Saturday, July 23, 2016

Writing letters

I often really wish I lived in a time when people still wrote letters. I'm not very good at a lot of things, but—for what it's worth—I think I write some pretty decent letters.

Like most people, though, I haven't sent a letter in years.

It's not that the new mediums that we use don't have a space for written communication. In fact, I really appreciate the fact that I almost never have to talk on the phone now. It's just that when it comes to saying anything that's half-important, I don't think being a really good text-message writer gets me nearly as far in life as being a really good letter writer would have.

I think there are a couple reasons for this.

The first is obvious I think: it just takes some effort to write and send a letter, so the fact that you did it lends an amount of authority to whatever it was you were trying to say. At the same time, sitting down to read and understand a letter takes some effort as well, and knowing that I'm asking that commitment of someone usually causes me to think harder about how I'm trying to say whatever it is I'm trying to say.

There's another reason, though, that I think is even more important. Letters are just a longer form of writing than we use for any kind of personal communication today. And, while I don't deny there's an art form in writing devastatingly concise tweets, I think being able to wrestle with thoughts and ideas through a long-form letter, in which you actually take the time to care for all the premises and assumptions and room for misunderstanding or hurt feelings that get thrown to the wind in the text message, and then still ultimately say exactly what you want to, is incomparably better.

It's like being a master go-kart driver, vs. a master F-1 driver.

Of course, there are exceptional situations where I send someone a 200+ word email or Facebook message. But those are extremely rare, and I always feel like it's awkward afterword, like "why didn't we just have a chat about this? The technology is there."

But I'm really bad at having chats. So where in another place and time, expressing a complicated series of thoughts or emotions to someone in writing would have been a great skill, I feel like now it's inevitably just seen as something that I hide behind. Because, really, in light of how quickly and easily I could talk to anyone at anytime, it really is.

Alas.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Leaving

I used to think that I was addicted to going places, but more recently I've come to realize that the addiction is really to leaving them. These days there's almost no sense of elation like the one that I get when the plane lifts off, or the border checkpoint disappears in the rear-view-mirror, or I charge up the on-ramp like all the hordes of hell are in pursuit of my subcompact.

To be fair, a lot of the places that I've been recently were places most people would be excited to leave, and there was often a good deal of question leading up to the departure as to whether it would even happen. On the way out of Juba I was completely non-metaphorically being hounded by plainclothes police as I made each step of the quarter mile walk from the terminal [line of shipping containers] to the Egypt Air jumbo jet which looked absurdly as if it had fallen from the sky and landed in the middle of nowhere [it basically had]. But then, I can't remember a more collectively ecstatic feeling in a plane cabin than the few moments after we somehow got airborne.

It got to the point that I almost craved going rough places just because how I knew it would feel to leave.

It's not just the really obviously rough places, though. It's anywhere that there's any hurt, or disappointment, or anxiety. And unfortunately, that's everywhere that I've found yet. Which is why I can't seem to stop.

It's not that I have any pretenses about the grass being greener on the other side. I know it's not, and even if it were I'd still be the same person when I got there, which really makes it pointless. But that doesn't change anything about how good it feels to leave.

There's a part of me that hopes eventually I'll find something that makes staying worth it, but there's another part of me that has no intention of even looking for it.

So on it goes. 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Our response to tragedy

Three weeks ago I came back the the US for the first time after nearly two years in Lebanon. I spent the first two weeks with my immediate family, but now I'm on a somewhat spontaneous zigzag across the country to reconnect with extended family and old friends. As I'm introduced to new people along the way, the subject of where I spent the last 22 month inevitably comes up. When it's not greeted by blank stares, it's usually responded to by something like: "Well thank God you made it back here safe!" I always taste a little bit of irony on the air whenever I hear that, but last night, it was especially strong.

I was sitting on a sagging overstuffed couch in the dimly lit interior of an eclectically antique-themed establishment in an eclectically antique-themed town in north Texas. I was with some old friends who moved there years ago, catching up on life.

At some point, the conversation was broken when my friend started getting local news alerts that there had been a mass shooting of police officers 30 miles south in Dallas. While the details were still fuzzy, it was clear within the next couple of hours that close to a dozen policemen had been shot by sniper[s] at a Black Lives Matter event.

I'd been vaguely aware of the several police shootings over the previous 24 hours (not to mention years) that had triggered the event. These, taken together with meeting several people at my previous stop in Orlando last week who had lost friends at the Pulse night club shooting, made the recent wave of "glad you're back safe" sentiments seem especially ridiculous to me. So I took to that post-modern acropolis of public discourse known as Facebook with the following words:

Pretty sure more people were shot in the last hour here than in the whole two years I was in Beirut. Thank goodness I made it back to America safe.

Like most things things I write when I've been drinking, it was not entirely accurate—but at the same time scratched at the surface of something deeper that I've been feeling but wouldn't have otherwise ever talked about.

Lebanon is a violent place in its own way—even if the violence looks and happens differently than it does here. And in many ways it's a socially and racially fractured society that rivals or surpasses even the most divided parts of the US. There wasn't a functioning government during the entire time that I spent there, and mounds a garbage were piling up on the streets and sidewalks—making it difficult for the powers-that-be to park their Range Rovers and Ferraris, and creating a massive health hazard for everyone who had to walk. There were over a million refugee's in the country from the war in Syria without work, and a permanent underclass of African and south Asians who were brought in to do the jobs no one else would do and then became stuck there without any legal rights or protection from basic crime and abuse.

The first year that I was there, I occasionally got overwhelmed by it all and wondered how people couldn't just stop everything they were doing and cry. But somehow no matter how dysfunctional things continued to get, everyone just went about their business as usual with the same goals, the same seemingly petty quarrels and the same contentment with the same theories to explain the way things were. People stuck to the same political parties and leaders that were developed during the war in the 80s even though they were doing nothing to address the issues facing the country now. Perhaps that's a kind of resilience that lets people survive bad situations that refuse to change, but I think it's also the blindness that keeps them from changing.

As I've said before though, it wasn't my country, and I didn't think it was my place to judge or even to be one of the people calling for a reevaluation of things.

But America is my country—I care about it—and over these past three weeks, I've started to have the same feeling here. That's what really hit me last night.

We are getting hit again and again and again by ever worsening violence. Events small and large that should cause our communities and country to be overwhelmed with grief. That should cause us to look inside ourselves and ask how we have been part of creating a society where these things happen. That should cause us to reevaluate everything that we think.

But instead, the opposite is happening. Instead of grief, our first response is defensiveness. Instead of introspection, we are drawing battle lines. Instead of reevaluating what we think, we are just clinging harder and harder to the beliefs, parties and leaders that are obviously failing to address the problems that we face in this country today. You can hear it on the news. You can see it in the mindless demagogues that we've selected for the next election. You can feel it and taste it in how people relate to each other in public.

This place is going to hell just as fast as any scary far away place you see on TV. I can say that with certainty, not because I understand the issues that it's facing, but because I can fully and totally understand our response to them. And the response is ultimately what determines where we go from here.

So I'm asking today: Are we really so sure of our beliefs that we are willing to let others die before we reconsider them? Do we really care so little for each other that we can go about our business as usual as things slide further and further out of control? Can we really not set aside our opinions long enough to even recognize the pain of a tragedy and cry about it?

I think our future depends quite a bit on our answers to those questions.



Monday, June 20, 2016

I think I have a problem

Today I walked into the Corelle store just down the hill from my parent's house to buy a frying pan. The woman working at the store asked me if I needed help with anything, and I said I was just looking around because of [total falsehood]. After selecting the frying pan, and checking out, she asked me why I was in Corning, and I told her that [outright lie]. It wasn't until I was walking out the door that I asked myself: "Why on earth did you just do that?"

For most of my life I've felt like an extremely honest person. I'm beginning to fear, though, that when it comes answering any kind of question about myself to a stranger, I've become a pathological liar.

Let me explain.

For the first 25 years of my life, I could say that I didn't think I'd I've ever told a lie to anyone. That was until I moved to the Middle East, where it became a matter of legal necessity. The very first sentence that I uttered to the immigration officer was a bold-faced lie—a lie that then needed to be true for the next 22 months. And it felt terrible.

At least, in the beginning it felt terrible. I would do almost anything to avert conversations from topics that I knew I would have to answer untruthfully about. When it inevitably did come up, I think it made the people who asked it sorry that they had, simply because of how visibly uncomfortable I became.

Over time, though, it got easier. Eventually to the point that I would do it not because it was necessary, but just because it was convenient. And awhile after that, because it was fun.

Over those couple years, I went from not being able to bend the truth slightly without my voice breaking to being able to look anyone steadily in the eyes and tell them the most outlandish nonsense

"I'd love to give you a decision right now, but if I don't talk about it with my wife it'll be a problem. Know what I mean?

"Canadian."

"Of course I work here."

"He must have misunderstood me. I said I'm working hard—on Arabic, of coursenot 'working here.'

"Swedish."

"I don't know if my girlfriend would be comfortable with this."

"That's interesting. Maybe I'll put it in my thesis."

"Retired."

"I'll talk to my friends and see if they're up for it."

"Yeah, I can't believe you guessed that! Little village right outside of Berlin."

"Two years."

"Two weeks."

"I have friends there."

"Russian."

"Don't worry, my partner is the same way."

"I'm with the Church."

"Doing some volunteering."

"Love to, but I'm getting lunch with someone."

"A Scandinavian NGO, but they only hire Americans, and they don't have a website."

"Of course I'm a spy, all the foreigners are!"

"You know even if that were true I couldn't tell you."

I had a reality for neighbors, a reality for landlords, a reality for taxi drivers, a reality for people I met out, a reality for people I knew would assume I was lying, a reality for classmates, a reality for the secret police, and lots of others that I eventually got good at making up on the fly for people I was fairly certain I'd never see again.

And it was fun. But the incident at the Corelle store makes me think I may be in need of rehab. 


Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Some thoughts on traveling, writing & living

I've heard many times––and I think I've heard it attributed to multiple sources––that travel is the best education. That may be true, but I no longer think that it's true in the same way that I used to. Back then, before I started all of this madness that's been the last two years of my life, I thought travel was going to teach me about the world. What I realize now is that for me at least that's rarely the case. Visiting a place for a few days, weeks or even months is enough to give a a different perspective on your own world, but I'm afraid now that the only way to really begin to understand another place is to live there, probably for a really long time.

In short, I think traveling educates you, but it educates you more about the people you travel with than where you actually go. All the better if you do it alone, because then it educates you about yourself.

Looking back at the last couple years, I think maybe the greatest tragedy in my own life is that I didn't write more about them. Now, though, I think I'm beginning to understand that there was a reason for it. First was one that I've talked about before. That's the fact that it's hard to write about your life when you start to lose track of your own identity. That happened, and I think I'm only now––maybe––starting to recover a little. The second though, and I think more difficult, is that it's hard for me to write about a place unless I know it, and as I said above, I think I'm starting to realize that knowing a place is a much more involved process than I'd believed.

When I look back at all of the things I've written before, I think (for whatever that's worth) that some of the strongest stuff was the year just before I left on this mad adventure across the Middle East. During that year, I was just at home in the woods of north Pennsylvania. It was the place I'd grown up. Sure I'd gone away for a couple years to college and traveled around Europe once, but that only served to make it feel even more mundane of a place. Yet, when I look at what I was inspired to write about it, it's much more authoritative and evocative, and even more importantly, honest, than anything I've been able to write since. And I think that's because it was home. 

My first year traveling abroad after that, I tried to keep writing, but I felt either too overwhelmed to do it, or worse, dishonest when I did. Because the fact is: I can't know what a place is like, or even understand what's happening there by just passing through it. Sure it's one better than reading Wikipedia or the CIA World Factbook on it, but you can't know it. Not until you've spent a good long time walking––if not quite in the shoes of the people who live there––then at least close beside them. Until you've gone through the highs and the lows and everything in between in a place, and perhaps most importantly of all, been there long enough to see it change over time and most, most importantly see yourself change over the time you've been there, then you can't really know it. And I can't honestly write about a place that I don't know. I've tried and I've failed.

Coming up on two years of being based in Beirut, I feel like I might just now be ready to ever-so-gingerly dip a toe back into having some kind of commentary on it. Even that with the greatest caution, because I realize at the end of the day, I'm still only a guest here.

In the end, I'm not sure if this all leaves me with a feeling of hope or despair. It's desperate because I now realize it's a lot harder to write about myself or the world that I'm somehow a part of than I ever thought it would be. But it also has a twinge of hope, because it means that––for me at least––the most important things to think about and invest in and maybe, eventually, to write about, aren't the far away and unattainable things, but rather the things and people who are closest to me, wherever I am.

Monday, May 02, 2016

An angry old man rant

On the way home this evening I walked into a bar with my roommate. I ordered a tonic water, and specified in these words "Tonic water. Like, just a tonic water––no alcohol in it, please," at which point the waiter looked at me as if I'd walked into McDonalds and ordered the ketchup, mayonnaise and pickles without the burger or bun, and then nodded and went away.

So sitting there a few minutes later, halfway through the drink that they'd somehow managed to completely botch––though probably for the better, as it turned out––three cute twenty-something girls walked in and sat at the table next to us. A few minutes went by, and I did a double-take when I realized the girl in the corner was staring directly at me. On the second pass, though, I realized she was wearing a Samsung Galaxy Oculus™VR headset. And I had one of those ever-more-frequent "what is this world that I've inherited?" moments.

Like, seriously, it wasn't always really this bad, was it?

Or at least not this insulting? Like, why do I even leave my house anymore? I think tomorrow I will just stay home and make Snapchats about swiping through Tinder with the total end goal of getting more people to add me on Snapchat.

I know that every generation has its own way of doing things, and that ten years ago someone would probably have pointed out the irony of taking to a medium of communication called a "blog" to express my discontent with being stared at across the bar by attractive women who are really chasing fluorescent bunnies through swarms of killer butterflies or watching a 360 video of Justin Bieber brushing his teeth, but I really can't help but think that it's worse.

Or maybe I just got old before my time.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The problem with the world

A few weeks ago I was in Erbil and having a conversation with a guy who works for a political research firm there. I’d just got back from four days of running around IDP camps up north and was exhausted and a little bit ill from a medication I was on. I’d decided to stay back and sleep when my friends went out that night, but somehow ended up spending most of the evening up chatting with this fellow, who was extremely knowledgable about regional politics.

Toward then end, the subject of where I’d just been came up, and he wondered how my time in the camps had gone. I said it was good, but kind of emotionally exhausting, to which he replied: “Kind of makes you realize how good you have it, doesn’t it?”

I nodded, said goodnight, and then finally went off to find somewhere to sleep, but there was something in his question that seemed unsettling to me. It represents the way that almost everyone I’ve ever talked to reacts to situations of extreme suffering––and it’s a reaction that I’ve always been vaguely unsettled by. Somehow, in the few minutes before I dozed off on the floor of the adjacent room, I was able to articulate for the first time what is unsettling to me about it.

Our tendency as humans is to use ourselves as the first reference point for reality––and so see the situation of everyone else in the world through the lenses of either envy, guilt or relief. We see the problem with people who are worse off than us as being that they are worse off than us, and our problem as being that we are worse off than those who are better off.

The problem, as I see it though, isn’t that at all. It’s that the world is full of agony. And that should be cause for great sadness. Sadness for the whole world and all of us in it. That’s mostly what I feel when I find myself surrounded by relatively great suffering. To feel lucky seems somehow wrong to me. Lucky for what? That we’re all on a miserable planet, and my corner is a little bit better? That we’re all bleeding out, but I’m bleeding out a little slower?

Is pondering the fate of “all the children starving in Africa” really the answer to not wanting to eat my vegetables, and people in Afghanistan who had limbs shredded by landmines the solution to my body-image problem?

Is there not something deeply perverse about deriving a sense of thankfulness from this? Not to even speak of a sense of contentment.

I guess in some cases, this feeling might be used in a positive way––if it causes us to ask why? Or what can we do to change this? Rather than settle into awareness-based satisfaction about our vegetables and levels of attractiveness (and, in all fairness, this may have been the way the guy I was talking to meant it).

More and more good work these days is driven by ideas of “justice” and fighting “inequity”––and if the idea that there are people out there burning faster than us is a more powerful motive to give money or time or influence than the simple fact that there are people out there burning, then I won’t say anything bad about it.

Still, when I’m surrounded by, stepping over and sprayed with someone else’ suffering, I don’t think I’ll ever be capable of saying: “I now see that my world is this much brighter.” Instead I just see the world as being that much darker.

And I think realizing just how dark our world is and that we all live in it together for however brief a moment in time is, in the end, not just a reason to try and help each other when we see that we’re drowning slower than the person we’re next to, but also to try to be more generous with each other (and ourselves) in the inevitable disappointments and conflicts that we have with each other living in a world like this.