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.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

I've stopped blogging - and it makes me sad

Next month would've marked the 10th anniversary of my writing on this blog. When I uploaded my first post nearly ten years ago––something about an unsuccessful day of attempting to shoot deer in the woods on my grandpa's farm––I could've hardly imagined what a big part of my life journey it would end up being. The good times, the not-good times, the questions, the adventures, the failures, the triumphs and the in-between that most of life is actually comprised of, nearly all got processed, celebrated or vented through blogging. And this blog was always the venue.

I say "would've marked the 10th anniversary," because, very sadly and unexpectedly––most of all to myself––my days of writing on this blog have come to an end. It's not an announcement so much as just an observation: I've stopped writing. I just went two straight months without a word––in the 9 years previous I'd never gone more than two weeks.

When I left the US and set off on this adventure a little over a year ago, I had high hopes for writing about my travels, experiences, and the people I got to know along the way. What I didn't quite foresee, though, is that doing all those things would have some side-affects. One of those was losing my ability to really be completely open with anyone.

Being funny, informative and insightful were all things that I strove for––successfully or not––in what I wrote on this blog over the years. In the end, though, those weren't ever really the object. The object was to be open and honest about my life––struggles, questions and frustrations not withstanding.

These days though, my life has become complicated. I've become a lot of different things to a lot of different groups, and––tragically at times––a lot depends on me being those things.

And if you're sitting there reading this thinking: "I know exactly what he's talking about," you probably shouldn't be so sure. It's not a situation where one group knows everything and the others know something. You probably know something. The list of people I can really level with is getting desperately short.

The great tragedy of the whole situation is that it doesn't leave much room at all for open and honest writing.

It just keeps getting more and more difficult––and so I've done it less and less.

I suppose I could just go on and try to write funny, informative or insightful posts about happenstance things without plumbing the depths of my soul too deep or communicating anything meaningful about my hopes, fears or plans.

But like I said, those things aren't the point. I believe being open with each other as people is one of the most important and basic things we can do. And more than that, regardless of whatever kind of ludicrousness I've got wrapped up in lately, being honest is still a part of who I am as a person. If keeping that comes down to just not saying anything, then I guess I should be prepared to do that.

So it's with a certain amount of sadness that, on the eve of ten years of blogging, I have to say that I've officially stopped.

Hopefully it's more of a hibernation than a retirement. It may well be that in a year or two things will be clearer than they are now.

At any rate, thanks for reading.

Andrew

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My desires, reality & battleships in the desert

"Well, we're in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we're gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?"

The quote is from the character Al the film Sahara. When I first watched the movie I was 15 or 16 and the line stood out to me because I thought it was funny. If I could've only known then that there would be quite a number of times in the future when I could apply it just about as aptly to my own life.

Like the heroes in the movie, it's not infrequent that I find myself pursuing seemingly unobtainable desires through haphazard or even irrational strategies. Whether in my education, my dating life or my career; the last few years of my life have been an adventure. Some parts of it might almost give the film a run for its money.

Sitting down right now and "re-evaluating [my] decision-making paradigm," I have to ask myself some hard questions (if I may burden you with some details).

In the amount of time I spent studying for and taking the FSOT, the LSAT, the ASTB etc, I could've probably filled out applications for about 1,927 jobs/grad programs that I was more likely to get.  Why didn't I?

In the amount of hours of Arabic instruction I've had, I could've probably been at least respectably conversational in––say––Portuguese. Why didn't I study Portuguese?

I'm currently living in a place that, while friendly enough, I know by now will never really accept me, no matter what I do. Why here?

So, like Sahara, it's been an adventure.

Unlike the heroes in the movie, though, I have yet to find my Civil War gunship in a desert and corresponding river pollutant source––if I may use such an unwieldy metaphor.

Like most people, I try to pursue the things I desire to do and the things I feel are right to do. Unfortunately, it seems for me that those things are almost always unobtainable things. And, whether for lack of aptitude, focus or some moral flaw, I tend to go about pursuing them in rather irrational ways.

Again, it is an adventure. One that may look kind of exciting from far away. The reality is, though, there have been many, many times I wished I could be the guy who wanted to do something he was actually good at, was good at something society presently needs enough to make a living doing it, fell in love the first time with a girl who loved him back.... etc.

Maybe my desires themselves are the problem. It may be deep down I'm a romantic with pretentious visions of grandeur that are not only impossible but also ridiculous. Maybe I just need to learn to settle for things someone with my IQ, my body, my family connections should actually hope to accomplish.

Or could it be that, for now at least, I'm supposed to be finding fulfillment in the adventure itself? I kind of like that idea, but it's hard in practice.

And what if the adventure of pursuing unobtainable goals becomes/has become the thing I desire more than the actual goals themselves? That's one that really bothers me.

As usual, I have no answers for Al. Only the reality we're in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert.

Will we actually find it? Maybe someday.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Disappointment

I’m so easily disappointed. And it’s terrible. 

The reality is I have an amazingly unique, exciting life. For the past nine months I’ve got to go a lot of places most people from my background only know vaguely as names on a map. I’ve had the opportunity to get to meet tons of terrific individuals who are culturally, intellectually and spiritually way out of my league, but who still generally take an interest in getting to know me as well. More than that, I’m surrounded by people who care about me and think probably much more of me than they should. 

Forget about comparing myself to other people “of my background.” Just compare me to me 10 months ago. If myself 10 months ago could’ve seen what he’s doing now, I’m pretty sure he’d have been thrilled. 

10 months ago I was extremely discontent (and a number of people said with good reason). Given the massive differences in my own little world between now and then, though, shouldn’t I be significantly more content now than I was then? Perhaps at moments I am. But at at least as many other moments, I’m not. 

Where in my previous life, I got crushingly disappointed by things like getting rejected from the job I’d wanted since my sophomore year of college, getting broken up with, etc, I’m sometimes afraid I now get crushingly disappointed by the not-happening of things that, back then, I could have imagined only as the most abstract fantasies. 

I now find it easy to be completely bored with days and nights that would’ve blown my mind just a year ago––and then get depressed because something even more doesn’t happen. I get upset at myself for failing to meet personal goals––that I couldn’t have even known where to set just a short time ago. I feel like an outcast for failing to impress people I couldn’t have imagined even meeting before. 

What’s worse, I start to interpret all of those––albeit relatively ridiculous––disappointments as direct continuations of my failures and frustrations in the distant past. And so disappointments become crushing disappointments. 

What's the reason for this?

Some years ago, I was into playing the video game Halo online. The interesting thing about playing Halo online is that the system always matches you with people who have a similar performance, so even though your game may be improving massively, you actually never feel like things are going particularly better. Before you can even realize that things have improved, you’re automatically moved to an environment where you are at least slightly inadequate.  

So maybe it’s like that. Kind of like a goldfish that always grows to fit its bowl. In my more positive moments I try to think of it that way. 

In my more negative moments, I’m inclined to take what might be considered the more Biblical view, that I ought to just “[learn] in whatever situation I am to be content” (reference Philippians 4) and all those things I’m being disappointed about are in fact entirely and completely meaningless (reference entire book of Ecclesiastes).

In light of the general deprivation and suffering of so many people in the world––especially today––and the complete self-centeredness of most of the things I tend to be disappointed about, I’m afraid that second theory is probably more valid. The only issue is, it’s sooooo difficult to keep that in mind constantly. Do you know how? Please tell me. If I ever figure out how, I’ll tell you. 

Until then, disappointment. I don’t like it.