Thursday, November 15, 2007

This Post is a Bright Light at the End of a Long Tunnel. Or: Metaphorically Speaking.

I’ve been thinking about metaphors.[1] I’ve been thinking about how we need metaphors, how we need to use totally arbitrary and usually quite stupid symbols to help us cope with the fact that life, as we know it, is completely and totally beyond our comprehension.[2] You may think that you understand life. Trust me; you do not. You may think that you understand YOUR life. Trust me; you do not. You may think that you have some grasp on how the humans on this planet relate to one another on an essential level, or how we interact with our environments, or what the friggin’ point is, of everything. If you think this, you are stupid, or naïve, or dangerously underversed in life’s lifeities, and you should leave this blog immediately before you contaminate any of the HTML code.[3]

I start with this not because I have been feeling extra-contemplative, today, nor has anything happened that has caused me to rethink everything I ever thought.[4] I start with this because I have been thinking about light bulbs, and light bulbs are an excellent metaphor. For instance: last night, a light went on for me, when I found myself accidentally standing in the middle of a small lake where I was expecting the road to be. Wait. Sorry. Not a metaphor. The actual light, on my crank flashlight, was turned on at that point, by me, about five seconds after I apparently needed it.

Ok, better example: a light went on for me, yesterday morning, when I was talking online with my friend Naresh. I was explaining the spectrum of squat toilets, and the qualities of good ones, and the qualities of quite bad ones, and the qualities of the squat toilet at Tskhinvali State University, in Gori, which is more disgusting than the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen in your life times ten. I was discussing technique, and the required flexibility, and a fun variation on a squat toilet which I have termed a “half-squatter,” which is a western toilet with no seat that is far more common here than you’d think, despite the fact that it’s like boxer briefs in its combination of the worst of two alternatives.[5] And the metaphorical light went on: I realized that I could talk, at this point, for hours, about this. About toilets. It wasn’t a bad light[6] or a good light[7]. It was just a neutral metaphorical light. Hm, I thought. So there’s another thing I am a total expert in, now.[8] This is an example of what I mean, about life. You probably think you know what there is to know about toilets. I am here to tell you that you do not. And what you know about life is the same as what you know about toilets. But I am getting away from my primary metaphor.

Lights are a much better metaphor here than they are in America. In America, you control when the lights go on and off. Choice robs the light of its metaphorical power. A person who chooses to turn on his flashlight when he discovers himself in the middle of a small lake is the beneficiary of no unexpected wisdom.[9] He expects to learn something when he turns that light on. He is a mover and a shaker in his own informational universe. But a person for whom the lights turn themselves on and off is a person who often receives information he was not expecting.[10] He may receive new information at any time, and he may also have information withheld from him. He is neither a mover nor a shaker. He is a deaf mute, and Life is Annie Sullivan.

Thus, living in a country with an irregular power supply affords one the benefit of better understanding that the metaphor of the light works both ways. In America, the light is only used as a metaphor for sudden understanding. “The light went on for me.” In Georgia, we volunteers know all too well that the light can also go off. It can go off literally, perhaps while you are sitting or squatting on the toilet in an enclosed room with no other light source. Or it can go off metaphorically, a sudden realization that you know less than you knew yesterday.

We volunteers are acquainted with this feeling, because it tends to happen a lot – almost as many times as the actual electricity goes out. In America, you might find yourself in a light-off situation only a few times in your adult life. Your first month at college. Perhaps a new job, a new city, your first child. Most of the time, this is simply an uncomfortable new situation, nothing radical, and nothing too difficult. Perhaps you must adjust your mental outlook slightly, or change a behavior. In Georgia, slightly changing a behavior would do absolutely no good in reducing the number of times you sit back and think boyyyyy do I know jack about what I have gotten myself into. A light turns off, for instance, when you first arrive at staging, when you look around at a DC hotel conference room full of people you do not know and realize that you will be forced to create a dangerous number of flipcharts demonstrating teamwork with them. After two days in staging, you think that light’s back on. You engage in witty banter with the others and have deep conversations over Mexican food or real pizza about what it means to be a volunteer.

Then, you jump on a plane to your actual destination. If you’re Georgia/7, you arrive after two days, two flights, and one hangover-induced bus coma in a place where the water is not drinkable, the language is not readable, the cows are not movable, and there’s definitely no Mexican food. Light, meet the off position again, please. After a week in lockdown at an abandoned Soviet hotel, you again think you know “Georgia.” Please. No soup for you. You are dumped into a host family, with whom you are not yet even able to communicate the intensity of your need for a bath.[11] And over the course of the next ten weeks, you start to think that maybe you’ve got this lighting problem rewired, figured out, solved. This language isn’t so bad, and you kind of like this town, you say to the fourteen other Americans with whom you gather every evening to bitch about training over mugs of shitty beer.[12] But then, almost as if you did had no idea this would ever happen, you are placed at your permanent site, and those fourteen Americans have vanished, and so have the Georgian people who speak perfect English and can help you when you make a language mistake, and so has the nice new bathroom that Peace Corps built for you when it realized that one more week of the squat toilets at Tskhinvali State would have caused a riot. Goddamn, you think, where’s that light switch when I need it?

I was thinking specifically about the light switch yesterday, when I did some reading on the current WGA strike in LA and New York. What? you say. The WGA is the film and television writers’ guild, and it is currently striking for more somethingorother.[13] You have probably heard about this; perhaps you are viciously angry that The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is in reruns, or perhaps you read a newspaper, where TV and film writers have been flocking in recent days to describe their strike in self-congratulatory witticisms, because boy they just can’t help themselves. I was reading about this strike, and I realized that I was not sure this was what I wanted to do, when I get back to America, and hey where did the electricity go? As metaphorical power outages go, this one is likely to last a lot longer than the previous ones.

I have wanted to be a film writer/director for a long time. It is what I worked towards for five years, in and after college. I knew I was taking a calculated risk in dropping that to join Peace Corps – the possibility of losing five years’ worth of momentum was probably my biggest fear, and would likely have been the biggest contributing reason had I decided not to accept my invitation to Georgia. My plan was to finish Peace Corps, having matured as a person and a potential artist, and then go back to film school. When I got here, it didn’t take long to realize just how long these two years are – not temporally, but mentally. I will be a vastly different person in September 2009 than I am now, and I am likely already a vastly different person than I was in June.[14] I recognized early on that saying with any certainty what I’d be doing when I left Peace Corps was stupid; I started saying that I’d “probably” be going back to Los Angeles to resume what I’d been doing before. But, reading about the strike, I found myself asking another question; not, “are you sure?” but, “are you sure you want to?” In reading about the striking writers, and their demands, with which I am entirely sympathetic, everyone involved suddenly seemed very……whiny.

“We want a piece of internet revenue!” say the writers.
“No,” say the producers.
“You’re all evil meanieheads!” retort the writers, who are striking and thus not allowed to come up with something more clever.
“Nu-uh,” scoff the producers, who have no writers and are thus rendered entirely monosyllabic.
“Oh yeah? See how long you can last without new episodes of ‘Cane’ and ‘ER’!”
“We’ll just add reality programming!”
“Everyone hates reality programming!”
long pause

At this point, I am thinking, “Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. I work with people for whom 50 dollars might be more than a month’s pay. And I am trying to purchase cameras so the kids here can make their own documentaries; perhaps you could take some of that newfound internet money and give me some of it.” And thinking this surprises me; I am not an insufferable third-world tart like Sally Struthers, feasting on the overconsumption insecurities of Americans, feeding them emotional pornography, and showing them where they can send the check. My heart has not started bleeding more than usual, and I am making no plans to spend the rest of my life working for Save the Children International. I merely think, at this moment, that the people who do what I wanted to do seem sort of whiny, and I’m not sure how badly I want to do it when I return to America, and that’s a real son of a bitch, because that means maybe I have to pick something else.

Or maybe I will get to summer 2009 and decide that I do, after all, want to return to Hollywood. Who knows. And there are, certainly, plenty of volunteers who do not know what they want to do when they finish with Peace Corps. Some of them make extensive, open-ended travel plans, some of them stay in Tbilisi, working for Georgian NGOs or for English-language universities, and one volunteer has even decided that he will stay in Peace Corps for the rest of his life.[15] I just wasn’t expecting to be one of these volunteers. It is possible that I still am not, and this is all just a mental phase. But, mental phase or no mental phase, it’s left me grasping a bit, feeling my way in the dark for that metaphorical light switch.

Hopefully I find it. After all, I do have plenty of practice feeling my way around in the dark by now.[16]

[1]This post, for instance, is a smoked ham.
[2]The writer of this post is a stuffed shirt.
[3]This sentence is a sausage, bursting with savory flavor.
[4]I mean, like, anything more specific than, “moving to a random country to do a job you’ve never done before in a language you can barely speak.” Besides that.
[5]This sentence contains a simile, which deviates dangerously from the “metaphor” theme and as such should be disregarded. Especially if you think, incorrectly, that boxer briefs are superior undergarments.
[8]Also I know some things about cutting your nails with a Swiss Army Knife.
[9]Except maybe, “I should have turned on my flashlight earlier.”
[10]Example: the information that it’s really annoying when the lights go on and off by themselves.
[12]The bottled Georgian beers are not so bad; they’re like American beer in that they’re all mediocre and taste exactly the same. Georgian beer from the tap, in my experience, tastes either like soap or like metallic shavings. This is one of life’s unexplainable mysteries.
[13]Probably donuts.
[14]This is one of the biggest reasons that I am very excited to be meeting my family in London for Christmas; I have no idea what it will be like, after six months, to again see Americans who are not in the Peace Corps, and to be surrounded by a city of people who are rich and speak English and sit when they use the toilet. Will I seamlessly fall back into my old self for a week? Will merely being in the West be weird for me, after only six months? Will I be unrecognizable to my family? Yes, probably, because I have a Bolshevik beard.
[15]This is true. His name is Peter, and we are all in awe of him. He’s in the volunteer group that has been here for a year and a half, and he is nearly fluent in Georgian, prefers speaking in Georgian to speaking in English, and does not like congregating with other Americans. This is also his second stint in Peace Corps – he was in Mali for an entire 27 months, went back to America, decided he didn’t like it, and signed up again. SIGNED UP AGAIN. And he plans to sign up again INDEFINITELY. I cannot fathom this.
[16]This blog post is a wet blanket.

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