Sunday, September 30, 2012

house of cards


I had a bad cold this week, and despite draining my desire to stay awake past like 8 o'clock, I was on a real roll of expressing my ideas eloquently and succinctly because of a writing assignment at work and even though I feel like I could fall asleep at any moment I am compelled to keep writing and chronicling.

A lot has happened since last time I wrote to you, and I will tell you about the things that seem resonate to me now, and tell you about the rest later. There have been a few things that were interesting that happened to me in the last week, and I will give you a basic overview of what those were, but mostly just what I got from them. 

Last week I had one of my most insane days at work that I have ever had, and it started with attending an event that we had been preparing for basically since the day I started work, when a prominent activist did a speaking engagement for us and I helped with all the media shenanigans. Then we had to go to a press conference for something else we're working on at a different place in DC. AND THEN THAT SAME DAY my friend from college came to visit and we went to Oktoberfest in Dulles, which was technically German land because we were on a Naval Base. I love going to German things and celebrating my heritage. Somehow in the middle of all this debauchery and lack of sleeping I got a cold.

I have developed a compulsion to write about things at almost the same as they happen, and to take a lot of pictures of people at different times when they aren't expecting it. At the park last Sunday, a girl took a Polaroid picture of my friend Ther and I, and she said I could only have it if I scanned it and sent her a copy. She said that the picture evokes a feeling of "Who are these people and what are they doing?" She said she keeps every picture she takes and there is a wire in her room she hangs them on. I like this; I like the idea of collecting images of people like a collector. I think I collect words more than images though, and someone told me the other day that I can make words bleed. I never thought of it like that, and in addition to being a very significant compliment, I like the metaphor. I don't like when people use compliments like "She's nice"because they are banal. 

The park was beautiful on Sunday, because as you know, reader, I am very interested in lighting and the way the sky looks at different parts of the day and year, and Sunday was right near the autumnal equinox so the sun was slanted and golden and enchanting and shadows were really long.

I wonder why skeletons have come to be associated with death. Your skeleton is always there, and it is not created by death but exposed by it.

Having the cold made it harder to focus at work and I felt like I couldn't really breathe a lot of the time but since my week was insane I went to work anyway. Do you know the feeling when you're sick and congested and all food seems gross and tastes weird? I felt like that while I was grocery shopping, and ended up only getting bread, Gatorade and Cookies n Cream Oreos after I walked around the store for 45 minutes because those were the only things that seemed palatable and unoffensive at the time.

The other day my friend told me that when you are very close to someone your heartbeats can sync up with eachother. Synchronization happens like that a lot in the natural world, including fireflies which match eachother's flashes. I remember when I was a little kid I would wonder why all the lightning bugs in our yard lit up together. Sometimes when I get stressed I time my breathing with my watch ticking. I keep it on my nightstand when I sleep so I can still hear it.

Also at work I have been interested in reading a lot about the Middle East and everything going on in Syria. In my last post I wrote about religion being a societal force underlying a lot of movements in history- this paragraph was in an article in The New Yorker, and represents kind of a different viewpoint, how religion can be oversimplified as an explanation for events in history. I really liked it and I thought it said a lot of what I was trying to say much better:

"But the notion that a generalized Muslim anger about Western ideas could explain violence or politics from Indonesia to Bangladesh, from Iran to Senegal, seemed deficient. It was like arguing that authoritarian strains in Christianity could explain apartheid, Argentine juntas, and the rise of Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, the meme sold, and it still sells. Last week, Newsweeks cover splashed “Muslim Rage” in large type above a photograph of shouting men. Inside came advice on how to survive “Islamic hate.” Cable news channels—Fox and MSNBC alike—showed similar images, hour after hour. By now, many Americans must find nothing remarkable about the conflation of Muslim faith and contorted faces."

I sometimes find The New Yorker to be insufferable, but I liked that synopsis and thought it was well-said.

Also recently someone told me not to let my insecurities play an outsized role in questioning myself. That was funny because I am reading the book Aleph by Paulo Coelho (I will tell you about it when I finish) which talks about exactly that, AND the Trans-Siberian Railway (which I became obsessed with a few months ago and still want to traverse). 

Today I was talking to my roommate, who is really well-traveled and intelligent but extremely down-to-earth, and I said that it seems like when people get some experience they become overly-confident and assured of their role and importance in the world, but when people become more truly experienced they realize the world is not as comprehensible as they thought and maybe have a period of self-questioning or doubt. He said, yes, I think you're right. People who seem to accept the world without a trace of emotional upheaval probably don't really consider its upsetting idiosyncrasies. It is good to accept what you cannot change but people accept things too easily.

Reading about a person traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway in Aleph makes it seem slightly less mysterious and mythical, because it kind of reminds me of taking a bus down the coast of Vietnam, when there were cockroaches and the bus driver openly snorted cocaine when he stopped (only twice during a trip that took almost 24 hours, which was probably the point of the coke). It still was pretty cool though, and when we arrived in Saigon I felt like a real explorer. It was a strange coincidence that I ended up randomly buying Aleph last week, and the last book I read by Paulo Coelho was The Alchemist, and I actually read it while I was in Vietnam. I remember reading it and thinking that someone should have recommended it to me much sooner. Seems like a sign to me, but my flair for the cinematic also leads me to place undue significance on the connectedness of events. Now I want to travel again like I always do.

I bought a real towel today because I have used my Brazilian flag beach towel as a real towel for the past month, and it isn't actually absorbent and I think I have gotten all the use out of it that I can. I didn't want to buy real bath towels though, because something about buying a set of towels seems to imply that I will be staying in a place for a certain amount of time. I don't know why a towel set implies permanence. Also, I realized when I moved to DC that I have too many things. Reader, do you ever get overwhelmed by the accumulation of possessions you have and want to get rid of everything and start over? I feel like that sometimes, but I guess it is a fortunate problem to have. 

I have gone from feeling mixed about living in DC to really loving it. I hope whatever you're doing that you are loving it too. xx

Sunday, September 16, 2012

ideas of specific grandeur

My goal was originally to write a substantive blog post once a week, both for my own satisfaction and because a few people have mentioned that they are interested in what I am doing or what I have to say. That hasn't happened the last few weeks because of a few whirlwind days at work, a trip to Philadelphia, a weekend spent with my aunt visiting from Arizona, and a night where the drink of choice was absinthe.

I wanted to start from the beginning and tell you everything that has happened between the last time I wrote you and now. I don't think that'll be possible or very interesting for you to read so I will just tell you what has stood out to me and then next time I will tell you everything else. Everything from the beginning.

I went to Philadelphia for one night over Labor Day weekend. I went to see one of my best friends from grade school who goes to optometry school there now. I took a bus and met her at 30th St. Station. We walked around for the day, and given my aversion to heavily trafficked tourist sights we mainly just walked through the streets downtown and caught up about everything that has been happening. I listened to everything she said closely and barraged her with questions like I generally do to express my interest and approval.

When I am in a new place I am very alert and observant. As you know, reader, I love to travel and have found traveling to be one of my most consistent commitments in my life. Philadelphia wasn't the most beautiful city I've been in. It wasn't even close.  It didn't really matter to me though because I appreciated what I saw as its unapologetic authenticity. I find people and places and things that seem to be endlessly beautiful as less real, and Philadelphia was not endlessly beautiful. It had its own sort of beauty, though, borne of a necessary pragmatism. It wasn't perfect or idyllic and it had no pretense in some of its harsh spaces. I once read the quote that scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue, so there is more strength in places that have been tested. Philadelphia is a city with scar tissue running prominently through it. I realize that I am drawing large generalizations from a short amount of time, but my curiosity and desire to understand things has led me to do this. It was an impression I got so strongly I couldn't mistake it, and if I weren't to give that to you reader, what is the point of saying anything?

Sometimes I have more questions than I can reasonably manage. I can't contain my feeling of fascination at the people I know or those I encounter or all the ideas coming to me at once. The more I do and the more people I meet the more acute my desire becomes. My mind reels with questions and an unrelenting compulsion to gain knowledge and experience and understanding. Sometimes it's slightly manic; exciting but tormenting in the feeling of vastness. That's how I felt in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology.  

My current goal is to study anthropology and become  a professor. I don't know if that's exactly what I will pursue because it seems as if my path changes almost constantly, but as time has gone on I have realized that the topic that has most consistently intrigued me is that of religion (when I say things like 'consistently intrigued' and 'constant commitment' I feel a need to differentiate those things from other things that I have been interested in and then moved on from, because this seems to happen quite a lot). When I understand what someone is devoted to, what they believe without needing affirmation, it gives me a unique glimpse into their pathology. I think knowing what someone believes is a way to know them more intimately than almost anything else.

I am fascinated by a lot of things, but almost always fascinated by religion because of the world it reveals to me. I read  a book over the summer called 'Religious Literacy,' which was basically a general history of world religions and the structures they have formed in society. It talked about how you have to understand Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism to have any kind of understanding of global politics or interaction. It said that usually history books teach religion through sidebars with the most basic summation of the religion possible, like the Five Pillars of Islam in five bullet points. It said this kind of approach is not enough and it impoverishes an understanding of religion as the lifeblood of culture. It is simpler to use an approach that emphasizes historic events that are broken up with dates and leaders, so that is usually what occurs. I am not saying that this kind of information is not necessary or utilitarian, but just that it's not enough, not even at a basic level. The book said to understand the psyche of a country, a movement, or a time, you have to understand what those people believed. I don't know why this seemed new to me, in some ways it's intuitive, but it had never been explained to me in such comprehensible terms.

The bus ride back to Washington DC was sad. I was exhausted but I couldn't sleep, so I opted for listening to 'Streets of Philadelphia' on loop watching the rain streak across the window. I had a strange feeling then; tired and homesick and alone. I remembered the part of 'On the Road' when Sal wakes up and doesn't know himself.

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was - I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

I always remembered that passage, and it hits me sometimes when I'm traveling, when I'm alone or in general when I feel very far away (far away from what? I don't know that it's a specific location or person, sometimes just far away in general). That was how I felt leaving Philadelphia.

I was happy to see my best friend, and for some reason when she informed me that she could now legally give me an eye exam I was so impressed I was speechless. How could we go from being in grade school to her being able to legally administer medical exams? I was happy to realize that she has become more and more strikingly amazing as time has gone on, and that the miles between us have only made our reunions more significant.  I felt fortunate to have someone like that in my life for so long.

At work in DC, things have been intense. It is not work of half-measures or easily-digested information. I have interacted with impressive names in journalism and international aid and have taken on more responsibility than I thought would happen within my first few weeks on the job. You can see some of the things I've edited here. My name is on some press releases that have been distributed all over the world. There have been a few instances that have made me feel very capable and proficient, like when my press release was included in a headline in the Wall Street Journal and when I worked with our team in London to help deal with a crisis. I am a very small part of an almost unthinkably large organization (and really, a movement) and it intimidates me sometimes, but I get satisfaction out of Amnesty's successes because I feel so much a part of them. My friend said he thinks I have Potomac Fever. I said he might be right. Making ideas happen!

There have also been times when I realize that my understanding of world issues has grown so exponentially that I can explain certain issues to other people. I recently was talking about the Arab Spring, and how its inertia was gathered through decades of repression and how its effects will continue to ripple outward, and I surprised myself at my ability to understand something (at least generally) that had previously confounded me. This makes me happy because I like to measure my own progress in those kinds of terms instead of the amount of hours I spend in an office or an accumulation of possessions and security. Does that sound like I have thought about it too much, reader?

A lot of the time, the information that I read about and the initiatives of Amnesty International are more than I can internally handle. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the scope of the work and as if nothing I can do will contribute substantially, and at those times I mentally retreat into my other passions of art and fashion and music. I try not to let the grave situations that I read about jade my worldview. I have found that if I dwell on those things too much I will not last in this type of work. I started reading Conde Nast Traveler regularly to remind me that there is beauty and wonder amidst the hardship in the places I am constantly reading about.

All the pictures of the quotes you see here are from 'Savage Beauty,' the fashion book of Alexander McQueen. I started reading it over the winter and saw it on my friend's coffee table last night. I really like the quotes so I wanted to put them here to see if you liked them, too.  I love how they are quotes about fashion but they connect to equality and social justice and a lot of other things in life too. I have been thinking more about those issues as I've been here, but as you know I worked in retail over the summer and I developed a proclivity for fashion that has stuck with me now (I don't know if it's stuck with me long enough to call it a 'consistent commitment' though, I need to use that phrase judiciously). The other pictures are from my time here in DC and Philadelphia.

I hope that this has been interesting for you, reader. I am sorry I went so long without writing and I hope these ideas are not too scattered to understand. I hope that things continue to fascinate and intrigue you too and that we can talk about everything soon. xx