Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Loose Confederations

I never expected to be scared, but I am. I have to admit to myself that the feeling that rises up from the back of my neck into the base of my skull, from time to time, is fear. It’s a multifaceted fear, not just the substantial fight or flight kind of fear, although I do feel that element in it frequently. It’s a fear that springs from many sources. In Armenia and elsewhere, I felt freed from any kind of responsibility that would ultimately hold me accountable for mistakes. I was an outsider, and although I certainly did things that were incorrect I never really had to worry about facing stiff penalties for these actions. As a foreigner, it expected that I would commit all kinds of cultural blunders before my two years were through. No one expected me to be perfect. Armenia was understanding of my ineptitude. When I made a mistake I merely held up my hands in a gesture of supplication and otherness. “Sorry, but, after all, I’m a stranger here. Really? I can’t do that? Well, ok, I’ll try and remember that in the future.” And, in the end, the goofy foreigner is offered a coffee or a shot of vodka and everyone feels at ease again.
Of course there were times when this was maddening. When I was trying to accomplish something it could be infuriating to be patronized. I remember one particular occasion at a cafĂ©, when I had been in the country about four months. I had tried to order but the server had failed to understand me. I tried again, speaking slower and articulating the phrases that were, by that time, already very familiar to me. “I would like two coffees and a beer.” I don’t remember what I was ordering. The server again looked as if I had just wiggled my hands in my ears at her. When my site mate repeated the order she suddenly understood. “We said the exact same thing!” I pleaded later. “What the hell was the difference?”
I never figured out what had happened with this woman. For the next 24 months I lived in Armenia I never had anyone fail to understand a drink order from me again. And as far as I can tell, I changed nothing in my pronunciation. Sometimes, things just happened like that. There was an air of uncertainty that pounced on one immediately upon leaving the house. Going into the outside world one never knew what to expect. Sometimes everything flowed easily, sometimes it all got jammed up in abstruse cultural mores.
Here, I know what to expect and yet I feel afraid. I grew up in this society and though I have not lost touch with it there are now aspects of this society I refuse to take for granted as normal.
There is a man who comes over to the boarding house in Eureka. He has malice in his eyes. I tried to loosen the effect of his intense gaze by saying something, half-jokingly, to him a few days ago. His response was to narrow his eyes further and give me a “I can’t believe you have to audacity to talk to me” look. I go out into the neighborhood beyond my door and there are police everywhere, alarms in every building and people living on the fringes that feel like they have been let down by something, that feel angry. When they talk I can hear the smothered rage in their voices until the liquor or the meth. obscures it for a while.
As an American, heretofore, I hardly paid much attention to what was going on around me. I learned that it is always best not to involve yourself in the affairs of others. I was not easy to disgust. I was immune, modern, impossible to appall.
I am lying on a couch in Arcata when I hear them come in. Their conversation is careening drunk down side streets and thoroughfares of conversation. Mostly, they just banter and make fun of each other. I have the blanket over my head and lie still. I have nothing to add to what I am hearing, no reason to talk with these people. I can hear the posturing behind all of this. I think of all the empty conversations I have contributed to and know that I have no right to judge. I am only happy to think that when my friends and I go out to the bars we don’t feel the need to constantly insult each other. I can tell from one guy’s tone that he’s trying to pick a fight with a more passive-sounding kid. There’s something about the passive-sounding kid’s voice that strikes me as inherently cloying. He sounds like he’s whining and doesn’t try very hard to defend himself. Again, that feeling of fear begins to bristle in my neck.
The conversation turns to the passive kid’s mom. A few cheap shots are made, but the kid doesn’t seem to mind at all, in fact, after a few more insults he blurts out, ‘Hey, let’s call her.’
Nobody seems to be paying attention and they continue to talk amongst themselves. But I am listening to the absence of the passive kid’s voice, listening to what sounds like a drunken attempt to find the buttons on the phone.
“Hello, ma?”
‘Oh, no, you’ve got to be kidding me,’ I think to myself.
“Hey, I’m hanging out with the guys…” He goes on babbling, meanwhile, the others, not sure if he’s really got his mother on the phone, begin to belt out all kinds of insults against him. The passive-sounding kid repeats himself and slurs every other word. His mom must be able to tell that he’s drunk. But he goes on yammering away, like Holden Caulfield calling Sally, asking to come over and help trim the tree for Christmas.
After a while the phone is passed around to all the guys, there’s laughter in between. Although they all commend the kid’s mother they continue to disrespect the kid himself, and after I listened to him call his mother while absolutely shit-faced at 4 in the morning and have all his drunken friends talk to her, I don’t know whether he’s really deserving of any respect. In fact I was quite literally disgusted by what I heard, disgusted and afraid. It was no a fear of physical harm but rather just a desperate feeling that seems to work its way up through one after spending too much time in various venues of desperation.
I went home the next morning, after hardly sleeping. When I got back to my mildew-tinged room, I listened to the arguments clatter through the rest of the house. I began to feel a heavy anxiety. I wanted to get away from all the strife and apathy, to leave behind the people who cannot listen to each other but talk constantly and the places filled with the malice of years past and the portentousness of years to come.
I remember being filled once by a similar dread. It was about three months before I went into the Peace Corps when I had what cannot entirely be called a premonition or a vision, but was still particularly vivid. I had ridden my bike out beyond Arcata and had sat in an empty, dark green field. I thought about my impending journey and the years that would come. I thought about being that far from home, in a place where no one knew me. A cold wind rose up and I remember seeing myself lying prone on the street, having probably been hit by a car. There were people around but none of them took an interest in my problem. They didn’t even bother to stare, a man dying in the street was too commonplace. As the vision faded I began to feel a tremendous fear of dying alone in a strange place and a fear of the indifferent, passive-aggressive world. I know now that I had this fear because I grew up here where this fear is natural, where this fear has been created out of necessity. I know that in Armenia this fear does not exist. Having known that is sometimes greatly confuses my perspective today and makes me wonder where it is I really belong.

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