Work Exchange?

Over the past two decades I’ve noticed that all the restaurant and shop employees in places like Ocean City, MD have become East Europeans. I’ve been quite curious about how they were treated and the agencies which brought them here.

Today we picked up two youngsters from Lithuania who are staying with us a couple nights via AirBNB. They were traveling down from Atlantic City NJ to Baltimore on Greyhound, and planning to do three days in DC and a week in New York before flying home.

Via car-ride small talk I found out that M. and W. were guest workers for a casino hotel who did housekeeping over the summer. “It was terrible…not nice at all,” W. said, twining her long Goth dyed red hair around a finger. A quick litany: The guests were disgusting and mean. The bosses were rude and intemperate. The dormitory was not secure and in the first week many students had their personal belongings (phones, laptops, passports) rifled and stolen while they were asleep or at work. When the students complained to the owner of the dormitory he replied: “At least you weren’t shot or stabbed!”

This sounds a lot less like a work exchange program and a lot more like officially sanctioned human trafficking. Is this the impression of the United States we want to send back with thousands of East European kids eager to practice English and get work experience? Why do we bring them here to expose them to the worst aspects of first-world capitalism and decay? Why should they go home and tell friends the USA is better than Russian dominance of Eastern Europe after their experience here?

Even worse, lanky, athletic and tall M. told me they were supposed to work until yesterday but the hotel booted them out because it went bankrupt. Ironically I picked them up at the Greyhound station next to the shiny, new Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore City. I was very self-conscious about the appalling state of our roads and sidewalks and West B’more neighborhoods as I drove them to our house in Reservoir Hill. I remember back before the neoliberal revolution in the 80s when roads and sidewalks and public areas in the USA were pretty well maintained as a matter of course. I’ve driven on better roads in Honduras than we have in this City.

How badly we’ve been derailed, and how hard it will be to get back…

Seven Year Itch

I’m two weeks into my 7th full year as a middle school teacher in Baltimore City public schools. This will be my 5th full year at our amazing hippie dippie progressive school in Pigtown. I work with the best people ever, the smartest, the most genuine, the most creative, compassionate, supporting, selfless, innovative…OK, you get the picture. I’ll not inflict any more adjectives upon you. (well, one more: they are also all sexy).

Over the past seven years I’ve morphed from a Language Arts teacher to a Humanities Teacher, meaning I mostly teach Social Studies and History now. I think I’m getting the hang of it. I think my first two weeks of school were my strongest start yet. And judging by the ideas swirling around my brain I think this entire trimester may be my strongest yet! Now if I could actually get the plans down on paper, LOL….

I started the year in a dark place. I felt drained and detached, and that feeling had hit hard last January. I was BURNED OUT and summer did nothing to change that feeling. I’ve never had a job for more than 7 years, and I wonder if I’m experiencing that cycle again, the need to move on and try something new. Just in case, I’ve applied for a position teaching deployment kids in Europe for the Department of Defense. This is just a shot in the dark–but it would be nice to take a couple years off from Baltimore and teach in Belgium, Germany, or Portugal.

But I would be an idiot to leave my school. It really is the best school in Baltimore City, and my wife often claims it is the best school in the state of Maryland. (She has been in LOTS of schools in Maryland, and she’s an expert at what makes a good school.) The professional and personal relationship I have with my current supervisor has been the most fruitful and challenging and rewarding of my career. I know our kids and have taught little brothers and sisters of brothers and sisters I successfully got to high school. I was pretty instrumental in building the middle school, and I have a certain status in the building as a result. I can be very unorthodox and loose in a way that public school administrators find galling, and yet my bosses tolerate my quirks, foibles, and insanities because I find a way to deliver the goods, the goods being challenging, exciting content delivered in a way that gets the kids fired up and thinking deeply about issues. If I work anywhere else it’ll be: “Follow the curriculum, update your Word Wall, have a detailed scripted plan hanging on your board for us to access when we do a compliance audit.” That change would be difficult, to say the least! Other reasons I’d be a nut to leave: I can sit down with teachers struggling with an Expedition plan and just off the top of my head give them an angle or a barrage of potential objectives and connections regardless of the topic ( a skill several of my coworkers have too) and this school is the exact sort of environment where a weirdo like me can help the most. I have very strong emotional, personal, and professional bonds to my coworkers. I really love these people. We not only teach the kids, we continuously teach each other, and we always fill in for others and support each other through the rocky challenges of 180 days of hard core urban education. I feel in many ways that my best students at this school have been the administrators and other teachers I’ve worked closely with over the past half-decade, and I hope I was their best student as well.

But I also never wanted to teach middle school–I was assigned to it by Baltimore City and became typecast as a middle school teacher over time. I would like to teach high school for a while. I also would love to live in Europe for a while (before I’m too old to adjust and enjoy it). So if DOD offers me a gig in Italy it would be really hard to say no.

Perhaps I won’t make the grade, and I won’t have to make a decision at all?

Suicide

There has been a lot of social media stuff about suicide and depression in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing. Some of it is good or interesting, but most of it is just dumb.

I feel compelled to weigh in, as someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts for more than 30 years. I want you to note that I wrote “experienced,” not “has had.” I don’t “have” these thoughts, I don’t sit down and say “I’m going to think about suicide now!” They come unbidden, they whisper, they cajole, they seduce–sometimes they storm chaotically. It’s not a choice to have these thoughts and impulses, it’s a malfunction of some kind.

When I was a teen the thoughts came occasionally, and usually were couched in pathetic revenge fantasies. “I’ll show Mom to treat me that way. I’ll kill myself and then she’ll realize what she did.” And those thoughts would lead to images or visions of my funeral. These suicidal thoughts were mostly self-indulgent, almost pleasant narratives, a form of imaginative thinking, of experimentation, of self-reflection. I never once considered actually committing suicide at that time.

Deep into my twenties the thoughts got stronger, more insistent. I was worthless, hopeless…a drain on my loved ones and friends. I was a waste of resources on planet Earth. Everyone would be better off without me around. I did a lot of meditating in my twenties, and practiced watching thoughts and their mysterious origins, and letting them go. I got pretty good at letting most thoughts go, but the suicidal thoughts were pernicious, like work or stress thoughts that keep you awake at night. But again I recognized these thoughts as originating elsewhere–some inexplicable source sent them my way, I never had any intention of acting on them. They just occurred, and like other thoughts could be allowed to drift away. These thoughts were wholly unpleasant–and involved detailed reasons why it was appropriate and necessary to end it all. Repressed feelings, ancient actions, character flaws–all was dredged up and carefully presented in a devastating case that it was time to end it. Again, I never came close to acting on these thoughts, but I started really paying attention to them, because when they came they could truly disable me. I started drinking as a teen but my drinking and pot smoking hit new levels in my 20s as I’d try to numb these thoughts. Rationally I had a pretty good life working–successful in college, did really well in grad school, I was traveling a lot, I was married to an amazing woman, we had a lovely little home. I was teaching part-time at a university across the street from my house, I was managing a huge Borders superstore and rather liking it, etc. And yet monthly I was arguing with myself about suicide. I started to think it was some narcissistic form of mental masturbation, that I was thinking these thoughts for pleasure. But I was wrong.

Into my 30s the thoughts became more common and deeper. Instead of trying to let the thoughts go–which never worked–I started to use my writerly imagination to flesh them out. I constructed elaborate suicide scenarios, detailed scenes, including the post-mortem responses of loved ones. In this manner I withstood the thoughts without really giving into them. I told myself repeatedly that I had a lot going for me, there was no reason to feel this way, I was just indulging in a bit of fun, I would never really DO it. And then I realized what I was actually doing was planning in detail how I WAS going to do it. That was quite a realization, and I began thinking hard about the manic depression in my family, the alcoholism, the insomnia, the religious fanaticism. How many of my relatives had suffered through this? What was going on? When I was 38 I finally checked the box on the form my doc gave me for annual checkups that said “Thoughts of suicide.” We talked about it, and he told me I was too smart to really do that, but he didn’t seem to think it was serious. And that right there is one of the major ways depression or suicidal thinking is misunderstood in America.

Early in my 40s the episodes became vicious and insistent, and they came slightly more than monthly. I was not merely a waste of resources, I was the cause of misery and despair for everyone I knew. I was ruining everything. I was a failure at work, I was a miserable excuse for a human being, I was amoral and repugnant. Nothing I did was of any value whatsoever, my family, my wife, my friends, would not only be better off without me, they would quickly see that I had needed to die. These thoughts are not rational, but they come with insanely detailed arguments, and they often sneak in after a substantial success at work or financially. I could rationally think about a gazillion reasons not to commit suicide, but rationality had nothing to do with it. When the episodes hit it wouldn’t matter if I was elected leader of every team at work, if I’d had all superior performance ratings, if I had four academic degrees, all summa cum laude including one 4.0 GPA in a Master’s degree, if I’d traveled the world and had more I needed to see, if I loved my wife passionately–nothing could convince me life was worth living. In these states I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to play guitar, I couldn’t write, read, watch films–even listening to beloved music was a noisome chore. The activities I love, the things which define me, became hateful sources of embarrassment and misery–obviously acts to cover the worthlessness inside. I would sit in a stupor and beat the shit out of myself, all the while knowing it was bullshit and not originating in any sane or rational place, desperately smoking tons of weed or drinking whisky trying to escape the truth about myself. Try thinking rationally when you are 100% overwhelmed by these crazy self-destructive ideas. And I could be in one of these states and NOBODY AROUND ME WOULD HAVE THE SLIGHTEST IDEA. I could function as always, filing paperwork, doing parent conferences at school, meeting with my boss, leading a planning session–all the while planning where I would park my car before leaping off some famous landmark. And the people I interacted with would all be talking about how funny, charming, intelligent, and necessary I was–while internally I knew they were just trying to protect me from the truth, that I was awful and despicable and beneath contempt. Imagine that–the highly functioning person you love at work might be planning to kill himself while you are putting together a spreadsheet or a business plan or a proposal and you are marveling at his brilliance and productivity.

And what help can you seek in these situations? Take a pharmaceutical that makes you impotent, gives you internal bleeding, numbs your mind and creativity into a dreary mush? Hell, no. So I always fight my ass off when the thoughts come. I tell myself that I will walk through this valley of shadow. The valleys can last two hours or four days, one never knows. I have been fighting them for three decades. Robin Williams fought them for five or more. I am not surprised he killed himself, I am rather amazed he succeeded for so long!

The strangest thing about these episodes is how beautiful and sad the world is when you return from them. When I emerge successfully from one of these states I can happily stare at a leaf for an hour, weeping at its amazing complexity. I can see and respond to the suffering of others in astonishing ways. I can think vividly and clearly and can draw, write, imagine, create, laugh, and improvise mad blues scales like a fiend. A dog or a bird becomes the most amazing and absorbing thing on Earth.

I have no intention of killing myself. I would never do that. I have too much to live for. Look at my Flickr or Facebook or Instagram–I lead a rich, rewarding, and very successful life. I live in a fucking 19th century Victorian rowhome that kicks ass. I’m healthy as an ox at 45 despite years of self-medication.

I remain committed to life, to draining every sensation and experience out of my precious, rare human existence.

But I am not always in control of me. When I get into the darkness I am like Odysseus tied to the mast, striving to answer the Sirens’ sweet singing. But I am also the one who does the tying. And I am not always reliable.

Styron wrote about it really well. I wonder if there’s an evolutionary reason or advantage to suicidal thoughts? Why did this trait evolve? What keeps it going? There ARE too many humans, but that doesn’t feel like the right answer…

Summer Reading

I’ve always interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in the garden a bit differently from my dour Protestant forebears (and contemporaries). I believe the story symbolizes our fall from being active participants in Nature to exploiters or “Masters” of Nature. We gave up some rather amazing skills in order to become rational, “civilized” human beings. Birds can navigate using the stars because they are active participants in Nature, not because they sit down and calculate routes and shit. Dogs know which grasses to eat to ease an upset stomach not because of trial and error, but because their active participation in Nature grants them that knowledge. So-called “primitive” peoples know which plants are edible and medicinal not because of trial and error or the scientific method, but because their healers and shamans go into a trance and the plants they need are somehow revealed to them. I don’t believe some great Sin or blemish got us expelled from the Garden, but rather some evolutionary necessity forced us to develop different capacities.

Now those capacities have blinded us to much of how Nature really works. We have lost our relationship to the Earth and its other denizens. We have forgotten how to participate in Nature, how to hear her communications, how to learn from her. We need to get back, to blend our new mind with our old mind, in order to achieve the next step or phase.

I also don’t believe that some ethereal bearded dude in the sky created everything and has a plan or whatever. So, I’m an atheist but I’ve got some far-out ideas. Sue me.

Mother Nature keeps indigenous (what used to be called “primitive” peoples) living in extreme environments for a reason. Nobody’s ass wants to live in extreme altitudes. Nobody wants to freeze they bullocks off all the time. Nobody likes chasing herds of desicated animals across the fucking desert for years. But people live in remote, shitty, uncomfortable, undesirable locals to this day because whatever calamity is about to befall us will require their skills to carry us forward. If we have an Ice Age, or a complete desertification of the Earth, there will be some tribe somewhere who know how to deal with that shit and carry the species forward.

It happened before, during the last Ice Age. Those who knew how to manage, or who could quickly adapt, where the ones who made it and had families and kept them going. How many of us could have made it through that? That achievement alone makes the idea of “primitive” peoples seem totally ridiculous to me. “Primitive” people came up with language, story, math, astronomy, farming, hunting, tools, weapons, clothing, shelter, art, religion, fire…many could track lunar eclipses and the movement of planets and tides. They built shit we still can’t replicate with all our fancy machines.

The disappearance of indigenous folks, the destruction of their habitats, the loss of their knowledge and traditions and their still-vibrant connection to Nature, their ability to communicate with her…these traits are direly needed, now more than ever. And we are through greed and a reliance on “convenience” digging our own graves by allowing them to be cleansed off of land needed for natural resource extraction.

I’ve read several books along the lines of Wolff’s charming little memoir of his time amongst the Sng’oi. This is one of the best. Check it out.

And just by chance the Library Faeries dropped Foreign Gods, Inc into my lap at the same time I read Original Wisdom. Here we have proof of the challenge of moving back from Western, Modern, Scientific, Capitalist to Nature. The angel guards the gates to Eden with weapons forged against thee. A brilliant economist from Nigeria can’t land a job in NYC because of his thick accent, so he drives a cab. After a decade of that mess he’s had it, and hits upon a scheme to sell a deity from his home village to a gallery which specializes in foreign gods. The market is hot, Ngene is a cool war deity, it’s just a matter of bribing some customs dudes and bringing home the bacon! 

Not quite…

Awakenings

Reading on the sofa, relaxed, thinking of driving to the beach late tonight for a long weekend, the last gasp of summer, I fell into a deep dreamy nap. I can recall nothing of the action, structure, or setting of the dream, other than that the setting was an amalgam of various real-life places from my past.

Waking from this nap, which was extremely deep and very short…the same Radiohead song was playing when I dropped off and when I woke up…was a curious experience. I was anchorless, unfixed, and undelineated. Until I opened my eyes I had no idea who or where I was. Once I saw the room I was in I knew who and where I was, of course, but odd that we transition so regularly through this state of consciousness without awareness that we rarely notice how interesting a moment it is. I regained awareness the way paper absorbs watercolors, there was a soft seep of knowledge into my mind. When we die do we have this murky directionless grasping moment and then think “oh yeah” once we realize where we are?

AirBNB

We started hosting travelers through AirBNB about 16 months ago. As an intensely interior person I was somewhat reluctant at the outset, but my amazing wife pushed my objections aside and signed us up.

I just spent the morning washing and changing linens, re-setting the bedroom and bathroom on our second floor for a guest arriving this afternoon from Vietnam. It doesn’t take long, and I’m a teacher off for the summer, so it’s no big deal. Our current guests are from a rural part of Illinois…they pulled up yesterday afternoon. Their daughter is a violinist, visiting Johns Hopkins and the Peabody Institute to audition for next year. Last night the father and daughter did a tiny performance on the front stoop, guitar and violin pieces, French Cafe jazz kind of stuff, a few classical bits. Our neighbor Everette requested the show and was enthralled. I like talking to guests about Baltimore history, about its current positive changes, and about the challenges we still face here. I like recommending food and sites. I’ve not been traveling myself as much as I’d like, so living vicariously through our visitors has been a totally pleasant experience. Little impromptu concerts, deep, wide-ranging conversations, and exquisite dinners are not uncommon when you host via AirBNB.

People find our house very cozy, and I like reading their recommendations on AirBNB and the comments they leave in our Guest Book. When I did the re-decorating on our first floor I was challenged to incorporate a bunch of mismatched shit from a variety of antique shops and estate auctions and modern shops like SCAN. What I came up with is a sort of late-Victorian Bohemian scheme with books and nick-knacks and wall colors from the late-18th century–which is the era our row home was built. I tried to incorporate objects and photos from our travels, and pieces by artists who are local and also who are friends. I often feel like the decor is a bit schizoid but we always get very positive, warm comments recommending our house as a great place to stay in Baltimore. Our link has been on the Baltimore home page at AirBNB lately!

We had a social worker from California stay for three nights last weekend, and because he was so busy I didn’t even meet him until Sunday morning when he checked out. He was effusive that our home was a “sanctuary” that made his very busy stay quite pleasant. He was visiting homes of foster kids from L.A. placed with relatives here, and though he was rushed and stressed he wanted to ask about several art pieces before he left.

Before him we had a Belgian actress stay for four days. She borrowed my wife’s bike all week, and I loved watching her in her short French dress, sandals, and long ginger hair pedaling merrily off through the mean streets of Reservoir Hill on her various social errands. She would return in the evenings and tell me about encounters with people all over the City, guys hitting on her, kids yelling “lookit the crazy white lady!” I also had an opportunity to speak French, which happens regularly–often we have guests from France or Quebec–and the guest from Vietnam tonight will likely give me more chances to practice.

I’ve read the various horror stories of AirBNB hosts who’ve had gigantic sex orgies staged in their homes, or guests who wouldn’t leave, or thefts of objects…I’m sure we’ll run into an asshole or a thief at some point. But so far we’ve had a totally positive experience, and have met and become friends with people from all over the USA and the world. If you have a spare room give it a shot! If you live in a place you’re enthusiastic about, be an ambassador and welcome people there. Give them the inside info, share your enthusiasms, and forge new bonds. Plus, the extra cash is really sweet!

Let The Great World Spin

Life as high wire act: relationships a problem of tension, control, focus, flexibility in the face of variability. Is it possible to connect with another in a true and meaningful way? Or is life more a performance art, a continuous series of dramatic gestures, a dress rehearsal for an opening night which never arrives?

Extravagant acts of courage and strength pull us out of the mundane and banal of every day life. But is every day life really mundane or banal? Is not every step, every action, every breath an act of bravery? An extravagant gesture worth attention? Is not every interaction with another precious and thrumming with potential beauty?

A really good novel, this–for fans of DeLillo or Franzen or Toibin. Complex and meaty but not difficult. Lovely prose, interesting characters, a nice reconstruction of a sort of Indra’s Net of interrelated beings and situations. The characters are not always able to see the causes and effects and connections, wrapped up as they are in their own webs:

“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind. ” Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Struggling to get back into the discipline of daily blogging, BTW. Excuse the unfleshed-out jottings, but I must restart somewhere.