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.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016


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.