Monday, May 10, 2010

Dreaming with the TV on or Your Tone of Voice is far too Serious for this Occasion

There's a mania taking over. It's not really a bad thing; I haven't lost any ability or sense as a result and I wouldn't even say that anything has been dulled, still, I'm living with thoughts that vacillate so quickly I usually have a difficult time gauging my own opinion on anything, especially issues of importance. The problem here is that my service here is almost over. This brings a cascade of thoughts that have been building up for these last two years down on top of me. The stretch of time that separated the day I arrived from, say, today, often seemed interminable. I realize now that in my listless, day-to-day musings I was thinking about eventually leaving in such an abstract way that I had nearly blocked the possibility from my mind. Now, just two months from some kind of departure, I find I am not at all prepared for this drastic change. In part because I anticipated it far too much, and in part because I took my anticipation to be indulgence and not really connected to reality or worth my time.
The question I seem to be continually asking myself is whether or not I want to leave. Of course I don't want to stay here for ever, in fact even the idea of staying here another year is really not appealing at all. There are things I miss, things that I feel entitled to miss. Yet, the idea of returning to America does not fill me with enthusiasm either. I know I've built up a ridiculous picture of what America is in my mind. Two years of exaggeration have taken their toll. And when I really look through the memories the only relevant and worthwhile thing I can find are my friends and family. Yes, I desperately want to eat avocados, fake cream cheese, bagels and all sorts of crap again, but, really what is appreciation of such things? Am I going to savor the flavor of these things for months on end? Am I going to thrill every time I get on my bike (Which I've been without) for years? Yes, there's going to be an immediate, probably overwhelming shock of readjustment, but later, when these things again become normal, I know that my mind is going to wonder back to this place, the people I met and the things I did, and I already know that I'm going to regret not having done more of a great many things.
So I find myself in a kind of limbo. Stuck between the incredible contemplation of a realistic return home to all the things I have ever known and my last two months in Armenia, a place that I will not return to for many years, if ever, but none-the-less, a place where I have left an indelible mark of persistence, of will.
I know that I will continue to relive this place for years, much in the same way that I still remember what was happening in California right before I came here. Sometimes, what was two years ago seems like it was only a few months ago. For example, my last night in America, in Philadelphia, before catching a plane from NY the following evening,I walked around all night, past Ben Franklin's grave, down by the river, up to the north side, which seemed more hood than the west side. I remember walking through this city thinking over and over to myself that this was the country that I was going to be leaving the following day, that all the things I found familiar here were soon going to cease to exist except in memory.
I had my headphones on most of the night, I remember listening to "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" a lot and finishing a letter to a girl, shortly before trying to call her from eight different payphones and losing something like 6 dollars in quarters on old drugdeal AT&T coinslots. I went to a bar later on where other volunteers were meeting each other. I felt pretty numb to the whole thing, trying to remind myself that it would be a long time before I heard live rock music again.
And then, like that, it's the next summer and I'm standing in a bar in Novi Sad, Serbia listening to a decent rock band, with vague memories of a year in Armenia. After I left the country for my first vacation after a year, it was almost like I'd hardly spent more time than a month there. If I really pondered it I could pull up all kinds of memories from training and subsequent site placement, my first host family and moving out on my own after 7 months of living with families, but, usually, I didn't really ponder it, I just experienced it in waves of vertiginous dreams.
It'll be like that again, too. I'm going to lose a lot of this experience just by leaving. It's collapsible somehow. When I really want to think of it I will, but not without regret, but mostly I'll just remember the tunes to Armenian and Russki pop songs, the swallows outside my window and the sound of the recording on the Yerevan Metro, warning passengers that the doors are closing.
"skushasek dnera pakvum en--hajort gayarana yeritasardakan"
but that one I'll keep until I'm old, shuffling around a retirement center, mumbling it to myself through a trick of Alzheimer’s.

I haven't been writing much because I can’t help but to feel like these posting are becoming fairly formulaic. I try to elucidate on my internal struggle, my new dual identity as someone who lives in Armenia, someone who hasn't seen his friends and family in years, someone who has changed with none the usual people around to witness the change and, well, the kid who graduated from Jackson high in 2001, moved to Chicago, moved back to Michigan, worked in a bookstore, took road trips to Minneapolis and Pittsburg a lot because he knew people there eventually moved to San Francisco after discovering it to be the most beautiful city in the US, one February evening after driving all day up from LA, to the Richmond and getting out of a van that smelled like Red Bull and socks on 19th Ave and something, watching the light from the setting sun run up the street car rails that cut the streets out there. The kid who grew restless even in SF and moved up north and, eventually left for the Peace Corps, by again driving back across America for the forth time.
I write and try to reconcile these identities by talking about what I miss about America, indulging that character for a while, but this always seems kinda' fake, not that I don't miss these things, but I often find that I hardly have the attention to give full description to what I miss and why, mostly because my life here is continually hammering at my door. The kids who live in my building are coming in and bring their English homework, or their just coming in and asking me what I'm doing while sorta' drifting around my apartment, as kids are wont to do. If it's not that, someone's calling me asking me when the hell I'm ever going to come back over, people I met once, months ago are still calling me with this question and it's not unusual to me at all anymore. Even if nothing is deliberately intruding on my American musings Spring here is just too lively to ignore. In the evening the crickets chirp in alternating waves of somnolence, a sound at once so beautiful and bucolic that I listen to it and wonder why I ever enjoyed living in cities so much. During the day my neighbors are outside working on cars, revving the engines, yelling out their windows to each other, walking their babies, who have been imprisoned inside all winter, around the building. There are at least 5 different kinds of bird song that I can differentiate outside my window, all of them enchanting. When the kids get home from school they seem to just run frantically back and forth under my window, switching their aim every three minutes but always running, running and yelling. With all that going on I try to reflect on my time here, I try to think about what I left and what I'm going to return to and I'm not really there at all. I get fleeting glimpses of things, American things, that I try to write down, but can never seem to mold into anything substantial. I think about food and I mention that I miss certain food but no one, besides perhaps my mother, would care at all that I miss certain foods, to tell the truth I don't either. I write those kinds of things and I think to myself, "you're writing about avocados again, aren't you tired of writing about that?"
This all, of course, begs the question what the hell am I trying to express? If I'm totally acclimated to being here why do I keep trying to reminisce about things that I've obviously drifted too far away from to say anything interesting about. If my Armenian life and my American life can't be reconciled why do I continue to write about them in the same post? The only solution I have is that the two, for me, are totally intertwined. My Armenia doesn't exist without American fantasy. I can't really think to any time period that I was here when a certain facet of American living wasn't in the back of my mind. The first six months I was here it was the people. I just missed the raw material behind the people I knew in the states and wished I could somehow conjure up analogues to this in Armenia (I also didn't really have any friends here at that time.) Then, as I began to meet more and more people I began to miss the specific entertainment options. I would meet the people I had come to know and wish that we had something better to do than smoke cigarettes and talk, I wanted a background to the conversation like I'd always had at home, a bar, a bike ride, a to-go coffee and a beach-side bench. In time, I found this as well, cafes replaced cafes, mountains replaced the ocean, kitchens replaced bars, marshutkas replaced subways and bikes. As I became more and more acclimated I began to miss the little things, like sounds and flavors, things that are hard to replace, things that do not often play a very auspicious role in one's life but are constant. This began the long lament over foods and ephemera of life in America. But now I feel even this is fading, the little specific things have lost their import, they just aren't important enough and I can't hold on to them forever; I like the foods and the smells and the sounds of life here now. These things have become my life, and as they too are ephemeral I'm taking more time to appreciate them. So what does that leave me with? Just when it seems like I've gotten over every American fantasy my mind could conjure up, a new theme presents itself, probably the most troubling theme of all, that of pure fantasy. What now prompts me to write about America at all is nothing that comes from my own experience, but things I imagine I may be able to obtain when I go back, things that I have no familiarity with heretofore not because I've never done them, but I've never experienced them the way I think I will after having been away from them for years. It seems odd to say but this category of pure fantasy is probably the most mundane longing or nostalgia of all because it takes the most commonplace things and converts them into nearly limitless experiences. Let me give to an example to illustrate my point.
I was listening to This American Life today and there was a segment where two people talked about watching TV together and singing the theme song to a new TV show that they liked. A married couple singing along to a sitcom theme. When I heard this I was immediately transported to a reality where I was sitting next to someone after a long day of work and awaiting the start of our favorite new TV show. The between-shows commercials ended and the theme began, we began to sing lustily in anticipation of the continuation of a story we had come to appreciate and identify with. There was really nothing else to this fantasy, but while I was considering it I felt inexplicably happy, especially for someone who, back in the states, hadn't had any kind of network TV connection since 2002.
That's it, that's what I think about now when I think about going back to America. That's what makes me happy. The really boring parts of life that are probably the hardest to appreciate anywhere. I don't like TV, but the idea that it could really mean something to me and play a background role to the relationships I would have with other people is novel as hell. That's what entertains me now, the prospect that the things I used to reject as dull and unimportant will now be reinvigorated with a sense import, a sort of background potential I was never able to see before.
The only other thing I really think about, fairly frequently, are the cups of coffee I'd like to drink with different people in different places, some of them don't even make sense, that is, the cafes I'm putting these people in are thousands of miles, in some cases, from where they live. Sometimes my vision of America can almost be totally reduced to a handful of people and cafes, indeed there's really little else I'd want from it at this point, permitting a job.
There are about 14 weeks left. I'm going to travel around the country, work at a summer camp or two, finish all my paperwork and try to get a final project finished, then I'm going to Iran and onward to central Asia through Turkmenistan. My somewhat sedentary period is coming to an end, so the focus of this record is probably going to change. There's a lot to anticipate in returning to America, but I'm not going to write about it anymore, I think I exhausted it tonight. It would seem, just 20 days short of a full two years, I've finally used up all my desire, which should make this summer incredibly interesting.

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