Going back was the best of times, going back was the worst of times

Perhaps because the novelty—by which I mean an alcohol-accentuated tincture of horror and awe—has worn off, I’m not coming away from my fifth reunion with the same crazed list of stories as I had after, say, my Freshman year. There were no drunken alumni saving me from arrest at the hands of Mohawk-profiling P-safe officers; no rambling stories from Bill Fortenbaugh ’58 about the hookers we could expect at his 70th birthday party; no thieving of giant inflatable monkeys from the 35th (I’m still unclear about how that one happened).

Still, I think I “did” reunions pretty well. I went through the P-Rade with the band no less than three times and felt like I played my heart out despite dancing too energetically to read the music for songs I had never played before. I ran into my thesis adviser in a heavily inebriated state on Poe Field. I managed a temporary coup d’etat and convinced the percussion section to start “Children of Sanchez” for the umpteenth time. I swam in the fountain, got a 4:00 a.m. “Eggplant Parm without the Parm” from Hoagie Haven, and stayed up for a reunions sunrise (a first!). And my antics in the band office led one undergraduate officer—perhaps not realizing how much I would treasure the comment—to say that I really was the “hot mess” of band lore.

I list stories and antics and happenings because I always hope that, by adding them up, they will sum to three days of consistent and straightforward happiness. And, for most people, it seems like they do: my facebook feed has been dominated for days with comments about the “best damn place of all” and the sheer joy of revisiting our alma mater. I imagine there’s a certain amount of posturing in that, but I more-or-less believe the sentiments are genuine. I wish I shared them, though.

Somewhere between the moments of blasting away on trumpet and catching up with my best friend on the deck of Terrace, there were what seemed like interminable periods of wandering around alone at the 5th, avoiding eye contact and fearing conversation. I hadn’t initially expected to spend the entire weekend with the band—not even most band alums do that—but then I realized that the alternative was walking around campus by myself, not sure if I did or didn’t want anyone to see me. It’s not that I’m not incredibly fortunate to have great friends from my class: only that interacting with them, with the attendant sense of “losing” them again as soon as the weekend was over, was hard for me to bear.

Depression is, in so many ways, all about struggling with your past. For some, it’s past trauma. For me, it’s an idealized sense of past happiness that I alternate between desperately want to relive—not in the “telling stories with old friends” sense, more the “build a time machine” sense—and wipe from my mind. When I walk around Princeton, I’m not sad because I see the room where I used to cut myself, the health center where I had to inter myself Freshman year, or the street where my roommate had to pull me away from oncoming traffic. No: I’m sad because I’m constantly thinking about the sense of wonder and meaning and community that I had there and yet never really managed to appreciate and which, at Berkeley, seems so impossibly out of reach.

Being me, I told myself this was my last reunion. Not in the sense that it’ll actually be my last, but the last where I feel like I can actually have conversations with undergraduates, play with the band, or dance drunkenly until 4 a.m. It also feels like my last because I’ve chosen to make coming back a logistical absurdity, whether I’m in France or California or England or anywhere else. I feel jealous of the people who can maintain a connection to Princeton after they graduate, and I frequently fantasize about coming back for a road trip or two each football season, but I’ve realized that I burn my bridges with the past every two years because I probably couldn’t get by any other way.

For me, at least, there’s wisdom that comes from the experience, and not just angst, which makes writing about it on my 27th birthday seem less pathetic and more edifying. When I first started to recover, I followed a pretty rigidly Benthamite pleasure-maximizing strategy, avoiding anything that might make me feel bad. Now that I know that I can break down a bit without falling of the deep end, though, I am realizing that depression can be part of the normal flow of experience—that it’s okay to go back and laugh and dance like an idiot and play trumpet and bask in the warmth of good friends and, yes, cry a little bit.


The Normal One

A few weeks ago, I spilled my coffee at the breakfast table three days in a row. Someone suggested that maybe I was guzzling too much caffeine, and I replied that, no, I’ve been on an unhealthy-grad-student level of coffee consumption for some time. Curious, though, I went off for a few days, but it didn’t change what I had first noticed this winter while wrapping Christmas presents: my fine motor skills are gone. That, and a partial erasure of my short-term memory (as well as the chunk of change I’m paying pharmaceutical companies for the privilege of both) is the bargain-basement price of happiness, for now.

But I’m not the one whose hands are supposed to shake. When I was little, I assumed the normalcy of elements of my relationship with my brother that now, looking back, I realize were distinctly formative. That my friends’ would be my brothers’ friends (and that he would always be the “bad guy” with us); that, when we traveled, I would be entrusted with the plane tickets, despite being four years younger; that my brother would also always be taken out of the “normal” classroom, but for different reasons. Yet, for some reason, I mostly just remember that my brother had really messy handwriting and a shaky grip. It’s weird what kids notice.

My parents let me in gradually. I first remember a matter-of-fact explanation that my brother would not—following the assumed upper-middle-class pattern—go to college. But I was mostly shielded, and I hid myself, locking myself in my room any time there was shouting. It wasn’t until 9th grade, when my brother really fell apart, that I recall hearing the word “bipolar” and only later, with its growing popularity, “autism”. Such strange and inexplicable demons make everyone feel impotent, and I was no exception. The best I was contribute was to sleep outside his door a few times when he was manic, in the hope that he’d wake me up and not my parents.

Oh, and there’s one other thing I thought I could do: achieve. Relentlessly. It’s probably not a coincidence that high school was when I went into arrogant I’m-going-to-be-a-Senator-after-I-go-to-Princeton (I literally put this in the yearbook) overdrive. It wasn’t great timing, since shortly after I became acutely aware of my brother’s limitations, I had an unexpected and novel confrontation with my own. But even as it imposed itself on me, depression was not something I allowed myself. I was the normal one. Or maybe more than that: I was the one who was compensating, the one who was succeeding for two. Having a disabled brother was lumped in with other reminders of my “privilege” that served as good fodder for admissions essays and self-serving save-the-world fervor.

I don’t pretend I will ever understand the challenges my brother faces. I will only say that certain experiences have made me more or less empathetic towards them. I’m afraid I’ve tended towards the latter, which is why my most recent “episode”—our well-worn family parlance for mental illness—was in a way a good thing. Mental illness, I’ve realized, doesn’t fit well into my usual worldview. There’s no zero-sum class war; no structure or power to overthrow; no “privilege” to be negated and redistributed. There’s no one to be angry against except god, and in a sense, the very randomness of it all feels like an argument against him/her anyway.

As I was melting down last summer, a psychiatrist threw out a term I’m so ashamed of I feel the need to unload the burden publically. He said I suffered from “survivor guilt”. But I am no survivor. My brother lives a life full of vitality and meaning and community, things—despite the unfair apportionment of certain skills and capacities between us—that I’ve at times been sorely lacking. There is so much absurdity to placing lives on a continuum, to thinking there’s any measure by which one can ‘make up’ for another, or even that worth can be measured anyway. No one exists to be the subject of a college essay or an inspiration or a reminder of privilege to others or the subject of a hackneyed blog post-conclusion. We just exist. And some of our hands shake.

Happy, At Any Cost

Dates like these are always kind of arbitrary, but it’s been three months. Three months since I was last crumpled up on my parents’ couch, since I cried for no reason at all, since I could speak of “being depressed” in both a present and seemingly eternal tense. Three months, and it already seems so foreign, so distant, and so unfathomable that I sometimes wonder if I really was the same person. Unfortunately, I was, though I really, really wish I weren’t.

I was fifteen when I first realized that I was just sort of automatically sadder than most of the people around me. I told myself it was a good thing. I could focus on changing the world; giving myself to others; martyring myself for the cause, without being distracted by the petty business of actually enjoying life. In a weird way, I think being depressed made me a better person. I turned outwards for the first time in my life; I became more empathetic; having been forced to acknowledge my own imperfections, it became easier to accept those of others.

But there is a certain baseline level of happiness—a requisite amount of non-misery—that I’ve learned is necessary, even for being self-less. And so, this time, when I realized I was way, way sadder than the people around me, I replaced self-denial with a desperate sort of hedonism. For the last year, I’ve done whatever seemed likely to make me less-unhappy at the time, and figured that the consequences for others—who couldn’t possibly know what I was going through, after all—could be ignored. And so while I firmly believe mild depression made me a better person, I’m gradually realizing that major depression made me a far worse one.

Weirdly enough, when I was at my worst, the feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem that have been my traveling companions since adolescence disappeared. Depression crowded them out; I felt so shitty that even my brain—trained to explain bad feelings as well-deserved punishment—couldn’t come close to rationalizing them. Stranger still, now that I’m feeling better, all these feelings are back And, paradoxically, precisely those things that seem to have made me better have made me feel even less deserving of the happiness I have.

Maybe it’s a reflection of the particularly pharmaceutical nature of my recovery, but so far, I’ve experienced happiness as an absence: being happy is not being miserable, not being incapacitated, not feeling hopeless all the time, not being terrified of going to bed because you know that you’ll wake up in the morning. And, to some extent, that emptiness has been enough to get back to my life. But if you had told me three months ago how hollow happiness could feel, I never would have believed it.

Anomie Soup

Recently I’ve been spending my days working frantically on my book, voraciously reading texts for my qualifying exams and—this is the best, and most exciting, part—talking animatedly about potential dissertation ideas with my colleagues. You could say that, after a two-year hiatus, I love sociology again. The only problem is that it took me getting away from the best sociology department in the country to remember it.

About those colleagues: they are graduate students in sociology from SciencesPo, Paris. They work on a spectrum of topics and come from a range of countries, but as far as I can tell, they share at least one thing in common: they actually seem to like graduate school. We all work in a big, shared office room, and every hour-and-a-half someone announces a mandatory coffee break. We take a long hour for lunch, and in that time, virtually no one brings up how stressed they are about work, how unhappy they are with their advisors, or their bleak job-market prospects.

I’m sure that if I stay long enough, I’ll find a certain amount of disaffection and dissatisfaction underneath the surface. Still, my interactions have raised a previously unthinkable proposition:: graduate school doesn’t have to be miserable. Sometimes, I think the side-by-side comparison I’m constantly making between these SciencesPo students and my compatriots at Berkeley is unfair, since I viewed Berkeley through the lens of extreme depression and I am now seeing the whole world in a sunnier light. Then again, a few of the grad students here have been to Berkeley, and a few Berkeley students have visited SciencesPo, and in both cases, the universal consensus was that Berkeley students seem really, really unhappy.

I can’t actually say that I would have been happier had I chosen a different school—I was probably due for a depressive episode, anyway. But it’s not exactly like Berkeley is set up for thriving. For one, the department is ruthlessly denigrating of collaboration and co-authorship: we were literally told in our introductory pro-seminar, “Don’t ask a professor to write something with you, they’ll say no” and “Co-authored publications count for nothing on your CV.” It’s not the department’s fault that the faculty-student ratios are so far off, but facing a sign-up sheet on a perpetually closed professor’s door, with dozens of 15 minute blocks booked for weeks into the future, doesn’t exactly give you a sense of being valued as an individual. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel great that my adviser didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent telling her I was extremely depressed and considering leaving school, the one where I said I was leaving school, or the one saying that I was thinking about coming back.

The weirdest thing that has occurred to me with a bit of distance is that Berkeley sociology is so damn un-sociological. If I wrote a dissertation that said that a social movement came from a single leader or that wealth comes from individual aptitude, I’d be laughed out of the department. As sociologists, we know that great things come from groups, not individuals. Except sociology, apparently, which comes from lone, isolated geniuses. It’s funny we read so much Durkheim, since you could argue that our dis-integrated department is designed to produce anomie.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I will go back to Berkeley. The activist inside of me wants to go back and to try to change it—to join those other students trying to create some sense of community, perhaps, or maybe even start a “mental health” working group, or something. But as far as I can tell, the people at Berkeley who are happy are the ones who take what they need from the department and then invest as little in it as possible. As a really, really fantastic and inspiring and caring professor told me on a skype call recently, “Don’t come back here until you’re really ready to take advantage of it. It’s not a good place.”

Maybe they should mention that on visit weekend.

Motorway Meditations

I still haven’t gotten around to meditating.  In some ways, I feel that the rapidity of my recovery has slightly blunted the urge to try out new health and well-ness practices, beyond the simple fix of adding more medication to my daily regimen.  In the meantime, I’ve rediscovered the wisdom to be gained from a slightly more aberrant activity: hitch-hiking.

In the summer of 2012, I hitched my way across ten different countries in Europe.  The great stories I took away from that trip—the Polish guy with the coffin, the Czech businessman listening to “horror rap”, the German family that took me home—are interspersed with memories of long periods of panic, of annoyance at spending my vacation sleeping in gas station parking lots, of frustration with all the un-filled back seats in cars that went speeding by.  In short, I managed to make hitch-hiking “work” in the sense of getting from A to B, but didn’t appreciate the experience a whole lot.

That’s partly because hitch-hiking has none of the characteristics of the activities I usually devote myself to.  Hitch-hiking does not reward effort or skill.  The thousandth car is no more likely to stop than the first one.  There is no sure-fire strategy for getting a ride.  Smiling broadly might make you seem less threatening to motorists; then again, it could give the impression of a scam artist.  If it’s raining, someone could take pity on you—or they could opt not to stop because they don’t want a sodden person in their car.  Having a sign seems to work sometimes, except when it doesn’t, because people going only part of the way to your destination choose to pass by.

Somehow, though, this time I have found the zen of hitch-hiking.  Hitch-hiking, I’ve realized, really does always work, as some drunken anarchist once (probably) assured me.  It just doesn’t work if you have a plan, or a time-table, or a firm destination.  Yesterday I turned down an early offer from someone who could take me to the edge of the highway from the roundabout at which I was stationed.  I then cursed my poor judgment as I waited in the rain for three hours.  I finally begged a truck driver to bring me to the nearest gas station.  There, I was quickly picked up by an old man who took me to a toll booth, where I met a fellow hitch-hiker who had just gotten a ride from a celebrity chef.  He, in turn, showed me the best spot in the area—from which a high-school history teacher with strong opinions about neo-liberalism took me 200 miles to my destination.  And today I scored six separate rides without a single wait of more than 10 minutes.

I’m a fan of extended metaphors, and I’ve realized that hitch-hiking is an apt one for this year as a whole.  I’ve reached a destination that I’m happy with—contentment and peace—and so it seems silly to question the route I’ve taken to get here.  Sure, I wish I hadn’t had to wait a few months in the rainy roundabout of depression, but then again, if I hadn’t waited, would I have wound up in the same place?


Apparently if you want to get a big response to something on social media, write about depression.

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to “go public” about my condition and the cascading failures it has led to, but the response I’ve received has been incredibly touching.  In addition to the public support I’ve received—for which I feel totally unworthy, and utterly grateful anyway—I’ve also gotten quite a few messages, in private, sharing personal experiences with mental illness.  Each one—from the one telling me to join the military to the one discussing a grandmother’s suicide—is sad and beautiful and unique all at once.

Some messages relate experiences that, the authors admit, seem relatively mild next to my own; others leave me reflecting on my good biochemical fortune.  And it’s not just the internal machinations that seem incomparable.  I’ve faced depression without having to simultaneously confront the possibility of indigence, abandonment, or institutionalization.  I have parents who have welcomed me back into their home without a second thought; I have access to medical care with cost as no object; I have enough savings that I can focus on recovery for months.  If there was a single best point in human time and space to go through major depression, I’m standing on it.

Ten years ago when I first discovered that not everyone felt as shitty as I did all the time, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what depression was all about.  I associated being depressed with the non-stop urge to hurt myself and with being able to put on a happy face and go about my daily business anyway.  If you weren’t considering offing yourself, you probably weren’t depressed; if you were stuck in bed, you probably weren’t trying hard enough.

Now, my sense that “depression” is a single identifiable thing has gone out the window.  On one hand, I’ve been far more incapacitated than I’ve ever been, but also far too incapacitated to even contemplate suicide.  If there’s one early take-away from all this, it’s the realization of the fruitlessness of comparing my experience to others, because my own experiences with depression are themselves incomparable.

The beauty in all this is that virtually everyone who has written me seems to have already figured this out.  Friends and acquaintances have shared their stories without attempting to put them on the same unilinear continuum between “sane” and “batshit crazy” as my own.  Many people have told me that posting about my difficulties was “brave”, and some have said that they “wish they could do the same”.  Yet for me, “going public” felt like a necessity; for others, it would be a great burden.  But to say that what I did was “courageous” is to suggest that I’m dealing with this better than others—and I’m pretty sure everyone is just surviving as best they can.

I used to think empathy was about understanding what someone else is going through.  Now I think it’s about not having a fucking clue what anyone is going through, and supporting them anyway.

Little Helpers

I am not entirely sure how I first got on anti-depressants.  It was the summer after 10th grade, and I had a summer internship with the Defense Department (yes, really) in Albuquerque.  I was also, for the first time, plumbing the depths of sadness to a degree that surpassed normal adolescent angst.  One day, a FedEx package arrived carrying a bottle of little white pills—Prozac, 10 milligrams.  Somehow my parents had convinced a doctor back home to prescribe them to a patient she had never met.

I can’t remember if I actually asked to go on anti-depressants, but I do remember being full of just the kind of existential questions about them that you would expect from a depressed sixteen year old.  Being happy because of drugs seemed like an exercise in self-delusion, a denial of the fact that I was supposed to be depressed because, as far as I was concerned, my life sucked.  Taking pills seemed like cheating myself of well-deserved misery that belonged to my true self, and after a few weeks, I stopped.

The second time I went on medications, it was somewhat more deliberate but less voluntary.  It was my freshman year of college, and, amidst a complete meltdown, I had checked into the campus health center.  The resident psychiatrist suggested that I go on Lexapro and I acquiesced.  This time I stuck with it—but still secured an assurance that it didn’t have to be on them forever, that it was temporary, and that one day I would stand on my own two feet again.  I still felt like needing to be medicated was a weakness.  Twice, feeling superior and proud of my independence, I tried to go off them.  After a few weeks, I crumpled, and slinked into the doctor’s office and asked for the pills again.

How naïve and how innocent I once was!  Today, my one-time reluctance about medication has been replaced with a desperate faith in it.  The announcement by my psychiatrist in Berkeley that I was out of options that were not “long shots” was what put me into the spiral that brought me home.  How wrong he was, though.  Under new care, I’ve learned about the panoply of choices available to me—and the fact that they are, in fact, choices is part of what makes them so terrifying.  Do I want weight gain or weight loss?  To be dopey or agitated?  The very elective element of psychiatry—by contrast, I’ve never been offered a choice of which anti-biotic to take—is a constant reminder that it’s all guess-work.

I’ve firmly entered the realm of poorly understood interactions effects, of very real side-effects, of weapons-grade drugs in high doses.  It’s a day-by-day nail-biter, waiting for subtle signs of improvement that may or may not ever appear.  I’ve now abandoned questions about the deeper meaning of the serotonin-elevated self.  I’ve resigned myself to the idea that anti-depressants are for ongoing mood maintenance, not a one-time cure for a temporary affliction.  I choose not to contemplate the evils of the pharmaceutical industry; I actively shut out the discussions—common in the lefty circles in which I run—about whether drugs are a subtle way of covering up deeper societal problems.

Jesus, I just want them to work.

Going Back; Moving On

Every time I go back to Princeton, the entire thing feels like a non-stop personal examination.  While I should just enjoy my precious few days on campus, I find myself spending the balance of time agonizing over how it is, exactly, I am supposed to relate to my alma mater.  I am I supposed to feel sad or elated to be back?  Should I go for the humorous-if-sketchy persona, or try to show that I’ve grown up a bit?  And what am I supposed to say about the real world*: that it’s a non-stop barrel of laughs, or that I cry myself to sleep at night longing for the undergraduate glory days?

The first time I go back this year, I feel nothing.  It’s the day after I returned from Ecuador, and I run along the tow path from Jackie’s house in Lawrenceville onto Princeton’s campus.  Aside from a handful of inexplicable changes—did they put a new archway into Brown Hall just to give alums something to whine about?—everything looks the exact same.  And yet I am not overcome with the wave of nostalgia I was expecting.  The undergrads aren’t yet back from their summer vacation, and the emptiness of campus reminds me that my best and worst memories of Princeton have nothing to do with gothic buildings.

Two Saturdays ago, I went back again—except this time, not to Princeton, but to the band.  At first I am elated, because after about five minutes it doesn’t seem to even matter that I am graduated.  More than anything, though, Saturday made me feel relieved.  In part, I am relieved to see that the band has not fallen apart, and, in fact, is thriving.  But I’m also relieved that, even if it were falling apart, I’m not sure it would be the end of the world.  I am not worried about what the officers are doing, or whether the new members are having a good time, or how it will all look in the eyes of athletics.  I am, for an afternoon, a freshman again: I can dance and sing like an idiot and not care what anyone else thinks.

I feel like a freshman again Saturday night, at the Triangle Show, but this time not in a good way.  By my senior year, I found at least mildly amusing the skits and songs celebrating how fabulously isolated and rich and preppy Princeton is.  With a bit more detachment, though, I am taken aback—and remember why, when I first arrived, I didn’t feel like I fit in.  On Sunday, I go to lawnparties—an event I rarely made it to as a student—and can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that I no longer have to look at the J-Crew-clad army again and think, “These are my peers.”  I actually wind up leaving lawnparties early and going to Marquand library to work.  Peering over a dense book of sociological theory to watch people stagger back from the street on a Sunday—now that makes me feel like an undergraduate again.

Striking the right balance when going back is hard enough that I am realizing that, perhaps, it is easier not to go back at all.  And, of course, Princeton is doing its part to nudge me out the door.  Graduation doesn’t actually mark a clean break.  For a few years, you can still make it back and steal a few moments where it feels as if you’ve never left.  But then they change the ID card, so you can’t getinto the library anymore.  They block off the places you used to sneak into, and they reorder things enough that it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore.  Eventually, all your friends graduate, and the new students don’t particularly want to listen to your stories about six, seven, eight years ago anymore.  Your antics stop being funny in a nostalgic sort of way: they’re just pathetic.

And it’s realizing that—that this really might be my last visit to Princeton outside of reunions—that makes me incredibly sad.  It really is over, and, regardless of what the song says, you can’t actually go back.  I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about Princeton and get over it that I almost forgot how much I love this place.

* By “real world”, I obviously mean, “the other fake world: Oxford.”

Hot Latin Romance

It’s amazing that I’ve already been back in the United Statse for a week.  As usual, the transition is much faster than I would have imagined.  Preoccupations with my Spanish skills and obsession with grabbing a few more interviews have quickly fated, as I shift gears back into ivory tower mode.  Some things stay with me, though, so in the absence of good material coming out of Central Oregon, I’ll be writing up a few more thoughts on Ecuador before I head back to that other exotic wilderness where I spend my time, Oxford.

This post I have resisted writing for over a month, because I kind of hate posts like this.  It’s a common trope in travel writing: white person travels to poor country and falls in love with how friendly and quaint the natives are.  So, before I launch into this, I will say that I know that Latin America is a profoundly unequal and violent place where daily life is, for many, a struggle.

That said, I love Latin America.

I love that I never feel invisible.  In Coca, I felt like a had at least five surrogate mothers who were covertly watching over me: the mother at the hotel desk, the mother down the street at the frijoles stand, the mother in the tourism office.  They called me “jovencito” and asked, whenever I had been gone for a few days, where I had been.  Visibility is something that can be taken too far, of course.  In Uganda, I often felt overwhelmed by being the endless attention I got for being white.  Here, though, my visibility does not make me feel guilty, because I get the sense people are watching out for me not just because I am a gringo but because I am particularly young and clueless looking gringo.

I love that there is a certain gentleness and courtesy to interactions here.  I never tire of hearing people, upon entering a restaurant, wish “buen provecho” to those already eating.  I love that strangers will always greet me when they come into a room, even when they are there to see someone else.  And, although it always strikes me as somewhat absurd, I love that they will follow up with a formal goodbye, even if they are leaving twenty seconds later.  I have a soft spot for greetings that involve a kiss on the cheek, too, even though it feels awkward and I am generally unsure if I am doing it correctly.

I love that people trust me.  When we were in Baños, the chain on my rented bicycle snapped.  My companions biked on, while I was stranded waiting for a bus in a small highway stop.  A shopkeeper came out and offered to lend me his bike.  He asked for nothing in return and demanded no assurances that I would bring it back.  It’s much the same with the waiters and restaurant owners who assured me that I could come back and pay tomorrow, because they didn’t have change for a five at the moment.  However incongruous it is with Ecuador’s skyrocketing crime rate, I see a faith in community and friendship and humanity here that often feels absent in my own country.

I love that people here dance.  Not just the youth, but everyone; I love that on a Saturday night, I can see young couples and old married ones, grandparents and grandchildren.  Men and women dancing together here leave enough space between them to appease even the chaperones at my high school prom, and yet the dancing here is nonetheless the most sensual thing I have ever seen.  I even appreciate the endless attempts people make to teach me to dance, even though both they and I know it’s a hopeless cause.  I love that a bottle of beer is always served with multiple glasses, because sharing is simply assumed.

And, to get a bit closer to my thesis, I love that people share their time, too, and their knowledge.  I love that a kid who looks like he’s 18, doesn’t know a thing about Latin America, and can barely speak Spanish can still walk into the mayor’s office and get an interview.  I love the pride with which people tell me about Ecuador, the way they find nice things to say about even the most remote Amazonian backwater.  I appreciate that so many people want to exchange e-mail and skype addresses and telephone numbers.  I know that their promises to keep in touch are meant, even though they will almost certainly not be kept.  I love that the question people always ask, when they hear about my research, is when I am coming back.  And I certainly appreciate that, this time, I am being honest when I say that I will be back.

Cold Calling

The dirty secret of my budding* career in the social sciences is that talking to people kind of scares me.  It’s a bit difficult to explain why: having spent three years Mohawk-ed in one of the country’s more conservative institutions, I can’t say that I’m too obsessed with what people think of me.  Still, though, approaching strangers—whether to get directions, ask them to take a survey, or order a pizza—has always been something of a phobia.  I pretty much gave up on a political career when, working on campaigns, I realized that making cold calls made me sick to my stomach.  It wasn’t until one year into my last research project, with freegan.info, that I finally mustered up the courage to actually ask people for interviews.

Last week, I let this fear get the better of me.  I spent a lot of time sitting around my hotel, hoping that people would miraculously respond to e-mails sent weeks ago, even though they were in reality just a phone call away.  I was reconsidering retitling my thesis “An ethnography of the lonely”, because all my data came from people who—seeing me on a park bench down by the pier—were sufficiently starved for human interaction to talk to a solitary gringo. And to think, if I had chosen to enroll in Economic and Social History rather than International Development at Oxford, I could be in the emotionally safe space of a library!

This week, my fear of coming back to Oxford empty handed eventually got the better of my social phobia.  As potentially disastrous as a phone call in a foreign language over a questionable connection can be, I’ve been making a lot of cold calls—and scoring a lot of amazing interviews.  People are, of course, overwhelmingly nice.  This is something that I’ve known all along, but that has been striking me this week, as an enormous number of people have offered me their time and knowledge after I—without introduction—called them.  Today, I even marched over to the mayor’s office, hoping to get an explanation for why her secretary had not contacted me as promised.  I left an hour later having carried out an on-the-spot interview.

Maybe this sounds vaguely like gloating, but for me, it’s just one of many ways in which I feel like I have personally grown during this trip.  Of course, having a mountain of data and the right to hold my head up high on my return to school counts for a lot.  And I’m really excited about the idea of now being—more-or-less—bilingual.  But much more valuable for me is the realization that maybe choosing a career path that involves a life spent talking to people of all sorts isn’t such a bad idea after all.

*Or soon-to-be-ending, depending on whether I get around to taking the GRE and/or fail my thesis because I do not use these words enough.