October 22, 2012

The Not Evil Empire

I am back in America now and beginning to readjust.  I'm living with Natalie and Elizabeth, two fellow Uganda RPCVs.  I'm extremely fortunate in this regard as both have been incredible resources, confidants, and friends.  Readjustment isn't so bad and I feel good.  My financial situation is pretty ugly but that's because I spent half of my readjustment allowance traveling after leaving Uganda.  No regrets there.  Being in America without a job may be like being in Uganda without a mosquito net, uncomfortable in the near term and likely ruinous in the long term.  So I'm looking for a job and writing the occasional article for the Peace Corps San Diego newsletter because it makes me happy.  Here's October's.


It's the double vision of a people whose hearts don't like what their desires have created.”
-Jonathon Franzen

I found myself in a lovely pedestrian mall in Budapest on a sunny day last August. A Wednesday. I was holding a solitary pre-noon vigil at a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. I was doing this because I was at a delightful place in life which found me both curious and unemployed. Delightful because this was still a novel thing. Unemployment and curiosity. Nothing says unemployment and curiosity quite like solitary Wednesday pre-noon vigils of bronze Ronald Reagan statues in Budapest. The route leading to this particular collision of time, person and place started with a cheap flight, a Russian Pricewaterhouse Cooper human resourcer, and a late night stroll for ice cream.

I had arrived in Budapest from, well it isn't important, via a cheap flight. That was how I was choosing the destinations for this trip. I was being put up in a gorgeous flat that was inhabited by a lovely young Russian who worked one of those jobs that requires conference calls, business casual, and the deft management of office politics. Her name was Ksenia and she was Russian. The previous nights had been filled with conversation, cold tomato soup and wine. One of those nights we had taken a stroll for ice cream and that late stroll led us eventually to the US embassy located in a busy pedestrian mall.

“I wanted you to see this,” she said to me. The embassy was quite similar to the last embassy I had been to back in Uganda. It had the same high fences, the same drab gray color scheme and the same perimeter of steel pylons. Unlike the embassy in Kampala, the steel pylons here cut through the adjacent pedestrian mall and children's park. It was a bunker surrounded by cheerful and old European architecture.

Near the embassy was a large bronze statue that was...really?...Ronald Reagan? There was an inscription that read, “A simple country boy against the evil empire.” I looked over at the evil empress that was letting me crash on her couch and feeding me cold tomato soup. “I think that means you,” I told her. But that wasn't true. Her parents had probably been a part of the evil empire, but that was probably before she was born. An eighties baby. She was just a Russian now.

The next day she went to work and I went back to the statue. I wanted to see it in the daylight. I didn't know any great Hungarians in history and was fairly certain that there were no bronze statues of them anywhere in America, busy pedestrian malls or otherwise. It seemed odd that Ronald Reagan was enshrined here and that he was accredited with the toppling of the soviet empire. I'm not sure what toppled the soviet empire. I don't think anyone really does. These things are explainable only after the fact. My feeling was that Ronald Reagan deserved a bronze statue in Budapest about as much as Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace prize.

If there are two competing empires and one empire is the Evil one than the other empire must be the Not Evil Empire. That would be us. But the Not Evil Empire is still an empire. An empire that needs a perimeter of steel pylons around its buildings. You see, you need a strong perimeter for all the people who don't realize that you're the Not Evil Empire. But evil or not, an empire is an empire. On the spectrum of Soviet Russia to Reagan America, it might be better to find yourself in Switzerland.

I was frustrated with the embassy in Budapest. It didn't seem to represent the America that I knew. The America that was optimistic, hopeful and open. The building was the representation of an America that was afraid, uncertain and closed. When did this happen? When did Ellis Island and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bill of Rights turn into Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, and Chinese debt?

I sat on that park bench in Budapest thinking these thoughts and working myself into a towering indignation. I decided to do something about all this! I decided to do something very American. I was going to write a letter and complain.

I quickly ran into a couple problems. Not the least of which was to whom does one address a letter about the troubling state of affairs in American embassies abroad? In the weeks that followed I wrote and rewrote my letter but never could think of a satisfactory recipient. Neither could I find the left-right-cross-hook-uppercut to the jaw conclusion for the letter. Without an address, or even really a point to make, the letter languished in my journal.

It wasn't until I got back to America after three years away that I realized that our embassies represent us as a country quite well. To paraphrase rapper Mos Def, sometimes it's easy to talk about our government like it's some giant living up in the hills. But we are the government. So when we ask: What is our government doing? Where is our government going? We should ask: How am I doing? Where am I going? The embassies are how they are because we are how we are.

America is a place where too many people don't know their neighbors let alone their farmers. It's a place where 24 hour cable news manages to turn debate into farce while the rest of the world grows and turns and sometimes burns. That's why I couldn't find anyone to address my letter to—there's no embassy czar in charge of all this. The embassy and it's high walls in Budapest is the sum total of the ambitions, triumphs and fears of the 300 million or so people that call America home. To change the embassy requires a change in us.

February 6, 2012

a handle bar mustache bandit rides into the sunset

Yes.  This is from THE DAY.
This is the speech I delivered to my fellow PCVs at our Close of Service conference, the last gathering attended by everyone.  During and since the conference I've felt that same feeling you feel in your stomach when you are young and in love or when something really awful happened to you or when someone has died.  A heavy, dull ache.  I'll write about that later.  Anyways, I lot of inside jokes here.  Don't worry about it.

I watched Lukas as he stepped away from the podium having delivered his Swearing In “MUZUNGU!” speech. He had something or other about our role as proverbial Boda Men (and Women) asking people where they're going and how we can help them get there.  I marinated on that for a minute and after several other event formalities we broke into fragments of small talk, photos, and hors d'ouvres.

It’s worth noting that this scenario now terrifies me.  Small talk.  I don’t know how to talk about much outside of literature, metaphysics, the doings and transpirings of The Group, and, well, poop. 

(It was pencil thin, though completely solid, and very lightly colored the other day.  First time in two years it’s looked like this.  It’s incredible!)

Anyways there I am in a linen suit peering through the fog of a hangover and out from a Beatle-ish mop top and over a handlebar mustache which I had carved the previous night.  There I am.  I saw the Ambassador schmoozing his way in my direction.  He paused, gave me a once over, extended his hand and said “When the going gets weird, the weird get going.”  Yes sir they do.  That is indeed what they do.  It did get weird and we did get going and now here we are.

 And we are weird.  Really weird.  Not unique, special, different or any other euphemism.  That would neuter the description.  We’re weird. 

Just agreeing to come here and do this whole thing is weird enough.  How many of your friends took this ever so scenic route after college or retirement?  Can you count them off on one hand?  We are a self selecting banditry of weirdness, as weird as a troop of monkeys.  More weird than a troop of monkeys.  We started out weird and for better or worse we’ve gotten weirder.

For the worse we’ve become painfully frugal.  I’ll just say flat out cheap.  If it’s free we’ll eat it or drink it or pack it home on the six hour bus ride.  We’ve developed questionable hygiene practices.  Like the opposite of immaculate…de-mamaculate if you will.  We’ve pooped (see there it is again: poop talk) on shoes, buses, river beds, caveras, and Lake Victorias.  We’ve pooped in so many places and so many circumstances that hovering over a hole in the ground seems normal rather than cause célèbre.   And after two years in the mosh pits that pass for lines here, we often confuse boorishness with assertiveness; long ago having determined dignity exchanged for “fairness” to be a reasonable bargain.

But our little band has become weirder for the better as well.  Perhaps you’ve become savvy to the complicated truths of the world.  Maybe you’ve become more disciplined in some regards and less uptight in others.  Or maybe you’ve learned to cook or garden or raise a dog.  You know your specifics better than me.  There isn’t much that’s universal about the Peace Corps experience.  It’s a fit custom tailored for you.

But here we are a clan of 29 goofballs, husbands, hippies, warlocks, pilgrims, poofs and gurus sharing 29 iterations of one common experience.  We’ve been away from all those influences from back home.  Away from the family and friends, the career, the culture, the comforts; we have been forced to muddle through this whole thing as best as we could. 

As only we could. 

The things you’ve said and done and thought these past two years are Who You Are.  It’s been two years.  Nobody can fake it that long.  I’ve never felt more true to myself than I do right now and that’s the Grand Universal Peace Corps Truth.  And while that authenticity shouldn’t be weird it certainly seems to be and that’s something we all share. 

So I hope we all hold on to what we’ve found in ourselves.  And I hope we don’t stop exploring just because we’re finishing with our service.  I’ve got the emotional sophistication of a 15 year old boy with a Victoria’s Secret catalogue but I hope that if you feel like crying you’re not doing it because this is the end and you’re going to miss pooping in a hole and talking to your friends about it.  Even if the end is hard, you don’t want to be in Peace Corps forever.  Of that I am certain.

Rather I hope that we can all cherish the past, accept the present and embrace the future.  We’ve got some heavy hitters in our group and I’m so excited to see where we all end up next.  I know we’ll still travel around…meet people…get into adventures…you know, wander the Earth.  Be thankful for the experience but don’t linger too long looking back.  Look forward to all the awesome things coming our way.  Keep going forward, straight on ‘till dawn.

In his swearing in speech, Lukas told us that we were Boda Men (and Women) and our job was to ask people where they were going and how we could help them get there.  I think that we’re spaceships.  Really weird spaceships.  Tearing through the heavens at the speed of light.  And space ships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors.
These people.