Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Song

I heard this song for the first time last December, in Amman, Jordan, of all places.

Christmas isn't widely celebrated in Jordan—for obvious reasons—but I was at a small gathering of expat Christians from different NGOs. It was really cold that December, and I think everybody was feeling kind of down somehow. I mean, nobody was there for particularly happy reasons, and I don't think the year to that point had inspired a lot of hope for the situation in general (of course, looking back on this year since then, it would have been misplaced if it had). So, despite the cozy room and somewhat festive atmosphere, I think everyone was struggling a bit with what it actually meant to celebrate a holiday about hope and peace on earth when—like today—those things seemed even farther out of reach than usual.    

I don't remember the name of the guy who led the meeting, but after we'd eaten cookies and talked for awhile, he had us all sit down and listen to this song. It's since become one of my favorites. As the title suggests, it's a Christmas song, but it focuses on some of the parts of the Christmas story—and the whole Gospel for that matter—that I think we tend to gloss over rather than try to deal with intellectually, let alone emotionally. It's not a Christian song. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was written by an Agnostic. Yet somehow when I heard it in that room, I felt like it brought more reconciliation between the reality of the Christmas story and the reality that was all around me than anything else I've heard.

When we turn on the news and hear about children dying pointlessly in Aleppo, we can do a lot of mental and emotional gymnastics to try and reconcile that with the "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men" part of the Christmas story. But maybe if we try to reconcile it with the children dying pointlessly in Bethlehem part of the story, we'd find it doesn't need reconciliation. Of course, we don't like to focus on that part, because it brings up a lot of questions we struggle to answer. But when the rubber meets the road, isn't a story full of the same irreconcilable questions we're confronted with in the reality we live in more valuable than a tidy, triumphant story that we can't reconcile with the reality that we live in?

Last year I felt like it was, and this year I'm inclined to think so too.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A coat of many countries

It's got cold enough recently that I now have all of my winter coats out from storage in the big closet in my bedroom and cached for use in the little closet in the hallway. That is, when they aren't strewn all over the backseat of my car as they tend to be more often. Recently I realized that I acquired each of them in very different parts of the world, and they each have a unique story. I thought about joining Pinterest just to write something about this, but the thought of that fills me with apprehension and angst, so a blog post will have to do.

1. The Italian


 I bought this coat almost eight years ago in Italy. That was back when a Euro was worth like 1.3 dollars and everything seemed super expensive to my teenage self who had become self-conscious about how understated-ly sexy all the Italian teenagers looked, but who possessed limited financial resources. Then came Zara, and a sale on winter items, and the problem was solved. Best decision ever. At least until....

2. The Lebanese


Okay, so it's from H&M, which makes it technically Swedish (no doubt via the Philippines), but I bought it in Lebanon. Cause you know what? It gets really, really cold in Lebanon. More so when you're living on a mountain and the pilot light in the diesel hot-water heater that's sulking in the serial-killer-lair/bomb-shelter three stories beneath your giant concrete refrigerator building keeps going out for no explicable reason and you're much too scared to go down there and mess around with it. You need a really warm coat, and I found this one at the mall. Best decision ever, until....

3. The Egyptian


Fast forward three months from the scary basement in Lebanon, and my three roommates and I were beginning a five week misadventure across Arab north Africa starting with a two week stop in Cairo, Egypt. I didn't bring my Lebanese coat, because I figured it would be warm in Egypt because, you know, it's Africa and shit. As it turns out, Cairo in February is pretty darn cold. And when the city gets descended upon by an apocalyptic dust-storm of Biblical proportions and the sky turns black and sand reigns down from the heavens like ash in a nuclear winter, it gets even colder. I shivered my way passed a warm looking little men's clothing store with a studly—if decidedly faceless—manikin who wore this jacket several times before I went inside and bought it. Best decision ever.

Those are the stories of my winter coats. Or at least of how they came to me. There are many more about things that happened while I was wearing them, but as the Apostle John said, "were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."



Sunday, September 25, 2016

New developments

It's been colder the past couple days in Geneva. That's where I live now. And the weather is only the most recent of things that's changed in the last few weeks.

Shortly after the last thing I wrote on here, I was offered a job. And while it was a job I'd been waiting for for months in a sort of limbo since even before I got back to the US, the moment I signed on the dotted line, all the things that had piled up on top of each other waiting to happen happened all at once. I moved to a completely new city. I got a new email address and a new real-world address. A new insurance company. A new phone number—three new phone numbers, really. A new view, and a whole new group of associations.

So the fact that there are geese flying south over the lake and I'm finally thankful I brought my sweater back from Beirut with me is only the most recent iteration in the sequence of change that's been happening.

I think this weekend was the first time that the novelty of all the new positive realities of having a pretty nice apartment all to myself in a beautiful old town and a job that at least sounds quite impressive wore off enough to realize the less positive ones: that I am completely alone and have to work almost all the time.

Neither of those are terrible things. I'd take them over a myriad of other things that have happened to me before.

Still, it's all enough to cause me to reflect. And also to wonder what the next year will bring. The few weeks before I finally got the "yes" for this, I was pretty dead-set on moving to Central America or somewhere equally warm and inexpensive, jotting down my occupation on the immigration card as "Retired YouTube Celebrity," and calling it quits on this place for good.

Now, things seem to be going down an entirely different path. Only I'm not sure yet what that will be. I'm in a line of work now that's uniquely volatile, but paradoxically might promise the most stability I've ever had. Then there's the question of whether I really want that stability—which, given, may itself be only an illusion.

Much has been written about the conflict between freedom and security, but lately, I've been coming to realize there can also be a conflict between freedom and independence. That's a subject for another post, though.

At any rate, I just hope I don't end up wishing I'd headed for Latin America with those geese.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Interest, aptitude & demand in what we do with our lives

I came across an article recently that suggested the primary factor in whether or not person lives a happy life is finding an occupation that involves work he or she enjoys doing. It counseled that people should thus put the pursuit of occupations that would allow them to do things they enjoy over occupations that have a bigger financial reward.

Without getting too deep into arguing about the assumption that the goal of life is to be happy or that that happiness is something that should derive from ourselves—I think very good debates could be had over those things—I have to say that reading it brought up some serious questions I've had over the past decade. More than that, it brought up some doubts that I've had about my ability to ever really be happy or successful.

I agree with the idea that enjoying what you do is important. Let's call that "interest." I also have to agree that the value of what you do to your society, as measured in how much that society is willing to pay for it, is also important. I think most people just think of that as "money," or "financial reward," but I prefer to think of it as demand because that's really ultimately what money represents. One other factor that I don't hear people talk about as much though is having aptitude for what you want to do. You may really, really like professional football, and there may be a strong market demand for professional football players, but if your healthy body weight is 135 pounds, then you're not going to live a happy or successful life by pursuing football as a professional occupation.

So in my mind, there are these three things: interest, aptitude and demand. And in my own assessment, I feel that most of the really successful people that I know are people for whom all three of those things lined up.

One winning combination I know is a person who has an interest in computers and an aptitude for symbolic logic, which both lead naturally into a number of career options in programming and development that are in extremely high demand. The person does a good job at something he loves and is heftily rewarded for it by a society that is demanding his skills.

interest : aptitude : demand

Of course, most people don't get all three, and I have a lot of friends who've had to choose between two. I've had an almost weird amount of friends who were very interested in music, for which there's a low demand, but also had an aptitude for math. They've pretty much all gone into finance, for which there's a high demand. While they may not be super excited about their work routine, they can console themselves that they make a lot of money and are needed by a lot of people.

interest : aptitude : demand

Conversely, I have several friends who were interested in and had an aptitude for music or art, and have gone on to be professional musicians and artists. Most of them aren't that successful, but they generally seem to be pretty happy, because at the end of the day, they are doing a great job at something they love, regardless of whether or not society affirms them financially or not.

interest : aptitude : demand

Then I look at myself—usually a terrible idea, but it has to be done now and then—and realize that not once in my life have even two of those factors ever lined up.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about being a scientist and spent hours ever day in the summer just sitting next to ponds watching different animals going about life. I'd build vivariums (which is what biosphere terrariums were called before they were cool) out of Rubbermaid containers on my deck and be really proud of how many different organisms I could get to all coexist together in six cubic feet of space. My favorite VHS tapes were all NOVA and PBS documentaries about different scientific topics.

But then I took algebra 1 (for what was to be the first of approximately six times between high school and the end of my undergrad), and worse yet, chemistry a year later. I maintained some ideas about majoring in biology until my junior year of high school, when my abysmal SAT math score made me realize my chances of making it in any science or technically focused program were about as high as my chances of getting that football scholarship.

At some point after discovering what I didn't have any aptitude for, I slowly started to find some things that I did. Gen.-ed. English professors kept on telling me I should switch to their department. Communication professors said the same thing—and eventually I did. I spent enough time hanging around comm. computer labs that I eventually started dabbling with video editing software, not because I had any great interest in film, but—perhaps ironically—I felt I should eventually learn some kind of marketable skill. So that was that. Going strictly off what others have told me, I seem to be good at writing. I'm also, in the perhaps slightly begrudging words of one filmmaker that I really respect, at least a "pretty good" editor.

Unfortunately—and I know some people are surprised to hear this—I've always been kind of apathetic toward both those things. I didn't grow up dreaming of being a photographer or film director. In fact, I rarely watch movies. Nor do I have any ambition of becoming a "published author" beyond the emotional outlet that this blog sometimes provides.

That might not be a problem if it were just a question of choosing between interest and demand, like my cohort of musician-turned investment banker friends. But that's not where it ends, because the things that I'm not interested in but have an aptitude for are also almost completely unneeded in our present society.

I wasn't hoping to be a writer, but if I was, then I was born in the wrong century. Writers are getting fired, not hired, and I've made more money in an hour as a salad-assembler at a floundering upscale dining establishment than I've ever been or ever will be paid to write anything. As far as film-making goes, there is demand, but the problem is there are also so many people with such a strong interest—passion, really—for it, who are willing to work for literally nothing in the interest of "building their portfolio" that the industry doesn't have an inch or a second to give anyone like me who's like, "I'm good at this, but I'm not that excited about it."

In the end, it seems that I have have no aptitude for the things I had an interest in, and that the things I do have an aptitude for are relatively worthless. [I'm considering using that as a pull-quote that on my LinkdIn, for all the good it's ever done me]

interest : aptitude : demand

So, it's always been very difficult for me to imagine having a job that would be either personally rewarding or economically needed. And it's not that I'm afraid I'd have to choose between the two: I actually don't see how it could be either. And in light of that, it's sometimes hard for me to imagine what building a "happy" or "successful" life would even look like.

I'm not saying it's not possible, and I'd actually appreciate your thoughts.

I also apologize for using myself as the example for so much of this, but I do really feel like there are these several pretty distinct combinations that I outlined above that most people I know fall into. So if you feel the same way as me, or if you feel like you fall into a different one, or if you feel like the whole model is fundamentally flawed or overlooks something important, then I'd love to hear what you think. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York

Wait, let me say that again. You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York.

I've been told there are good reasons for this.

You can get an Uber in Seattle, WA, Greenville, SC, Pensacola, FL, Moscow, Russia, Guangzhou, China, and Mombasa, Kenya.  

You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York.

I've been told there are good reasons for this.  

This is a list of all the places in the world you can get an Uber: https://www.uber.com/cities/

None of these places had good reasons for not being able to get an Uber. 

You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York. 

This is the end of my post.


Monday, August 01, 2016

In defense of not speaking one's mind

At what point is saying what you think actually worth it? I tend to torture myself with that question every election year.

I'm usually a big fan of not saying anything. That's not because I don't have strong feelings or decisive thoughts about things. Rather, I'm just never so totally convinced that I'm correct that I want to risk making authoritative statements about it. I've always had a great respect for quiet people. That's because there's a certain intellectual humility about never being that sure that you're right. Tragically, I'm afraid this was almost completely dismissed as relativism by our parents' generation. It's not an un-biblical idea, though. It says in Proverbs:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
  and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
 Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
  when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
 
Unfortunately, for these next few months, we're in a season of finding out who the fools among us are. And we will be (or are already) disappointed to learn how many of our own friends and relatives are among them. Even worse, as November gets closer, we will learn that more and more people that we (did) hold in great respect—authors and teachers and leaders and more—are really blithering idiots that we should've never listened to about anything.

But there's the trap. As the lunacy coming from people we thought better of piles up so high that it threatens to topple under the weight of its own colossal ridiculousness and has to be shored up by name-calling and non-logical platitudes shouted by all the people we never even thought were smart (at least they didn't disappoint), the temptation to set them all straight by stating the obvious becomes severe. Like, hellishly severe.

Yet that's the very temptation that all those people that we are so disappointed in eventually succumbed to, perhaps after much struggle and self-torment and frustration with people that they were disappointed in. And so they went and did it. They said something.

Now, there's this very strong argument: In a world where we can influence others' thoughts and shape the course of events, if we really believe that we are right, don't we have the moral obligation to stand up and say something? Perhaps. Perhaps we do. And perhaps I shall.

The only counterpoint standing between myself and that is this: All the people who are now loudly making it known to us that they are completely wrong about everything also used that argument. And in a universe as vast and maddeningly interconnected as our own, while it may be that the emperor has no clothes, it's entirely possible that we don't either.

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.