until the meeting adjourned around 2:30. The same day a teacher attempted suicide by drinking poison from one of the labs (not at all connected to SFI actions, it was a personal matter). The campus was buzzing.

My head started to hurt and my back ached, but there was so much to do! I left college early to meet one of the members of South East Asia Missions to help with the “Manna Mission,” which provides food for the people who can’t afford food during in-patient stays at a local government hospital. I arrived at the hostel and I was “five minutes too late,” Ammamma said. I was disappointed and frustrated. If I had arrived early, I would not have missed his phone call asking if I was still planning to come. I arrived on time, but by that time he assumed I was not coming. My head really began to hurt. I checked and realized I had a low fever, so I cancelled my afternoon activities and rested. By nightfall my fever was 101 degrees. The next morning it was 102.6 degrees. Off to the doctor I went, in a bumpy rickshaw no less. “Too much sun, “ some said, “too much walking,” others reprimanded. I think I was just sick and stressed. I received some magical medicines and returned to the doctor the next day feeling much better.

The next day, however, by night fall my head was in a bucket and my headache had returned full force. It was a mind-splitting, lights off, whispers only headache. Back to the doctor. “Too much sun,” “too much walking,” Ammamma and the students said. “Migraine,” I cried. “Gastrointestinal problems due to mango juice,” said the doctor. More medicine and my first buttocks injection.

Today I felt better. My headache is present and I am watching my food. The rice and sambar I had to escape to eat a few days ago doesn’t sound so good now. All of these events fall around Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. Somehow I was able to convince Ammamma to get fire-crackers and sparklers, a special treat for us at the hostel to celebrate. And even more miraculous, I was feeling fine on the night we set them off! My tumultuous two weeks, cushioned on both ends by a headache, fire-crackers in the center, ends with a thunderstorm.

The Simple Act of a Smile

I step out of the hostel’s black iron gate, the latch just within my short wing-span, and I imagine a joust beginning with a high pitched screech, “On Guard!” as I make my way cautiously. Dodging is an art form. The street may be empty when I step onto it, but within seconds two busses careening from either direction will come screaming towards me and I’m left in a ditch or a puddle. I’m an amateur. James Cameron in “An Indian Summer” describes a pro, “The solitary cyclist wobbling dreamily on the crown of the road 400 yards ahead, aroused by the horn, will falter and swerve for half a minute, undecided until the last second whether to weave wildly to the left or the right.” I remain baffled and impressed by anyone who can reach a state of “wobbling dreamily” on the roads of Mavelikara, but they do and they are the pros.

On my walk to the college I pass a neighbor’s house and wave wildly to an adorable little girl who seems to perpetually be waiting at her door for that moment, at least I like to think so. I cross the junction; the three intersecting roads are a danger zone to navigate. To the left is a bookstore, run by Vinasharam Sir, an ex-teacher of Hindi at the college. He speaks beautiful English but uses our few moments chatting to teach me Malayalam words. As I walk, gaggles of children clump together and giggle until someone says, “Hello Miss!” My response elicits shrieks of laughter and mini-tickle fests as they grope for each other’s hands. At first it was overwhelming, now it is fun. When else will I be able to so easily make people smile (even if it is at my expense)?

One afternoon I strolled past a temple on the way to the post office, pausing to listen to the women pray, and was approached by a woman who offered an explanation and walked with me for a bit. Our conversation was brief and conducted in choppy Malayalam, “What is your name?” I pronounced incorrectly. When I asked where she lives I very well may have asked how many monkeys live in Malaysia, but she understood and pointed, possibly to Malaysia. Further along I passed a small shack; puppies following their mother, a fire in the front area burning trash, two quasi-naked children chatting in Kidspeak (universal language) until they saw me and pointed in surprise. An ancient woman dressed in white smiled in response to my greeting, her only two teeth jutting out of her mouth precariously. She grabbed my arm and, gesturing emphatically, she explained the physics of flying and why the sky is blue, at least that is what I imagined. I simply pointed at the sky and said, “mazha” (rain) and she patted my arm with seeming pity. “Nadakunu” (walking) I said and she shrugged her shoulders as if to ask why. I returned the shrug, hoping to convey “why not?” and continued on my way with a smile and a “naani” (thank you). She laughed.

In the distance I heard evidence of a temple within reach. Drums and melody emanated from a speaker system, though from a distance it sounded like a lively band. I walked on and eventually passed a woman with a broom standing outside a house. She stared and I smiled, asking “Pali evide?” (Where’s the church?) She pointed, walked me to a path and waved goodbye. Another “naani” and a big smile. I followed the weaving path, surrounded on one side by smoking piles of burning trash and on the other a field of rubber trees being tapped. I never found the temple. My time ran out and I returned to the hostel before my curfew of 6:00PM, when the iron-gate with its barely reachable latch is locked.

Without these walks, I would never have discovered the small alleys that lead to beautiful rice-paddied country side. The village I call home quickly becomes flat and expansive; green palm trees and cinnamon soil glow in the heat and fade into deep orange with the suns disappearance. Dusk is glorious here. More importantly than missing a sun-drenched vista, I would have missed the conversations.

Father Chandler, the chaplain of the John Felice Rome Center where I worked the past two years said, probably while sharing with us a limoncello on the balcony, that life is made up of many meaningful conversations. At the end of the day it is not the work itself that was most important, it was the human interaction and the sense of community gained by sharing time with those around you; challenging each other and asking questions. “Look at us,” Peter says to the crippled beggar in Acts 3:4, a reminder to me of what I have in the past forgotten to do. It was easy for me to fall into a routine in Italy: study, work, eat, play, all the while forgetting to stop to talk to the man who fed the stray cats a can of tuna every day and the women who sang as they cleaned the building early every morning. I have been here only for a month and realized quickly that during my walks I return home content only if I have met new neighbors or recognized a smiling face. They acknowledged my presence and my humanity in that simple act of a smile. A powerful message and another “universal language.”

Enormous Elephant Ears

Upon my graduation from college I received many gifts. Cards, money, a party and a diploma that means more to me now than it did then. I also received a letter from my mother which, at the time, frustrated me in its formality. She congratulated me on my accomplishment and my young-womanhood and pronounced me independent financially. Today I was contemplating womanhood while shooting hoops on the hostels surprisingly impressive but sadly unused basketball court. I recalled receiving that letter and how I felt miffed at the necessity to declare me independent and the formality in which it was relayed, but I realized today that I feel lucky to have been granted that liberty. My mother never stopped supporting me emotionally, with indubitable patience considering how I scooted out of the country after graduation and have not yet officially returned. I do not feel completely independent; she offers more financial help than I expected and I am chagrined to admit that I have yet to do my own taxes. But that letter is physical evidence of the independence I have that the Indian women I have met do not.

On Saturday, September 23 the hostel hosted a special “Career-Counseling” Seminar. I sat in the front, feeling moderately self-conscious knowing that the seminar was in Malayalam and the lecturer was aware of my ignorance of the language. I soon realized that “Career-Counseling,” meant something quite different from what I expected. I will not recapitulate his entire lecture. Rather, I will tell you the responses of students when I asked later that evening after dinner, “What did you like best about the seminar today?”

Well, he explained to us that men stare at women because they have tunnel vision whereas we have peripheral vision, therefore they need to look longer at everything they see. He used sketches of the brain and the theory of an American doctor to show us that men think most about sex whereas women think about many other things, but he reiterated that sex is important in a marriage and a women should give up her body to her husband. He explained that the vast difference between men and women lies in women being relationship focused while men are achievement focused. He reminded us that women cannot be best friends with other women because women gossip and are jealous. American doctors have proven that if men shop for more than twenty minutes, they are likely to suffer a brain hemorrhage whereas women can shop for hours, this being proof of our patience. Women also talk more than men (“Consider it a positive thing,” he reassured the students). In fact, studies show that when men say 2,000 words, women say 7,000 (no specific time frame provided that of which I am aware). The young women laughed at his jokes and antics, they nodded at his theories and gulped up each graph he showed.

After reading authors like Silvia Plath, Susan Faludi and Bell Hooks, I wonder how to fit this experience into my growing understanding of womanhood in the year 2006. I struggled during that seminar, at points almost in tears of rage as he showed graphs and knowledgably quoted American doctors. All the while wondering, how dare I attempt to place my feminist beliefs in this cultural context? Yet how do I digest what I am experiencing now without comparison? How will I approach these young women, who will inevitably ask for my opinion?

I deflected.

“It was powerful. What did you think?” In asking that question I learned things that would have never come up in casual conversation with these young women. They admitted to feelings of fear about the future, fears that made me understand better why the lecturer’s words resonated for them. My opinion does not matter here (I will write them in my journal and close it at the end of the day). I allowed myself to ask two very specific and, admittedly, personal and difficult questions. “Does the idea of ‘giving your body to your husband’ upon marriage frighten you?” The young women said that they must trust their parents to find a good husband. They said that many women are married to men who treat them well and care for them. They did not necessarily feel frightened about that in particular, it is their duty. My second question was, “I heard you say you cannot go out after 6PM for fear of what men may do to you or what people will say about you walking around at night. If your safety relies on the actions of men, do you ask men to change?” The answer to this was jumbled. It reiterated what I have heard resoundingly from young women so far, “People might talk.” They seemed to feel that men cannot change, that it is better for women to stay inside for fear of their safety.

Coincidentally, a few days before this seminar, I had finished Elizabeth Bumiller’s “May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons,” a book published in 1990 that reflects on her interviews with hundreds of women in India during a stay of three years. In the last chapter, Bumiller writes, “I have learned that to write about women in India is to write about their problems of work, marriage, children, poverty and aging—problems that are not unique to India but are rooted in any society’s definition of womanhood…This book was my mission—to inform, to enlighten, and to prove that the women of India are more like us than they are not.”

Something I learned from performing in the The Vagina Monologues, from reading novels and the newspaper and from the OnCall program at Loyola is the importance of each person’s story. Maybe my feminist-self is best positioned with a closed yapper and elephant ears (which are enormous, I know this now!). I have the opportunity to get to know a cross-section of India’s women here in my new hostel of a home. Young women from all castes, educational backgrounds and financial situations are my neighbors. From them I can better understand the situation of India’s women, and even more importantly I will learn about their passions, visions and fears for the future.

I let my opinions rest in one statement at the end of our conversation, “I hope for each of you a loving husband who respects you.” The young women in the hostel will probably not receive from their parents the gift that I did, of independence, and my frustration for their situation will probably not cease. In the end, I think I understand better the idea of “accompaniment” now.

Searching for Social Justice

Today one of my favorite Lower Primary students (4th standard), Ashwati, came into the office with tears streaming down her face. She had a toothache. I had previously told Beena Miss, one of the teachers, that I wanted to visit the homes and meet the families of my students, so she invited me to join her to take Ashwati home in an auto-rickshaw. We drove off the main road and onto the tiny dirt path that winds through the Dalit colony. Her home is a few yards from the dirt path. A hut made with cement walls and a holey thatched roof that leaks in the rain. Three small rooms, beds everywhere to fit the entire family; Ashwati and her two sisters, her mother who is a heart patient and her grandmother who works as a cook for three families (I cannot fathom the time it must take to cook for three families). Ashwati told me once, “Father illa” (No Father), so I responded, “Njaan Father illa” (Me no Father). Ashwati’s father left her mother for another woman, my father passed away when I a bit younger than Ashwati.

Ashwati dances. She calls to me, “Miss! Miss!” takes my hand in hers and leads me to an open area of the school or to the shade of the one large tree in the schoolyard. She brings me a seat or points to a spot to sit and then she dances. The children soon form a circle around her, the boys pop their heads in and show off a bit (but no one can dance better than Ashwati) and the girls clap their hands and play with my hair. All of these children are Dalits. All of these children live in tiny cement homes with a roof that leaks and an outdoor latrine.

I am angry. I am angry about the bribe my friend feels obligated to pay to ensure she’ll receive future paychecks from the university burser. I am angry that some Christians feel evangelism is a necessary part of “serving” the community; a bowl of rice isn’t really free. I am angry that the elementary student with down syndrome will face years of abuse from his peers under the eyes of oblivious teachers; I am angry, more than anything else, because no one else seems to be.

I have taken people off-guard with my forcefully announced opinions, but in the past I have also sensed disappointment from others when I sat silent and unmoved. Passionate believes must simmer before they erupt. I am struggling with how I can teach my students about “leadership,” “vision,” and “social change,” themes throughout my high school and college learning that helped me in my path to self-actualization. I sense a lack of social duty on the part of many students with whom I speak. Their college experience is not one where they debate and discuss “burning issues,” rather they listen to lectures. They are not expected to critically analyze what they study, they are supposed to memorize it. Is it any surprise then, that that on Gandhi’s birthday, the college’s National Service Scheme (NSS) chose to clean the front lawn of the District Court instead of installing fans in the local Lower Primary school (though they did receive from the attorney’s a pretty plaque and “points” for their NSS team). When NSS ate a snack at the District Court, they left their paper plates strewn on the lawn to the left of the kitchen. Where is the thought connected to their intended service project? I was asked by one of the District Court judges if Americans have programs such as NSS, but his mind was already made up when he asked, “Americans do not do things like this, do they?”

My brother built houses in Appalacchia. My mother has the wisdom only possibly attained during a career as a social worker. My college mentor inspires young people to discover “where you true passion and the worlds deep hunger meet.” My pastor spent time working on a Southside Ministry in Madison, WI with a community forgotten by the self-heralded city of which it is a part. My previous boss teaches the first service-learning class at the John Felice Rome Center, where up to twenty-five Americans volunteer through out Rome, experiencing a Roman reality that all tourists obliviously miss. I am proud of the Americans I know who are doing service all around the globe.

My college students are pressured by their parents to study a topic that will earn them the best prospects. One student is studying a science but would much rather study Social Work; she said she must convince her parents to let her. My students define “leader,” as someone who is politically active, like Sonia Gandhi, but stared blankly when I asked in what ways they consider themselves to be leaders. They are never asked to consider that.

Ani DiFranco, the American folk singer, says it bluntly, “If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, you don’t care.” Anger, maybe especially in the United States, is a red-hot “no-no.” Emotions that are associated with tension are repressed. Men shouldn’t cry and women who are angry are just being “hysterical”. But what drives hunger strikes? What impels hundreds of people from all backgrounds to march across the countryside for hours in protest until they reach the guarded site of the Narmada Dam, which will submerge their farmland and homes in water? I think it was anger; anger that encourages positive, constructive action. Anger that inspired change. Untapped anger undoubtedly can be a dangerous, explosive emotion. But let us not deny the positive power of the kernel of anger that allows us to act, to sing, to read, to write, to organize—in order to make change.

I am glad that I feel anger; if I was not angry about some of the injustice I witness each day, I would be horrendously oblivious to my surroundings and my neighbors. My anger, not violent, aggressive anger but rather anger based on my compassion for the injustice my neighbors face, fires my faith into action.

Reality Like a Rickshaw Ride

We hopped into a seven-person van and drove three hours south to the Christian Student Movement conference on Life, Faith and Education, watching the scenery change back and forth from hectic street-life to rice paddies. Thomas John “Achen” was asked to lead a day of the conference. We were looking forward to our first opportunity to engage with Indian college students. We knew Achen to be an engaging speaker and trusted it would be an invigorating, challenging day. The five of us spread out among the students at the conference, smiling as Achen was introduced, and listened patiently through the morning of Malayalam (of which we all knew about two words). Achen brought up the topic of globalization and asked us to break into small groups. We were asked to discuss globalization in our group. After much confusion and some semi-formal and awkward introductions, the discussion in my group began as all eyes fell on me and one of the students asked, in beautiful English, “What do you think about the issue of globalization?”
Two issues at the forefront of Kerala’s politics are the current and recent ban in Kerala of Cola-Cola, which includes an on-going dispute over the factory use and contamination of water as well as the health alerts against the product itself. The second issue is the number of farmers committing suicide due to excessive loans and a lack of support on many levels from the Indian government. What can I, an American who just arrived in India, say to a group of Indian students? They began to list examples in Malayalam and translated a few for me, a humbling project in many respects. I was thrown in the pot much sooner than I had anticipated.

Anticipation is a dangerous thing. My image of India was based mainly on stimulating, color photos and the India Standard Buffet on Belmont in Chicago, as well as some delicious novels and museum exhibitions. Alain de Botton in “The Art of Travel” said of anticipation, “…those eyes were intimately tied to a body and mind that would travel with me wherever I went and that might, over time, assert their presence in ways that would threaten or even negate the purpose of what the eyes had come there to see.” It was at the conference that I realized my need to set aside all images I had of India previously in order to leave some blank space to be filled. I am here to learn: from my supervisors, from the women who concoct every curried meal I eat, from Mrs Lelamma my Malayalam tutor, and from my elementary-aged and college-aged students.

Botton says, “Journeys are the midwives of thought.” I already recognize, in the short time I’ve been here, that my mind is processing the world around me in a new way. Questions arise that I would have never asked in other circumstances. I have changed my lifestyle to best engross myself in Indian culture. My interpretation of books is through a newly forming lens. I struggle with aspects of my American lifestyle, something I can never completely leave behind, as I learn what I have taken for granted (much more than I realized).

My day is scheduled around four main events: breakfast (curry), lunch (curry), tea and dinner (curry). All consumed in haste and with only quiet chatter between juicy bites. I feel ridiculous when my stomach grumbles before dinner, realizing that after the meal I will have to stand up with difficulty to wash my tasty fingers. Surplus is causing a bigger struggle for me than I anticipated. I packed too much (two carry-on sized pieces filled with three outfits and books). I eat seconds and sometimes thirds of rice-based meals. The rupee is half the worth of the dollar. I have a very expensive plane ticket home hiding in my sturdy suitcase. I am a walking symbol of abundance. How do I lead a simple life while I remain entrenched by the surplus I thought I had left? How will I lead a simple life when I return to the U.S.?

“Living simply is not enough,” Achen challenges us. One must act. Don’t allow your surplus to just “trickle-down” (that sentiment was reiterated in a political cartoon in a recent copy of The Hindu, a national English newspaper). Act. Engage in change. “Be the change,” as Andy quotes, one of the volunteers who is notably articulate and concise. The question remains for me, what can I Do here in India?

During the Global Missions training in Chicago from August 19-29, Isaiah 42:20 was mentioned by Rev. Rafael Malpica-Padilla. “He sees many things, but does no observe them; his ears are open but he does not hear.” I am no expert. In my vulnerability I am able to learn best. I may not be able to necessarily act on the frustrations that confront me; I will not change the world. I can attempt to engage the students I am learning from, helping them to learn English as I learn from what they are articulating. One of the teachers at Bishop Moore reminded me that in India it is very difficult for young people to find jobs (as it was in Italy as well). Knowing English enables mobility, allowing a person from Kerala who speaks Malayalam to move to another state in India where a different language is recognized and dialects abound. The difficult part will not be the teaching, it will be the vulnerability.

My pre-trip butterflies have been replaced with double-boiled rice and payasam, as my previously anticipated images are being replaced with reality like a rickshaw ride (speedily and haphazardly). Creating an empty space is a conscious part of every day, so that I may best “observe and hear” the people from whom I am learning.

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Traveling Without a Map

I was scared to move from the second grade to the third grade. Not scared because of new teachers and harder subjects. I was scared because the third grade classrooms were located in a different hallway. A hallway I had never ventured in previously. I didn’t know what older-kid ghoulies and ghosties were lurking in the corners of the big-kid wing. My elementary school had two main hallways. Looking back on it now, it was probably the most easy transition life offers. But I wanted a map. So, my mom and my pastor sat down patiently with me and they created a 2-hallway map of my school. I made it, map-in-hand, and now I’m looking at another map and a new transition.

Folders upon notebooks of information cannot help prepare me emotionally and mentally for my move to India. I feel excited and, as each day passes, increasingly filled with tummy butterflies. The difficulty I find in answering the universal question, “How are you preparing for a year in India,” may be indicative of the growing swarm of fluttering friends in my stomach.

I think about what it will be like to return to the States.

I returned to the U.S. after two years working in Rome, Italy on the first of August. As I ate my first meal upon returning to the states, a mushroom-swiss burger at Michael’s Frozen Custard, I was still registering that the Capitolo Italia of my life was over. I’ve found myself overwhelmed with little things: the uninhibited nature noises in the backyard, the amount of clothing in my storage bins, the novelty of taking a shower in a private bathroom as opposed to a communal bathroom full of students. I realize that I will do this all over again when I return from India and it will be completely different than the adjustments I am laughing through now.

I read.

Nothing eases my mind in a time of transition like the opening up a book I’m halfway through, the comfort-zone where the end isn’t yet in sight and the beginning introductions are long behind. In Gita Mehta’s book, Snakes and Ladders, she quotes a passage Mark Twain wrote during his nineteenth century visit to India:

The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two millions gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the moldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the sole country under the sun that is endowed with imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and food, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for shows of all the rest of the globe combined.

People talk about India being a Sensory-Overload Experience: thefood thesmells thenoises thepeople themovement. It assails you when you are least prepared. Just as Mark Twain describes the juxtaposition of opposites that he found during his travels, I hope to entrench myself in the complexity of the culture and leave with a special understanding after my time in India – a gift for any traveler and global citizen. Maybe the best way to prepare myself for this year is to be ready to be unprepared, to come without expectations. A lesson in patience and willingness to be taught by those around me.

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