Crystal Passion minces and flits around the ring in a thong leotard with along white tassels and a blonde wig, and it’s a performance so ridiculous that I think it must be satire—’this is what an ignorant making fun of a cross-dresser would look like.’ The emcee screams, “He’s gay!” Which is a conclusion the alternately laughing and jeering crowd has already come to. Passion is big, muscly, and what looks around two-fifty, and although the suplexes and slaps are there, the main attacks seem to be nonconsensual kisses and a generalized threatening-with-gayness.
It wasn’t until Teri Anderson got to site a couple of weeks ago that I realized how much my enthusiasm has dropped off since my own arrival in Jalpan a year and six months ago. All of us in my group and those who remain from earlier classes know that we’ve traded some of our initial blind excitement for tempered experience. It happens with everything—the end of the honeymoon period with a new girlfriend, the fifth or sixth day visiting your parents as an adult and realizing that somebody’s going to go insane, or the moment when you realized Modern Family wasn’t cute so much as about three abusive couples who hate each other.
Service work is famous for enthusiasm burnout. Animal shelters (and hospitals) call it compassion fatigue, when you’ve seen so much puppy (or human, say) suffering that you just can’t feel bad about it anymore. Ditto for any part of the service field.
Other types of work have tangible incentives—pay and pay raises, promotions, company cars—but service work relies of ‘fulfillment’ to make up for low ages, unlikely advancement and poor working conditions. More, it’s relatively rare that someone gets into service with a specific, achievable, realistic endgame in mind. You manage that aimlessness my setting your own goals, and Peace Corps is great at encouraging that, but the reality of virtually all service work is that you never get to win, never come to the end of it—there will always be more people in bad situations, always be more corporations and governments exploiting their populations, always be more work to do—and it’s hard to deal with that reality year in and year out.
Peace Corps is susceptible to fatigue and cynicism in part because of its open-ended structure. Once you get to site, you’re essentially on your own, and the work of rewarding, incentivizing, goal-setting, and progress-assessing falls to you alone. You hit the ground and you want to take on the world, and you’ve got carte blanche to try—we’re encouraged to think of our work day as twenty four hours long and our weeks as neverending.
I’m just in from five days on the road, here to Ciudad Guzmán by way of Guadalajara and back, so the post is going to be a bit of a medley.
The heat is here but fierce, and we’re up past forty centigrade in the daytime. It’s almost eight in the evening as I write and it’s easily ninety or so in Fahrenheit here in my open-to-the-outside-air-hallway.
From now until the start of June, life gets a little less bearable. The fería started this weekend, and first you wonder why they’d pick these of all days to hold it and afterwards you wonder why they didn’t plan to fall asleep drunk through all of May, too, and how you yourself will manage to do it without the help.
I picked up two books of poetry, Keats and Yeats, over Christmas. Collections, better said, and I haven’t made much progress. I’ve only had poetry once, from a great AP Lit teacher in high school—with guidance, I get the intellectual pleasure of picking the things apart, and I like the greatest hits as much as anyone, “Two Paths Diverged” and “Walking by Woods” and all that. But alone, I’ve had trouble taking the time to sit and read, so when I went on this trip, I brought only Yeats (and The Fall, but it’s short enough to finish in an hour or two and it’s thirteen from here to Ciudad Guzmán), and, well, I’ve been reading.
The thing is that I think I might be doing it wrong. I want to read poetry because I have a vague jealousy of Englishmen who can quote Wordsworth and Tennyson and Yeats and Keats à propos and off the cuff. So I’ve been reading-as-hunting, looking for whichever lines strike me and putting them down for later committal, rather than trying to parse or discern narrative flow or pay all that much attention to any stanzas that don’t grab me right off. Better or worse, that’s the only way I seem cut to do it, so here are two of Yeats’.
The Falling of the Leaves
Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves,
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.
The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.
Socrates tells us that truth exists only in conversation, that once we’ve written it down, we’ve lost the thread of it. We only know he tells us because his student Plato wrote all that down, so there may be some value to the scribing, too. Even a society as small as Classical Greece or Classical Athens couldn’t preserve knowledge by oral tradition alone.
I’m a believer in the implied process of the Socrates-Plato duality—find the truth in conversation, in informed, exploratory, Socratic debate, and then write as much of it as you can honestly preserve. There’s a clarity to the Socratic dialogues that’s lacking in, say, the work of any given German philosopher. It exists because Plato preserved (or, maybe, recreated, or, maybe, invented) Socrates’ dialogic process in each conversation. If you look at the end result of The Republic, an authoritarian, communist, caste-delineated music-less society dreamed up in order to define ‘the good,’ it’s zany. If you were getting it from Kant, it’d also be impenetrable. But, through Plato, Socrates leads you there point by point. Revealed truth by talk.
Which is all to say that I think my brain is melting. Dying, frying, dribbling out my ears. For want of talk. Some of you might have noticed the blog’s been sparse for more than a month now. A symptom.
Let me roll it back. I don’t mean just any conversation. The summer after college, I worked as a waiter and lived with five guys a year my junior who I hadn’t met before I moved in. Five of the smartest guys I’d ever had the good fortune to know, as it turned. Once we’d warmed to each other, we discovered a mutual enjoyment of hookah and that one roommate had smuggled a quality pipe, coal, and tobacco back from the Orient. Two or three times a week after I got off work, we’d go out on the porch and breathe wreathes and talk.
Trey and I each have a favorite beer. His is the Hexagenia IPA from Fall River Brewing, a small-batcher made with water from the same and you can only get your hands on it in Redding, California or thereabouts. My favorite, shit you not, is the DC Brau spring seasonal Yonder Cities, which is only around DC from Marchish to Junish (and may, I’m now discovering, have been discontinued). I have a hard time believing that, were both of them available everywhere, they’d still be our favorites.
First, because there’s a value we find in novelty, whether through regionality or seasonality. A quantifiable value and a big one, if you look at Starbucks pumpkin spice sales figures. Two, because I don’t think they’d be as good when they’d gone from small-batch to major distribution. Both halves of that thought are important, but I’m dealing with the latter.
Trey and I advanced the idea between ourselves, mostly in terms of craft beer, that it might be honorable to keep a company small. I don’t know if I can say ‘good’ out of hand, because by some metrics, it isn’t—you’ll make less money, for sure, and definitely fewer profits. More, there are some things you can’t do as a small firm—huge infrastructure projects, the really big machines; most of the stuff, in short, that Boeing and GE do. But in general, we thought, the more and smaller are the businesses that make up your economy, the better.
Let’s start big because that’s easiest. Semi and regional monopolies plague the US, many or most of them created by merger, buy-out, and Congressional award. The newly merged American Airlines Group is now the world’s largest carrier, and by some accounts second only to United in awfulness. Their combine with US Airways resulted in increased delays and cancellations, heralded the demise of free domestic checked baggage and the installation of ever more cramped seating (as well as massive reneging on agreements with their five unions).
Comcast and Time Warner are in many places the only options for internet service, and anyone who’s ever dealt with them knows that the connections they provide are shoddy, their tech support bad and overwhelmed, and the personnel doing home visits so overbooked as to be entirely unreliable.
Electronic Arts is the biggest name in video game publishing, and it got there by buying, cannibalizing, and closing smaller independent studios. Those who’ve been through or followed one of their disastrous recent launches, the out-and-out theft they’ve perpetrated through their digital distribution platform Origin, or was a fan of Westwood or Maxis or a myriad of other companies knows that quality always declined following the takeovers.
I’m helping to copy edit the travel book of a friend of mine in Istanbul. He just turned in his second draft, and I’ve been looking at it for the last hour. It’s making me think that it’s finally time to talk about the ten days I spent in that city and all the thoughts his book brings up besides.
My best woman friend from college, Alex, her Peace Corps application languished a few months too long, so she applied to Teachers in Turkey and they snapped her up inside a week. I went out there and did nothing like I was supposed to. I spent one morning in Sultanahment and the bazaars and only because she had a lesson to teach that day. All the rest of my time passed in Kadikoy and the other parts of the Asian side, meeting her friends, attending dinner parties, drinking on the Bosporus.
But for the language, Istanbul would be my ideal city. Massive, the cultural and political heart of its entire country, cosmopolitan and polyglot, gleaming on the European side, dripping with history, and bohemian to the east, affordable and chockablock with cafés and hookahs and smart young expats who’ve escaped the work culture of the States and gone abroad to write and teach and make art and play music. A city torn by dissent, wracked by protests over the KDP and Kobane at the time and still possessed by the warmth and hospitality that make Mexico so endearing.
Alex and Ernie and Anna and Jari and Valentin and Sadaf and Maedeh are living the kind of life that I wish I were brave enough or unbeholden enough to my folks to lead.
Unafraid to cut ties with the assembly line shuttling from high school into college into debt into work into the grave. Which is more or less the thesis of Ernie’s book.
I roll out of bed at three, having woken up hours earlier and given into my malaise, drifting in and out of sleep before the final plunge off the mattress. I eyeball my kettle, full of old grounds, and tiptoe through a week’s worth of webs and spider husks, wondering if I’ll get up the ganas to sweep. Typical Sunday. My phone rings and the number’s too long to be domestic, so I know it’s Trey, and that cheers me up as I wait for him to call again. I saw the guy just enough over Christmas to remember how much I’ve missed him since he took a job with the state of California.
It rings a second time and we go through our how do you dos before he tells me Janessa’s had an accident in Panama, that she’s in the hospital down there, gone into surgery, leg full of pins. I’m doing the math as he’s talking—we’ve got forty-five days out of country to recuperate on medical leave, and two bones in the leg spell more than that.
Another volunteer got medically separated for a fucked up ankle, did it stepping off a bus. I ask Trey what it is with us volunteers and getting down from stuff. He laughs and tells me to be careful and we hang up.
I call Ben and break the news just this one time, to get it out of me. I keep thinking I left them both in a rush in the city, that it was the only time I haven’t said “take care” to another volunteer as they left for a trip. I pull out a cigarette, me who never smokes in daylight, and my hands shake through a cup of cold coffee. The next month bears out all our hurried calculations, and Peace Corps in DC medically separates her before the forty five are up. Not sufficiently ambulatory. After fourteen months, I am alone in site.
I just watched Inequality for All, and it’s great. Crystallizes everything we all should have been angry about since 2008 if not, like Secretary Reich, since the Reagan Administration. Rising income inequality in the US has poisoned our democracy which has in turn poisoned our economy (etc.), and the two effects have waltzed hand in hand for decades now, dropping us dozens of places in world rankings of every indicator of prosperity.
But there are two points the filmmakers either missed (or, more likely) chose to ignore, at least in terms of a holistic picture of the post-crash situation in the States. Reich mentions polarized politics and correlates them with inequality. Somewhat fair. But while the rest of the film draws on parallels between our own time and the period between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, politics at that time were nowhere near as polarized (contentious, maybe, but not along ideological party lines).
While he brings up both Occupy and the Tea Party as exemplars of dissatisfaction with wealth inequality, he equates them erroneously, failing to mention the (pretty critical) differences. Both were ostensibly set off by big money interfering with government (TARP and Citizens United, for example). But while Occupy advocated polices that were at least oriented towards amelioration of the situation, the Tea Party (partially and significantly funded by the Koch Brothers) pretty much lobbied for the rich and against themselves.
Which illustrates the problem that Inequality ignores—politics in the States has become a matter of faith, and a good chunk of Americans, if not 50% of the country, takes on faith the line that continuing the trickle-down policies of increasing inequality begun under the Reagan Administration will somehow solve the same crisis they precipitated.
As a rule, you come to the Peace Corps with illusions. Bad ones, some of them, the White Man’s Burden type. Harmless ones, others, about what country they might send you to, the kind of place you might end up, wild and exotic dreams. And a third kind, the necessary.
Joining Peace Corps is a leap of faith. The application’s been changed now, but for decades, you accepted placement with a minimum of information and put two years of your life into hands you’d never met. Two years is a long time, longer for the younger volunteers like me, to check out of the world. Years otherwise filled by budding careers and romances and the first steps of real adulthood. To sign them over is no small thing even if, like me, there weren’t many other positions waiting for you.
The illusions, the preconceptions, they’re what let you do it, what convince you the trade might be worth making. Once you’re here there are a thousand reasons to stay, most of them different from what you’d imagined back in the States. Before you get here, though, all you’ve got is your imagination, ideas about how service will make you better, how you’ll help people. Whether or not you end up completing substantive work is entirely up to you, and that might not strike you beforehand—you come to think of your upcoming training as somehow transformative, that it’ll teach you, all of a sudden, how to Ghandi, to Florence Nightingale, take you from a college layabout to a God-given savior in the space of ten weeks. They give you the tools, sure, but if you were worthless before, you’ll be worthless after.
I got a little liquored and sentimental awhile ago and scribbled all this out on printer paper at two in the morning. It’s more melodramatic than I’d like, but it’s not bad and I don’t mind it as a little giving-thanks, especially since we did our big dinner this past Sunday. I’ll see what I can do to make the pictures lighthearted.
I’ve written about kids, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written about parents except to denigrate the idea of becoming one. There’s a lot of thought behind that. In the first place, not much is left of the American Dream except the notion that you ought to give better than you got. My folks came of age during the last great gasp of old-time Corporate America. From the golden age of Reagan’s military straight into the arms of General Motors they went, knowing that thirty years from the first day in the plant they’d be taken care of, that the Company’d care for their health, their kids, their retirement. And they did well for themselves. Smart, driven people navigating the world they’d been bred for.
I grew up in the most luxury you can have without being ruined as a human. I never had cause to want. I lived abroad, went to good mostly public schools, met decent people. Any desire on my part was not the result of privation but considered withholding on theirs, careful choices by my parents that kept me grounded. I was never aware of our wealth until late in high school; they’d shielded me from the tacky excess that seems to typify the upper ranks of the middle class now. They worked hard and long, maybe too much so. Much of our early care was given over to nannies and au pairs, but it’s a testament to my folks that I barely remember those caregivers’ names now, while my father reading us One Thousand and One Arabian Nights at bedtime is as fresh as what I ate for breakfast.