Saturday, July 22, 2017

A 2nd Pass: For Whom the Bell Tolls

I don't often reread books. And if I do, I wait at least three or four years in between.

I've always been a very slow reader, and maybe because of that, I tend to remember the things I read pretty vividly. So when I reread books, it's not to remember the story so much as to see how differently I interpret it based on where I am in life now versus where I was when I read it before.

It's not that I get to the end and realize, "Oh, I completely missed the point of that," (though that's happened at least once). It's more a matter of emphasis and how different parts of the story stand out to me, or maybe more accurately, how I relate to the way the characters experience the story.

I read For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time one summer five years ago, and began my first rereading of it earlier this month. I had remembered it having a great effect on me the first time, and also spent the half decade since then going around telling people that it tied for first place as my favorite book ever. Thus, I was a little bit nervous that on rereading it I would find that I either a) completely missed the point of it the first time, or b) didn't really care for it all that much.

Thankfully, neither of those was the case: It still seemed to me to be about suffering as the unifying part of the whole human condition and the inevitability of our own fates, and I'd still say it's one of my favorite books ever. How I related to the story, though, was another matter.

The first time I read it, the things that affected me the most were the great sadness of all of the death that happens in it, and the passion of the relationship at its center. I'd recently lost a friend, so maybe that explains some of it. Not knowing what was going to happen the first time may have also played a part.

Beyond that, I remember being impressed with what a badass Robert Jordan was. With his flask of absinthe and his backpacks full of dynamite, sleeping with Maria just hours after meeting her and leading guerrilla attacks on a fascist army. He represented a lot of things that my 22 year old self wished I could be.

Reading it this second time, the things that really affected me were different. They were more subtle, but just as profound because I'd actually lived them.

Having to finish a job in spite of unforeseeable complications that arise. The tension of being an outsider and a foreigner working alongside people who will never really understand or trust your motives for being there. Being caught up in a fight to the death over an abstract political cause that you sometimes aren't sure you even believe in. The necessity of action even in the midst of deep contemplation.

I also found that this time I admired the old hunter Anselmo. It may just be I forgot, but I have no recollection of seeing him as more than a tertiary supporting character before. Something about his steadfastness—often mistaken as simplicity—and his own conflict between his love for the Republic and his old religious faith and hatred of violence struck me in a way I don't remember at all before.

I hope I haven't aged that much in the last five years that my favorite character is now the elderly man. But then, maybe I'm looking up to him with respect the way I looked at Robert Jordan the first time.

At any rate, it was good to revisit the book. I intend to do it with a number of others now, and will have to remember to circle back to this one in another five years or so. That is unless I've tragically died by then, in which case you will have to read it for both of us.





Friday, June 09, 2017

The North Side

This evening I went for a long walk on the north side of Geneva. I’d been around there before, but always in the morning, and mostly in the winter. Tonight couldn’t be more different. It’s one of the first really warm nights of the year. One of those nights when ever since I was a teenager I’ve got this irrepressible feeling that something was supposed to happen (it seldom has, but I digress). On top of that it’s Friday. So just as the light began to fade, I cut across the rear parking lot of the Presbyterian church beside my rowhouse and turned right onto Pulteney Street.

I’ve realized I live right on the edge of some kind of invisible boundary line. If you walk south from my place you can go pretty much all the way to the city limits and everything stays the same, only more so: massive late 18th to early 19th century brick rowhouses, now subdivided into multiple apartment units and leased to severely overpaid and sublimely detached people.

Heading north on Pulteney, things started to change fast. Within a block or two, I started to walk past houses with people out on the porches and sidewalks. They weren’t coming or going somewhere (the only functions to which you will ever see a porch or sidewalk utilized on the south side), but were rather just hanging out there talking to each other. I heard a series of pops and through an alley I glimpsed fireworks that I’m certain are illegal here getting set off. Kids were running around on the sidewalk, people were shouting, and as Exchange T’d off onto Castle, they were mostly shouting in Spanish.

Turning left onto North Main Street, the houses change to a gaudy Victorian style which, while I think is supposed to look like something older, are actually somewhat newer than the brick houses to the south. They mostly aren’t kept up as well, but many of them have Christmas lights. In one lawn, I even saw a large glass encased shrine to the Virgin Mary.

Looping around Genesee Park I headed back south, and while stopping to take a photo of stencil on the sidewalk, what I thought was a car blaring Reggae music drove passed. Looking up though, it turned out to be a guy on a bicycle blaring Reggae music, which is worlds better, really.

I continued south on Exchange and walked up to a little Latin restaurant that I’d often noticed and wondered about. It was closed and I walked up to the door to check the hours. As I turned away I saw someone moving inside. They came up to the door and I heard them fooling with the lock for what felt like a long time after. When I was about forty feet away I glimpsed back and saw they were standing by the door, I think looking after me. In retrospect, I kind of wish I’d gone back and said hi, but I’m never really sure what to do in those situations, so I just kept walking.

I passed my office and noticed for the first time how you can’t really see the entire sign when you approach it from that direction. And then I was in the downtown, where bars and restaurants were warmly lit and full of people; brick streets blocked off to accommodate tables covered in candles and beer bottles. I looked but I didn’t go in anywhere, because I still don’t really know anyone here.

I have fun memories from places as far apart as Georgia and Germany of going out to bars by myself and meeting people and talking about stuff and great things happening, but it’s never really worked here. I tried it about a dozen times the first couple months after I came, but nothing ever happened. At least nothing good. So I stopped.

Maybe it’s just an upstate New York problem. I’d like to just blame it on people being cold and rude and detached, but recently I’ve become afraid it might actually just be that everyone I’m around is too much like me. The thing about people like me is we’re remarkably hard to get to know.

From the downtown it was just a five minute walk back to my own brick building on my own brick road. I didn’t want to go inside and still had that irrepressible feeling of something needing to happen, but wasn’t really sure what to do. So instead I went over and sat on the steps of the Presbyterian church by my house and checked the stock market for about the nine-hundredth time. It was a crazy day in the tech-sector.

Then, finally, I went inside and upstairs. I thought about everything, and wasn’t sure what I thought about it. So, I decided to write this post instead of thinking about it anymore.  


Friday, April 28, 2017

A Week on Crete - Anxiety & Seeing Moments for What They Are

Of all the traveling I’ve done in my life, I’ve only really gone on one serious solo-trip. That was two summers ago, to the Greek Isle of Crete.

Looking back, the whole pretext for the “vacation” was fairly absurd, as I was living in Lebanon at the time. As with most expats in Lebanon not fortunate enough to have deep-pocketed corporate or UN sponsors, this necessitated leaving the country every 60 days (or 90, if you were feeling really ballsy), and since Lebanon for the last several years has had water on one side, a fence on another and an increasingly atrocious war raging on the other two, this essentially meant taking a flight somewhere every couple months. I personally had to leave even more frequently than that because of projects in other places.

Going to Crete had nothing to do with any of those reasons. It was, rather, because of the (in retrospect absurd) fact that I had five unused vacation days, and felt obligated to use them on a vacation.

So it was that—just back from 10 days in South Sudan, emotionally exhausted, on the precipice of a minor health crisis, and above all else, sick to death of flying out of Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport—I went to Rafic Hariri International Airport and boarded an Aegean Air flight to Crete.

Reflecting back on the trip a couple months later, I was convinced it was a disastrous mistake.

On the 30 minute red-eye flight from Beirut to Cyprus, I started having what I think of as a panic attack (I’m sure people who actually do suffer from panic attacks and anxiety disorders would tell me that it was, in fact, not, but anyhow), in which I oscillated between being sure I’d chipped a tooth on the complimentary Aegean Air mint (I hadn’t); and convinced that I was an apostate and God wanted to kill me (He’s held off for around 19 months at the time of this publication).

Then ensued the 17 hour layover on Cyprus that I’d thought would be like a fun pre vacation (it wasn’t—don’t ever do it) that I spent first trying to sleep on a bench surrounded by Syrian asylum seekers and then sitting at one cafĂ© after another along the one street in Larnaca trying to pretend the legion of overweight Russian seniors that appeared to have washed up on the otherwise pristine beach wasn’t there. All the while I continued to cycle through the above two panicked thoughts about my tooth and Divine displeasure, but with the addition of one about the fact I hadn’t figured out very well how I was going to find my way from the car rental place at Heraklion International to my hotel that night because my phone wouldn’t have a local SIM card yet. It turns out I didn’t face that challenge till early the next morning, as 17 hours turned into 21 that evening when my flight from Cyprus was delayed.

Leaving Heraklion after a chill—if somewhat boring stay—two days later, I headed south. And so did everything. I discovered that while I’d been amazed to rent my car for only $150 for the week, 1. Gas prices in the EU meant a tank pretty much cost more than the car and 2. When you rent a $150 car on Crete, they give you a $150 car. There was really no AC, and at some point on the beautiful but steep and twisting mountain roads between the northern coastal motorway and the tiny village of Plakias on the windswept southern shore, the clutch—which had already seen better days (and years)—burned out to the point that the only way to get the miserable thing moving without a stall was basically to burn rubber. I no doubt improved the island’s view of Americans immensely.

The car’s value was denigrated further when, on a cliff village just above Plakias, my phone started to go haywire and led me down a steep tapering alleyway of death that turned out to be too narrow even for the Peugeot hatchback and left a four foot long multi-clawed scar across its right side (if you’ve ever heard me say I have a perfect driving record, I mean in the United States; there have been a number of incidents abroad [that could go for some of my other records as well {but we won’t go there right now}]).

How much of my 1000€ car deposit was going to stay on the Island of Crete after I left added to the loop of panic-stricken thoughts already running in my head, I parked in the grass outside Youth Hostel Plakias and walked through the grove of hammock strewn olive trees to the common room.

Now, I’d read about this place online as being famous among backpackers, not so much for its location as for the warm, fun-loving if slightly (or perhaps very) hedonistic community of internationals that flock to it. After a couple of rather stuffy days at a five star hotel in Heraklion that was advertised as "family friendly" and at which the only words I spoke to another human being were “Iced latte, if you would,” I figured some warm, fun-loving if slightly (or perhaps very) hedonistic community was just what I needed. Arriving at the common room (which was really a porch) I was greeted by a kind young man who looked as if he’d just been in a really vicious street fight (he had, I learned later). He informed me that I’d have to wait a while to check in because the manager of the establishment was still passed out from the wild toga party (stereotypes are real, kids) the night before, but it didn’t really matter anyway, because everyone really just slept wherever they wanted.   

I started to worry then that—in addition to everything else—I might have got more than I bargained for. I had. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Driving north back into the mountains above Plakias two days later in my disintegrating Peugeot, my phone completely died, leaving me stranded in a mountain village somewhere in the very middle of Crete with nothing but Greek alphabet street signs, and the slightly cartoonish looking road atlas the rental company had given me. And when had they ever let me down?

I eventually did make it to my final destination, Chania, where I’d booked another even stuffier five star hotel (I should clarify at this point, five star hotels on Crete cost about $80/night, just in case you were concerned). I’d just barely got back to the business of “Iced latte, if you would” and connected to the free wifi when I got an email that I needed to be in Cairo in 72 hours. Alone.

So, I ended the trip feeling that it had been miserable and misguided. A big mistake full of smaller mistakes not to be repeated. And that was much the view of it that I continued to have for almost a year afterword.

As time passed by, though, a funny thing started to happen. I’d remember one single experience from that week, divorced from any of the context that I’d initially framed it in and all of the associated anxiety:

Driving fast along the north coastal highway between breathtaking cliffs on one side and a sheer drop leading down to the insanely blue Mediterranean on the other with the windows rolled down

Going for early morning runs through the Old City and out onto the sea walls in Heraklion and Chania

Walking around the Minoan ruins that were the first chapter in my first history book

Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs early in the afternoon outside the hostel in Plakias with a bunch of people I’d just met drinking beer and talking about life as if we’d somehow known each other for years

Going out to eat dinner with a bunch of people from all over the US who, for some reason had ended up there, at that time and learning from their perspectives on the world

Staying up at night playing card games and then drinking games until they turned out the lights at which point we had no choice but to go to the single night club in the whole village until we finally came back and collapsed, pretty much wherever we wanted to

Rallying the next day and going for a five mile hike up the steep river gorge that ran up from near the hostel into the mountains with a guy from England I’d just met, and then randomly meeting two Irish girls halfway up and finishing it with them

Pulling off the road and exploring little Orthodox chapels hidden in the mountains just because I could

Having to actually get out of my car and ask a Cretan for directions, and then the triumph when I finally saw the sea on the north side again after what seemed like days of being lost in the mountains

The moment the people at the rental counter winked at me and declared the scratches on the car had clearly been there before it was in my custody, and refunded my full 1000€ deposit

All those things were good. Some of them were great. As I continue to recall them as individual experiences now, almost two years on, I’ve started to think of those six days I spent in Crete as what they really were: An outstanding success—in terms of the people I met, in terms of the experiences I had, in terms of what I learned about myself. It was great.

And yet, I really was miserable, too. How can both of those things have been true simultaneously? I was plagued with anxiety about so many different things, yet paradoxically, when I reflect back on the individual events while I was so miserable, the miserableness doesn’t detract from them even if it seemed to at the time.

I don’t know the answer to that at all. But it really causes me to think hard about my life now. The week I spent in Crete was possibly an extreme example, but I think there have been few times in my life that I wasn’t plagued by some level of anxiety about something. That didn’t mean those moments weren’t good, or even part of something great. And it’s possible that any moment could be. My goal now is just to recognize those moments when they’re happening and not interpret them all as part of whatever dark narrative my mind is running on repeat this week.

Of course, that may be impossible. It may also not matter, so long as I see correctly in hindsight. But my hope is that I can get better at seeing the moment for what it is.  



Thursday, April 13, 2017

The hero I never believed in

I once heard in a communication class that the test of a truly educated mind was to be able to hold two opposing ideas at once without losing the ability to function. Much later, in trying to look up the origin of the quote, I read that it was actually a common misquotation of something different that someone said. But I now forget who that someone was, as well as what that someone really said. Part of that might be because I prefer to believe the misquotation.

I think I once heard in a literature class that internal conflict is what makes characters interesting. I like that one too.

In intro to psychology I can remember learning about "cognitive dissonance," which—if I remember rightly—is really the same as the above two ideas. Only where the rhetors and writers see it as a mark of education and character, respectively; psychologists see it as a form of neurosis. I don't like the psychological perspective as much.

That's because I sometimes think I'm the most internally conflicted and cognitively dissonant person to have existed outside the pages of a Dostoevsky novel. Except when I disagree with that appraisal of the situation.

In all seriousness, though. There have been few times in the past decade that I haven't awakened every other morning and been absolutely horrified at where I was and what I was doing. And yet, the other set of consecutive odd mornings, I wake up and pursue those things with a grim sense of inevitability only attributable to my staunchly Calvinist upbringing.

I've had thoroughly thought-through objections to very much of what I believe since I was 12 or 13—many of which I've never been able to fully reconcile. But while most people I know had no trouble either changing their beliefs—or at least not acting on them—I've never been able to do anything but follow them to their rational ends (often thoroughly objecting the whole way, naturally).

This has sometimes been to the horror of authority figures in my life who—I later realized—only invited foreign missionaries to my youth groups because they thought it would help give me a reasonably global perspective of Christianity; only made me read stacks of books about the evils of casual sex because they wanted me to make reasonably conservative relationship choices and only made me listen to countless hours of conservative talk radio because they thought it would make me reasonably involved in politics. Well, as it turns out, the joke was on them. Despite having strong objections to very much of it, I proceeded to pursue all of it to its linear conclusion with an abandon that surprised all parties involved.   

You see, I have this amazing tendency of becoming the hero I never really believed in—and in some cases even disdained. And usually my opinion of him doesn't change much for the better when I become him.

So, you see, I'm conflicted.

I hope that makes me interesting. I would like if it makes me educated. But it probably just makes me crazy.
  

Friday, February 24, 2017

In absence

There are a good number of people that I would consider to be friends today, who, if you asked me where I'd met them, I'd say "college," when—in reality—we were only vaguely aware of each others' existence during college. College was certainly where we were connected, but the real friendship developed later through letters, blogs, or as is more often the case these days, Facebook. Essentially, our friendship developed in absence, and when I think back on the period in which we were physically present with each other, it's almost bizarre to recall that we really barely knew each other then.

There is another group, though, that I don't think of as often. It's the group made up of a few friends that I felt like I was quite close with while we were physically present together, but that I then completely lost track of after we parted ways.

This very month in 2009, I dropped out of college, left my home and country for the first time and did a semester of Bible school in Italy. It was also my first time living with a group of people all around my own age, and, honestly, the first time in my life I felt like I really had friends. I'm still friends with, or at least acquainted with many of the 20 or so other students and staff that were there, and there's also one or two that would probably fall into the above category of people that I'm closer with now than I actually was then.

There was another student, though, that I spent more time with than anyone else. We went running together, swam in frigid bodies of water in multiple countries together, and went on numerous absurd and poorly planned weekend trips in which "if we can't find a cheap enough hotel there, we'll just walk around all night" was a perfectly acceptable outcome. We talked about each others' faith, politics and hopes for the future, and to the extent that an extreme introvert like myself who didn't really "do" friends could, I felt like we were friends.

Then the semester ended, and I've neither seen or heard from him since.

While that sounds kind of sad, I really don't think there is anything wrong with it. Some people are just present with the people they are present with and don't have much to say in absence. In fact, I sometimes think of them as relationships of presence, compared with most of the relationships in my life, which are really relationships of absence.

How to tell which will become which, though? That's the real mystery to me. Who am I vaguely acquainted with now that I'm destined to keep in touch with and grow closer to in the future? And, perhaps more hauntingly, who—if anyone—do I feel close to now, but will be gone forever when we part ways?

Maybe it's that element of mystery in relationships that makes them real and alive. But it may unfortunately also be the reason I tend to avoid them so often.

But I digress.