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Actual Definite Someone

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A college admissions officer once remarked at an information session I attended a very long time ago, “Marry what you’ve done with what you want to do.” This is one of the few nuggets I remember from that absurd process (that, and the lady from Duke who ominously, Dukishly kept saying pogrom instead of program at some panel).

Mercifully, I haven’t had to think about the college admissions racket in a long time, but this advice returned to me recently while preparing for a job interview. Marry what you’ve done with what you want to do.

People like narratives. They want things to conform to a realistic perception of reality. Isn’t this one of the theses of Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow (I’m eager to read it)? If you’re interviewing for a job, then, you want to tell a story of how the job fits the trajectory you’ve been on. It’s not an unreasonable criterion; hiring managers are always looking for a “good fit”, not necessarily the best or most talented candidate, so they can find someone who will stick around.

Not surprisingly, when I interviewed recently, I had to explain why I wanted an insurance job in Philadelphia after a consulting job in Boston, a campaign job in Missouri, and a teaching job in former Soviet Georgia. You might be wondering the same thing. To some extent, I am too.

In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about ten things I’d do with unlimited time. A worthy exercise for a rainy day, I’d say. Looking back, I’m pleased to report I’ve completed or made good progress on four of those ten in my 17 months of wandering, but there’s a lot left over (I don’t speak Arabic yet!). Wandering I certainly did, though. I visited 20 states and ten countries, and slept 96 different places (almost biscuit level!), an average of more than one per week. Besides the obvious financial considerations, why stop the adventure now?

I’ve had ample time to consider happiness in the past 17 months. To think about life trajectories. Interviewers like to see their place in your narrative (Where do you see yourself in five years? - gag me), but life rarely happens like that. It’s more like a Plinko chip on The Price is Right. You come to a fork in the road, and you take it.

It’s been 514 days since I last sat in a cubicle, but tomorrow I’m ending the streak. I’m in Philadelphia and starting a job in insurance. That sounds like the opposite of happiness, you protest. I’m not so sure myself, but I hope that’s not the case. At very least, I’m embarking on another big experiment.

I recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, which unfortunately doesn’t live up to the hype, despite Mr. Franzen’s enviable talents. I enjoyed it nonetheless, although you can skip the book and just listen to Janis Joplin instead. But one passage stuck with me, about a privileged, conflicted youth named Joey.

This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.

The fictional Joey Berglund and I don’t have much in common. This passage comes just after he has just rescued his wedding ring from, well, his own waste. Plus he votes Republican. But the idea of narrowing choice and committing to being someone with a goal is an important one. Towards the end of my funemployment, I had lost my way amid the illusion of freedom. Committing to a structured job and lifestyle I hope will remedy this.  This is not to say I know where I will be in five years, but that I feel comfortable telling and believing in a coherent narrative.

Last week I went to see a talk by Anita Hill, who apparently has accomplished quite a lot since being harassed by Clarence Thomas and the US Senate twenty years ago. Her new book is about home, since where we live is a powerful determinant of the opportunities available to us. I’ve never faced foreclosure or eviction, so I can’t relate personally to Professor Hill’s primary subjects, the lower- and middle-class, predominantly minority Americans who have been ravaged by predatory lending and the housing bubble collapse.

While traveling, I learned to make temporary homes in myriad places, thanks to the gracious hospitality of many wonderful hosts, but I can say that I felt a yearning for the comfort of my own abode. The routines that home enables – walking to work, going to church, cooking delicious meals – are some of the rewards of stability. Plus lots of natural light and a sweeping view of the Delaware.

When I began my adventure, I thought it would be difficult to settle down again, that I’d have to (metaphorically, of course) dig around in my own shit for the ring to marry what I did with what I was going to do, but it hasn’t felt like that at all. In my interview last month, the narrative I told about my adventures – a time-out to learn some new skills, test out alternative careers, and quench the wanderlust – sounded plausible. More importantly, I believe it.

Lonely Planet

Unless you’re Paul Theroux, it’s a pretty safe bet nobody but your parents wants to read the play-by-play description of your travels. Nobody cares about that open-air bungalow you slept in near this nearly deserted beach, or that overgrown, unmarked valley you hiked into with those cool people you met at that chill bar, or even that contemporary art exhibition you took in at that trendy museum in a gritty neighborhood.

Which is why I haven’t written lately; there’s not been much to say. In the past few months, I’ve occupied countless places (even Lower Manhattan!) and the spaces between places: planes, trains, ferries, a train driven onto a ferry (oh, those Scandinavians), subways,  funicular railways, cable cars, and buses of all shapes and sizes. So many buses.

Vermont. Boston. Hartford. New York. Columbus. Minneapolis. Washington, D.C. Baltimore. Philadelphia. Buffalo. Niagara Falls. Zurich. Munich. Prague. Berlin. Copenhagen. Izmir. Cappadocia. Now the Turkish Mediterranean (Fethiye, Kabak, Kas, Olympos, Antalya). Then Tbilisi. Zanavi. Rome. Bologna. Zurich. Philadelphia. Boulder. Tires me out just typing this.

Yet, for all the new adventures and exploration, for all the interesting places I’ve seen, museums I’ve visited, natural phenomena I’ve witnessed, cultural events I’ve crashed, interesting people I’ve met, old friends I’ve visited, as much of a privilege as it is to drop everything and see the world, there’s something missing about long-term travel. Which may be among the most important things I’ve actually learned.

Don’t get me wrong. Travel for the sake of travel is a real learning experience.  Trust me, I’ve learned and experienced. Sampled small-batch maple syrups. Saw the Huffington Post newsroom. Biked the National Mall at midnight. Gazed at International Klein Blue and Cy Twombly. Read Philip Roth. Designated-drove my grandfather. Zip-lined through the trees on Mt. Pilatus. Hiked a cliff above Lake Lucerne. Co-taught an 11th-grade geography lesson. Drank a liter of beer at Oktoberfest. Practiced pronouncing Reinheitsgebot. Watched a soccer game at Allianz Arena. Nearly threw up at a concentration camp. Caught the world-record finish at the Berlin Marathon. Photographed balloons at sunrise. Toasted some leg hair at the eternal flame of the Chimaera. Dropped in on people’s lives. Ate kebabs and goulash and fondue and Weisswurst. Above all, learned about hospitality from the wonderful folks who have hosted me along the way.

Travel can do amazing things. I’d like to think if all the Americans who rail against Islam were to spend one week in Jordan or Egypt or even Turkey, they’d be far more tolerant towards Muslims going forward. I’d like to think if everyone visited Sachsenhausen, we’d never forget Never Again (at very least, we’d probably stop comparing American politicians to Hitler) I’d like to think if more Israelis saw the remains of the Berlin Wall, they’d think twice before blindly supporting the “Security Fence”.  Travel can open our eyes to history and culture in a way a book or documentary never could. And it sure beats watching “Jersey Shore”.

So what’s my beef? Why shouldn’t we all just quit our jobs and travel if we have the money? Why is showing up at the beach or museum on a Monday morning about as satisfying as showing up at the office, or perhaps even less so?

Because seeing without doing is massively unsatisfying after awhile. Travelers float around and see places without any imperative to do or create anything other than impressions in our own heads. We’re like Greg Gumbels of an eternal half-time, always looking in to check the highlights without sticking around to understand the context, the storylines, the ebb and flow.

Because being a responsible member of society means producing things, whether it be art or spreadsheets or sandwiches or small businesses or well-behaved children or clean toilets. And dropping out of that, even to learn and observe and not just sit on the beach, strikes me as terribly self-indulgent.

Travelers like to talk about “finding ourselves”, as if we were missing to begin with, as if we’re hiding in the next hostel or valley or mosque or minibus, as if by sharing a beer with enough strangers or drinking a cup of tea with a “local” or hiking to this totally awesome panorama, we will have an epiphany about how we should spend our lives.

Yet we find ourselves not by honing that 30-second life story we tell to every traveler who politely asks and pretends to listen, not by posturing over who has had the most “authentic” travel moment, not by looking out the window on buses or trains, not by finding the most remote place to camp, but by trying and failing and succeeding and experimenting at actually doing things. Which is why I learned more about myself in my cube in Boston or my space at the table in Rolla, MO or my classroom in Zanavi, Georgia than I ever have visiting a solitary beach bungalow or pulsating capital.

We find ourselves when we take on responsibility for getting something done, for committing to be accountable towards friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, partners,  for making ourselves vulnerable to failure and disappointment. Aside from rainy weather, late buses, and overrated attractions, these don’t exist as a traveler. If our standards for adventure are just to have one, we’re not really taking any risks. Hence the muted reward. And lack of interested travel readers.

So there you have it. Here’s my advice: keep your job (or keep trying different ones), agitate for as much vacation time as you can, visit varied, interesting places and maintain a keen eye on culture and history, and don’t worry when it’s time to get back to work. You’re not missing much.

of course if you can run 26 miles in two hours, you can travel and work at the same time

I thought I’d like the Kindle. I’d been ogling the Amazon.com page. Backlit so you can read outside! A built-in dictionary! A million books, right at your fingertips! What’s not to like?

Before I could get around to adding one to my cart, typing in my credit card number, and refreshing the UPS package tracker until it arrived at my front door in the arms of a uniformed bringer-of-joy, I borrowed one from a friend to try out for the summer. I downloaded — for free, because of expired copyright – Madame Bovary, a classic I somehow escaped reading in high school. Also, because I could, War and Peace, although the thought of clicking through 3,000 Kindle pages makes this one a non-starter.  Now, I’ve read exactly 68% of Bovary, according to the handy meter at the bottom of my screen, which gives me enough experience to say I just don’t like the Kindle. Just as music purists find that a Bose iPod dock, regardless of sound quality, can’t replicate the experience of putting on an LP, the magic-ink electrons arranging themselves into Flaubert prose can’t compete with admiring the cover, feeling the heft, and turning the pages of an actual book.

More than sapping the pleasure of reading itself, though, the Kindle extinguishes the anticipatory thrill of finding a new book. A recent Dutch study found that people got the most joy out of planning a vacation, not the trip itself or the post-holiday memories. I suspect the same principle applies to consuming books. For me, being a reader means checking reviews, carrying a mental list of interesting titles, browsing the shelves at a used bookstore, surprising myself with what I find, carrying home the quarry, and letting it sit on my shelf (more likely, table or floor) until it’s time to read. Trawling Amazon.com’s personalized recommendations compresses the thrill; downloading a set of electronic words to sit on my Home Screen eliminates it completely.

Across all media, technology’s sexy promise of instant gratification squashes the inherent pleasure of anticipation. It didn’t used to be like this. I remember watching the second Back to the Future on VHS with my parents one night, then begging my dad to drive into town to rent the third movie because I couldn’t stand to wait until the next day (he eventually obliged). Now, back to this future, a kid could just click “Next” on Netflix and avoid any wait — and the excitement — at all.

Last year, when I got sick, I tore through four seasons of 30 Rock” in a week; now, those episodes blur together, with jokes and plotlines I’ll never remember. This month, I’m catching up on all those culturally vital 80s and 90s movies you couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen and blazing through the first season of “Mad Men”. Each episode features exquisite, if disturbing, storytelling, but it’s nearly impossible to chew one thoroughly before starting on the next.

It gets worse. I signed up for Spotify this morning, a service which — if you haven’t heard — allows you to stream any song, instantly, for free. I don’t know much about music, but like infinite databases of books, movies, TV shows, TED talks, fantasy football statistics, and skateboarding squirrels, Spotify will bewilder us with the promise of unlimited, immediate, consumable satiation. Have you heard that great new indie band? You should check it out…

I read a piece recently in the Times Magazine, another source of must-read online content, analyzing the fragmentation of music taste and the demise of America’s Top 40 hits. No longer does a “distant and indistinct authority” dictate and rank music preferences; instead, we Like and Share and Retweet unknown musicians into and out of glory. How else do you explain the micro-celebrity of the young woman who appears for exactly four seconds in the music video of another Warholian star, Rebecca Black? [full disclosure: I instantly downloaded the awfully catchy, hit song "Friday" on iTunes, for teaching purposes only, of course!]

Such lack of cultural authority is liberating, in a way: Netflix, Kindle, YouTube, Pandora, and other services have opened content-producing opportunity and expanded the flickering possibility of fame and fortune  to anyone with a computer, an eye for novelty, and a gift for self-promotion. Also, in some cases, creative talent.

Yet for me, and, I suspect, many other conformist guzzlers of online culture, this Huffington Posterization of traditional media does more harm than good. Both the immediacy and volume of content available to us online cheapens it, like a cultural hyperinflation; the minute we’ve consumed something, we move on to the next, each book, show, song, journalistic feature, photo, movie, or blog post worth less and less in our vast, expanding treasury of experiences.

In craving more and more, I find myself chained to my computer, as I anticipate the next blurb of knowledge to arrive in my Google Reader feed, on my personalized list of New York Times article recommendations, on my Pandora stream, or on my Netflix suggestions. Instant gratification is as addictive and demanding as it is empty of value. And I don’t even use Twitter.

Furthermore, the individualization of media is fragmenting our communities and even our own homes, as in this dystopian profile of families spending their evenings each worshiping a different electronic device. Contrast that to the (admittedly far-from-ideal) “Mad Men” era of TV dinners and network programming. Or, to borrow from recent personal experience, every member of my Georgian host family anxiously awaiting the Monday night showing of Georgia’s Got Talent, which the whole country seemed to follow.

I value the choice of what and when to consume. But relating to others in our families and communities over shared culture now takes far more effort, a command of far wider swaths of entertainment and knowledge, in our you-era of media. I try to stay away from Lolcats and messed-up cakes and smug reports about Newt Gingrich’s fake Twitter followers, but even limiting myself to what my socioeconomic group would consider rich in cultural vitamins and minerals is overwhelming.

What should we do about it? For me, getting a job might help, but I fear even then online media will seep into whatever cracks of time I leave unsealed. I’ve already pared my Google Reader selections, yet I still check it compulsively. I hope I’ll let my free Netflix trial expire, and I’ll keep patronizing bookstores instead of buying a Kindle. I’m staying away from Twitter and cutting back on Facebook. Other than that, I don’t know how to fight off the overwhelming availability of interesting yet devalued content. Maybe we should browse the Apple store … there’s probably an app for it.

p.s. Please Retweet!

Summer of Like

My favorite (really only) career blogger I read, Penelope Trunk, says that happiness is largely dependent on self-discipline. More precisely, that increasing happiness – or satisfaction, joy, fulfillment, eudaimonia, pick your preferred term – requires taking actions which require self-discipline to sustain. Going to the gym, writing a happiness journal, volunteering – all ubiquitous recommendations from the happiness industry – are easy to start but difficult to maintain. A supportive (nagging?) partner or commitment contract might help, but only self-discipline keeps us getting up early to run, staying up late to write, or skipping happy hour to help.

I am many things, but self-disciplined is not one of them. I’ve studied eight different foreign languages for one year each and barely remember a word in most of them. The old hard drives gathering dust in my parents’ house are scattered with the occasional first page or two of once-promising (if juvenile) stories.  I quit my job just before finishing a major career education milestone, then spent four straight days building a rudimentary website with a job-quitting, traveling theme, before promptly giving up. In a way, spending seven months teaching Georgian village kids, then packing up and moving on, counts as an example too.

I’ve always justified my lack of follow-through.  The excitement of starting each new language course in high school, for example, vastly outweighed the desire to trudge ahead with conjugating conditional tenses. As a wanna-be writer, I’d dive into a story, crank out a catchy beginning, then get bogged down in the difficult task of writing a solid middle and realize I just wasn’t that creative, at least without more practice and effort than I was willing to commit. I never got far enough to worry about the end.  The travel blogging industry, I learned quickly, is something of a pyramid scheme, propped up by a few early entrants gathering page views and Adsense revenue and selling e-books with how-to guides for following in their footsteps. The allure of writing pithy adventure stories from anywhere in the world, and selling ad space to support myself, was hard to ignore until I realized there are an ever-increasing number of websites competing for a relatively constant number of eyeballs. And teaching English in Georgia often felt like trying to chug a giant horn full of wine, an overwhelming, disorienting and unhealthy task.

For all of these half-baked ventures, I have viable excuses for packing it in early. But underlying them was the fact that I didn’t want to work hard enough to actually accomplish anything. Moving on to some new venture, eyeing, say, the open promise of a blank Word document, the first page of a beginning language textbook, or a new place to live is exciting but also easier. I’ve traded the hard-won feeling of achievement for the cheap thrill of novelty.

Jonathan Franzen diagnosed my problem in a recent commencement speech he turned into a Times op-ed. Liking, he says – a verb redefined by its new association with a cheap vote of Facebook approval – is easy. Click a button. Purchase a new gadget. Read The Huffington Post. To love something though, to have the passion, self-confidence, and discipline to pursue something fully, is to expose yourself to both the highs of acceptance and the “catastrophically painful” lows of rejection.

I like a lot of things: books, photography, writing, sports, travel. I’m interested in health care finance, education, economics, literature, journalism, languages. Politics is a steady stream of disappointment, but I can still tell you all about the debt ceiling fight and the Republican primary race.

I don’t know what to love yet. Loving something risks time, energy, money, reputation, and self-confidence. While the potential payoff in satisfaction, if not wealth, may be huge, deciding what to love takes some thought and prudence. How do you know when to love something and when to send it to join the other detritus of failed experiments? When is self-discipline just stubbornness or irrationality in disguise?

Although I don’t know what to love yet, what problem or question to throw myself at, I figure I can develop some good habits, just in case. This summer I’ve treated myself to another fresh start, the exciting promise of a blank slate of time. I’m a stay-at-home dad without any kids, holed up in an adorable if toasty second-story apartment in New England. Penelope Trunk cites research showing self-discipline is like a muscle you can strengthen, and I’m determined to spend my summer working out.

My goals: learn how to cook, study photography, and practice creative writing. Wolfgang Puck has nothing to worry about. National Geographic and The New Yorker aren’t blowing up my phone. But that’s not the point.

My fridge is stocked with fresh vegetables, cheese, some delicious locally produced bacon, and, of course, maple syrup. I’ve made some tasty, healthy meals, I’m much more confident in the kitchen, and developed – if my self-discipline persists – a lifelong habit. I’ve eaten out twice in the last two and a half weeks, by far a personal best. At very least, I’m a much more accomplished dish washer!

I’ve devoured some photography books and practiced shooting with the new lenses I just bought. Will I become a professional photographer? I doubt it, but I’ve cultivated a sustained hobby and a skill which I’ve improved dramatically over the past year.

And writing? I’ve managed to keep blogging for over a year (with a lengthy hiatus or two), putting tens of thousands of words into relatively coherent thoughts. For a kid who’d buy a journal, resolve to keep a diary, write entries for two days and quit, this is a real accomplishment, whether anyone reads my writing or not.

I like the idea of writing, of being a writer. So I’m determined to practice, to exercise some self-discipline and branch out into fiction, which I’ve long harbored aspirations of mastering. I’m working my way through a stack of books on writing written by writers (perhaps a sign that fiction writing, like travel blogging, is a pyramid scheme). Fiction writing can be taught, these books promise, but like anything, takes ample dedication.  For the summer, anyway, I’m trying to maintain the discipline to practice. I’m waking up at 6:30, reading the Times, showering, eating and preparing to start work at 9.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that writing good fiction is really difficult. But within reach, I hope, with a concerted effort. I’ve started work on a short story, gotten down that first page like all those fresh starts before. This time, though, I want to write that middle and ending. If I do, it will no doubt feel rough, amateur, and contrived, even after editing. But it will be finished, and for me, that’s a real accomplishment.

 

The Known World

You can’t open a newspaper these days without reading about how technology is bringing people closer together. Thomas Friedman says the world is flat. Twitter is apparently helping overthrow governments in the Middle East. But for the residents of Zanavi Village, in the western part of Samtskhe-Javakheti province, 30 kilometers from Akhaltsikhe and 3 to 5 kilometers up the winding, bumpy dirt road from Adigeni (depending on which sign you believe), the world is round, like a snow globe.

Within this verdant bubble of nature, livestock and humanity, daily dramas are unfolding right now, like stories on the world’s most boring reality TV show (three hundred people trapped in a small village … who will win immunity from watching the sheep this week?!) If Zanavi were a setting for a novel (if I’m disciplined enough, it might be!), it would be richly imagined, full of quirky, lovable characters, back stories, and complicated relationships I never quite figured out. I used to be a part of that story. But right now, as I write or you read this, their lives go on without me.

Tamriko – sweet-as-baklava, 30-year-old, devoted mother of a teenage daughter and two nine-year-old twin boys – is decked out in her Georgian-housewife uniform: long, dark skirt, high wool socks, blue plastic sandals, knit shirt, and brightly colored bandana. She’s mopping up the fresh mud that’s appeared on the front porch, or yelling at the kids to eat their breakfast, or reaching her bare hand into the oven to check the bread or add more wood to the fire. Or she’s weeding the field, bent over at the waist at a 90-degree angle, wearing her torn straw hat. She’s naïve and wise at the same time; she has an eighth grade education but runs her family with a determined, patient, loving grace she could teach future executives at a managerial training program. She seemed like both my mom and my little sister, scolding me for sleeping too much and jumping out from behind corners to boo! me at opportune moments. And she cried when we hugged and said goodbye.

Merabi, the dad, is chopping wood in the front yard, cutting the waist-high grass with his scythe, taking a nap, commanding Tamriko to bring him a dried pepper from the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, or toasting to someone’s health and future. If the latter, he’s likely sitting around a table knocking back juice glasses of vinegary white wine with his drinking buddies, Malkhazi and Tamazi and Nodari and maybe his brother, Gurami, all Toastmasters of their little Universe. Or he’s staring off into space, or at his computer screen, thinking only God knows what. Whether he’s contented with his family and job and land and animals or secretly yearning for a life of adventure and culture, I’ll never know.

Indira, the daughter, has her earbuds in and is listening to the new Lady Gaga single I bought her off iTunes while she sweeps the steps with the stubby twig broom or scrubs dishes clean in a pink, plastic tub of filthy water. Or she’s practicing traditional Georgian dance, bringing her father a plate, or she’s in her room gossiping about boys with her cousins. We hardly exchanged any words, and yet I always thought I saw a twinkle in her eye, as if she, more than anyone else, grasped the absurdity of a yuppie kid from suburban Colorado living with her family in a rural Georgian village.

The twins, Lasha and Giorgi, are fixing their bicycles in the front yard, spewing a tornado of bread crumbs across the table while they eat breakfast, playing cards, whining, or asking their father chirpy questions about the world they live in. Maybe they’re sitting on the makeshift picnic bench in front of the one-room, unlit store up the road, watching the older boys and men gamble and drink. Named after a Georgian king, Lasha Giorgi, they too are kings of their little realm, which stretches from the apple and quince trees at the end of the potato field to the long driveway and front yard, to the grassy expanse outside the school across the street, to the small soccer field which looks out over the valley below. In the last six months, they have learned that Americans don’t speak Georgian or buy things with Lari, that there are apples and bananas in America but not khinkali (Georgian dumplings), and they now have a vague concept of a cheeseburger. They’re the little brothers I never had, and I’m devastated I don’t get to watch them grow up, to help nudge them into kind, gentle, wise, non-smoking young men.

Grandma and grandpa have moved to their house at the top of the mountain to let the cows munch away at vast grassy meadows and make cheese all summer. Grandma is milking the cows or frying up some potatoes, and grandpa is sleeping off his latest drinking binge or muttering about Vladimir Putin.

The hen is watching her twelve little chicks explore the yard in search of food, the rooster is crowing, the dog is asleep underneath the van, the tiger-colored cat is sneaking into the house and getting shooed out again, and the sheep are devouring grass up in the meadow or shuffling aimlessly in the barn attached to the back of the house.

My students are now on summer break, which means they’ll study about as much as they did when school was officially in session. The boys are herding cows, swimming, and playing soccer, and the girls are cooking, cleaning and waiting on their drunken fathers, brothers, and uncles. Their heads are empty of math, history, science, geography, and, frankly, English, but every one of them is an A student at vocational tech or home economics.

What kind of world they will inherit I don’t know and likely never will. Now they poke each other with sticks and calloused fingers and write on walls with tiny pieces of chalk, but they have never heard of Facebook. I suspect it will creep its way up the mountain eventually, and with it, maybe, a Thomas Friedman reality of a world connected to everywhere else. What does this mean for kids learning to be self-sustaining farmers? Maybe nothing. Maybe the endless cycle of snowy winters, muddy springs, hot summers, and bountiful autumns will continue, with all its rituals and toasts and birthdays, leisure and chores and not much else. Or perhaps these kids, like the rest of us, will be forced to grapple with complicated issues like climate change, creeping westernization, and changing geopolitics, which can’t be solved with a hammer, plow, hoe, broom, spade, kettle, or axe.

And me? I’m at an airport, with my backpack and mini computer and iPod and camera, shuttling between worlds. Or I’m with family, or friends, dropping in to say hello and watch other people live their lives. Technology makes such a life possible: I can arrange flights on the internet, track down friends on Facebook, and plan new adventures with the click of a button. It, among other privileges, liberates me to choose an interesting life over a comfortable one.

But in leaving Zanavi, in saying goodbye to the host family for the final time, I am reminded of the tradeoffs of such a path. The villagers have no such choice, but they too are liberated by their isolation from forces which drive apart communities and from a global culture of conspicuous consumption which alters our priorities. They are free to grow their crops, raise their kids, and tell their toasts how they like. I suspect many of them are quite happy this way.


Even the weather is anti-climatic. The mud sticks to my shoes as I trek around back, past the barn, to relieve myself in the outhouse for one of the final times. It’s chilly and drizzly, more like April than June. Yet it seems fitting for the mood.

School is done for the year. Though class officially ends on Wednesday, it’s been over for a long time. Friday I went to school with three friends, visiting the village for my birthday, and I prepared to show them the struggles I’ve had teaching here.

We back the van out the long, dirt driveway, where my co-teacher is waiting for us. She has a conversation with the principal and negotiates a day off, heading towards the house to help the women in my host family prepare for my birthday feast later that afternoon.

The van bounces down the road towards school. As usual, I haven’t prepared anything because it’s impossible to anticipate whether I will have a co-teacher, which classes I will teach, and which students will show up. Plus, frankly, I’ve succumbed to the downward spiral of low expectations. So my friends and I brainstorm fun activities we can do.

I bought all the ninth graders new English books recently: a glossy, red threesome of textbook, workbook, and mini-dictionary produced by a respected British publisher, written by people who have thought a long time about how to structure a curriculum. So much easier to teach from this than either their old book or the untrained recesses of my own head. I had planned to cover nine or ten lessons in the two months they’ve had the books, but instead we’ve finished three. The high hopes I once had of making a difference in the students’ language abilities have all but fizzled.

Today is a perfect example of why. Four of nine students have decided to come, and without a co-teacher to translate or a printer to prepare pictures or other tools to explain vocabulary and grammar, even teaching from the book is prohibitively difficult.

Instead, one of my friends has suggested we teach the Hokey Pokey, a kind of fun end-of-school activity to review body parts, “in”, “out”, “left”, and “right”. Of course they’ve never learned these before, or they’ve forgotten them, so I write the key words on the board and we practice saying them.

Then I teach the lyrics, make everyone stand up, and we sing together. My friends shoot some pictures and help soften out the scratchy, tuneless noise of my singing voice. It’s a good time, we all have fun, and they’ve ideally learned a few new words.

Put your left hand in

The bell rings and we retreat to the teachers’ room. The handful of students at school bump and set a volleyball in a circle we can see from the window, so my friends and I head out to join them and snap some more pictures. It’s a beautiful day (the last before the rainy weather set in), and the principal comes outside with his cigarette.

“No more lessons today,” he says, and joins in the volleyball game, which now involves spiking the ball at the kids banished to the middle of the circle after making a mistake.

We migrate to the soccer field, a tiny, tilted pitch surrounded by trees, the unofficial out-of-bounds lines extending up a steep slope into the forest. It’s a carefree late-morning, unencumbered by the sorts of stresses which typically face students at the end of school. No final exams, no summers to plan, no yearbook signing. Just chasing a torn, underinflated ball up and down a pine-needle strewn slope.

My best students approach me during the game; they want one last English lesson. You know your school is failing you when you have to ask for a lesson. We traipse inside; my forehead is glistening by this point and I’ve abandoned the button-down in favor of the white t-shirt underneath. We learn the Hokey Pokey and play some Hangman – nothing serious. But it’s the most concrete and satisfying evidence of any results I may have achieved here.

Then we’re done. The kids go home, the teachers and my friends and I head back to the house for the birthday celebration.

It’s a good time. The usual Georgian feast, with the usual toasts, except with a bunch of English speakers, so we can say our real thoughts and have them understood. We toast and eat and dance (poorly, in my case) for longer than you’d think enjoyable or possible, but it’s a good time [for a great play-by-play description, check out my friend Stef's blog here]. Certainly an unforgettable birthday.

But it too is over. The next day, we hike to a 13th century castle a few hours’ walk from my house [Stef has written about this here]. Also really fun, except that it rains steadily most of the way back, so we’re soaked by the time we get home. The next day, my friends depart to various corners of Georgia, while I begin to focus on my last week in the village.

Today is Tuesday, and I’m leaving for Tbilisi on Friday. Supposedly I’m flying back to Boston on Sunday or Monday, but the folks buying my ticket are – to put it mildly – not the most punctual or communicative.

I showed up at school this morning, again with no lesson planned. Why bother at this point? It’s 10 AM and I’m the only teacher around; a handful of students stand around in the mud outside. The other teachers finally trickle in, but there’s no point in teaching anything, so the kids are sent home.

So my work here is officially done. Tomorrow is technically the last day, but we’re starting the drinking and toasting in the early afternoon, to celebrate the ninth grade graduation. In my mind, they’ve haven’t really accomplished much worth celebrating (if I had any say in their grades, I would have failed all but one student), but it will be a nice way to say goodbye.

In the family, too, there’s a sense of withdrawal. Grandma and grandpa have taken the cows to the mountain cabin, where they will make cheese all summer. It’s quiet around the house, as if I’m hardly still here. And though I’ve worked to stay present, I’m checking out myself, preparing for a change of scenery, some delicious Thai food, and the blank slate which awaits me in the US.

I spend the remaining hours here pondering big questions. There’s lots of time for that. I wonder what will happen to the family, to the students, to the school. The Minister of Education, among others, promises big changes which might affect all three.

But the forces of culture are not easily redirected. If I’m to judge by the quiet and the rain and the celebrations, the baby goats and goslings that roam the dirt road through the village, and the crowing of roosters strutting around the yard and cries of children playing soccer on a Friday morning, this place will go on much as it has for years and years and years before. Like my footprints in the mud on the way to the bathroom, their American visitor will have a brief impact, then be washed away the next time it rains.

Note: You can check out my related post here.

 

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