Friday, August 29, 2014

The Garrison Keillor Effect

About a half a year ago, my six-year old Macbook finally kicked it, joining two Nooks, an iPod classic, and a supposedly rugged, shock-proof hard drive (I want my money back on that one) in the litany of electronics that, thanks to Cameroon, are no longer with us.  I suppose the bush taxi travel took its toll, as did, I have no doubt, pervasive dirt and damp; but causality aside, this was more than a minor inconvenience.  Without a Macbook, I have no way to update my iPod—which means for the last six or seven months, I’ve had a limited and unchanging menu of podcasts and audiobooks.

I should mention that this may soon become a moot complaint, as my iPod itself recently suffered a violent accident while I was out making sport (damn you, burpees performed on a rocky slope!)  The screen is now shattered, and every now and then the music stops altogether, replaced by a mechanical robot voice badly mispronouncing the names of the songs in the order they appear.  I like to think of these moments as my own personal episodes of Stephen Hawking Presents: Your Playlist.

But getting back to our sheep: like many Peace Corps volunteers, I acutely feel the lack of intellectual stimulation in village life.  Most of my friends are uneducated women; our conversation is limited to updates about the children, the fields, the corn harvest, and what sauce they’re preparing to eat with couscous that day.  Men are, for the most part, little better.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve found myself entrapped in an inane argument, such as, “Did someone’s goat die because of sorcery? It’s up for debate!” or, “Did Obama personally fake the Libyan uprising so that he could kill Qaddafi, a hero of Africa and in no way a violent and oppressive dictator? Probably!” or, “Does poverty exist among white people? Or course not! Mais ici chez nous en Afrique…

This is what makes podcasts, second only to books, so vitally important.  While I probably could spend all day in my hammock reading, I’d feel guilty doing so—but podcasts are forgivingly portable, and much of my life in village involves mindless manual labor.  Whether I’m scrubbing layers of mud from my floors, working in my garden, harvesting soy, hand washing clothes, or cooking, I can turn on my speakers and listen to Ira Glass’ distinctive voice recount something quirky on This American Life.

Now, though, I’ve worked my way through everything, multiple times. I listened to all four audiobooks.  I listened to V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, twice.  (Spoiler alert: it’s just as depressing the second time around!) I can now anticipate every joke on twelve episodes of The Dinner Party, a culture show that gives you everything you need to win at this week’s dinner party (what? It’s their tagline! It practically comes in the same breath, now that I’ve heard it enough!) Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, I adore Radiolab, but I no longer wonder how a mantis shrimp sees color, or where bliss comes from, or what it’s like to rocket through the earth’s shadow from outer space.  I know all these answers.  I’d like you two to ask new questions, please. Same goes for the interviews on Point of Inquiry and Inquiring Minds, two fantastic podcasts hosted by Chris Mooney.  Freethinkers and science-lovers out there, let me recommend both of these—assuming you listen to them like a normal person, not like a deranged fanatic.

All this to say two things: 1. I’m really looking forward to America, where electronics can be repaired or replaced instead of consigned to the elephant graveyard that is my backpack, while the living remnants of their dwindling herd look increasingly sparse on the bookshelf; and 2. I’ve spent much more time than I anticipated wondering things like: Am I in any way qualified to work in public radio?  How do you spell Chana Joffe-Walt, anyway? (Before you get impressed, I just cheated and Googled it.) And, most relevantly for this blog post, does Garrison Keillor really improvise every episode, or does he kind of have, like, an outline with rough body paragraphs when he gets on stage?  And why does A Prairie Home Companion hold such a nostalgic grip on my heartstrings, anyway?

I spent a while pondering this last one earlier this week, as I scrubbed guano out of the corners of my bat-infested house and listened to the antics of Dorothy at the Chatterbox CafĂ©.  I think part of it is for purely personal reasons: growing up, my family listened to A Prairie Home Companion every Sunday.  It would be playing right as we piled into the car from the 11:00 church service, and my mom would turn on the radio in the kitchen once we got home and she was preparing lunch.   By the time the Guy Noir: Private Eye segment came on, we’d be sitting down to say grace.  It was practically a ritual.

But I think, especially while I’m here, the content of the show has a lot to do with my sense of wistfulness, too.  I have no desire at this point in my life to move to anywhere like Lake Wobegon.   And yet—and yet, knowing very personally how miserable small-town gossip can be; knowing how stifling is the lack of exposure to culture and ideas (see above); knowing how quickly one can tire of an inbred social group—even knowing these things, Keillor makes life in small-town Minnesota sound, well, ideal. 

There’s an expression one hears bandied about among volunteers: “Cameroon.  Nothing works, but everything works out.”  It’s a useful mantra, particularly on those days when the bus got stuck in the mud, and then the second bus had an engine stall out, and everything smells like fermented manioc, and there’s a baby of undetermined origin snotting onto your lap and it’s 110 degrees and you don’t have a valid ID, because the gendarme wouldn’t stamp your papers because he wanted a bribe so you’re just hoping there aren’t any police checkpoints ahead.  Nothing works.  But, at the end of the day, things will work out.  It might not be what you expected, and it might involve some harrowing delays, but you will, eventually, make it to your destination, and have a great story to tell your friends over cold beers.

And this is what Keillor sells, about the American existence.  As someone who has spent two years employed to promote our national values abroad, I can’t help but feel cynical when I get into civilization, tune into the news, and find out what my nation’s actually up to.  Congress continues to unquestioningly fund Israeli defense, despite major human rights concerns about the deaths of hundreds of Gazan civilians.  Corporations are now considered people, to the extent of having religious beliefs they can impose on their employees.  People we elected to govern us seriously advocated setting the National Guard on children coming across the border as refugees, because they were illegal immigrants. (And yes, I am a month or two behind in the news cycle.  I’m sure as soon as I catch up, I’ll be just as horrified.)

But Keillor reassures me: everything works out.  In Lake Wobegon, nothing ever goes seriously wrong.  It’s been a quiet week, after all.  There are mishaps, and awkward social gaffes, but we laugh at them—and at the end of the day, we’re back at the Sidetrack Tap, listening to Pastor Liz say something folksy.

This is what I need to believe about going home.  We all fundamentally want to believe that our fellow men are good people, because that means we’re good people—even if we suspect we’re the curmudgeonly Clive Bunsen of our community or group of friends.  Keillor eschews national politics, indeed any politics, concentrating instead on the minutia of everyday life: a small-town business like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the fate of the local baseball team, the Whippets.

And this helps balance my priorities.  When I go home, I’ll be going home to my family.  I’ll be going home to the town where I grew up, where our version of the Krebsbachs and the Magendanz’ will still be there.  The important thing, in the short term, won’t be some meta- thought experiment about What It Means To Be American; the important thing will be connecting with people, going back to Captain Buzzy’s Coffee for a Colon-buster, eating dinner with my parents at the same Italian restaurant we’ve patronized for years, where the same two middle-aged waitresses have served tables since I can remember.  It’s a comforting thought.

Thanks, Keillor.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Gravediggers

To risk sounding like the opening lines of a bad country song, my dog died last week.  [Insert lyrics re: pickup trucks, cowboy boots]. 

It was the puppy, Jacqueline Cousteau.  I had been in Ngaoundere for the weekend to work on applications and catch up on emails, and got back into Mbang Mboum just before 1:30 prayer on Sunday.  My landlord having recently taken a second wife, a widowed mother of five, the number of children in my concession has doubled.  I’m still unaccustomed to the new dynamic, and was a little overwhelmed by the mob that swallowed me as soon as I climbed off my moto, little hands grabbing my bags and tugging on my shirttail. 

“Laura! Laura! Lao Mboum!” they chanted, my actual name and my household name competing as the children called over each other. 

“Yes, yes,” I agreed vaguely, distracted by the difficulty of unlocking my door while juggling two bags of groceries and a motorcycle helmet. 

Nyari, the oldest son, pushed his way to the front.  “Non!” he cried.  “Laura, c’est le sien”—le chien, the dog, his Northern accent eliding a hard “ch”.

I looked at him, not yet understanding.  Nyari’s younger brother Nzika took up the thread.  “Il est mort,” he said, still smiling, his tone matter-of-fact.  The other children pressed closer, curious to see my reaction, as I registered for the first time the small, still, furry body barely visible behind a row of potted plants on my porch. 

Two things flashed through my brain at once.  The first was a stupefied horror at the unexpected nature of the news.  The second was an instant resolve that I could not—absolutely could not—cry in front of the children, not over this.  Their attitude to delivering the news perfectly encapsulates the Cameroonian attitude towards both animals and death: it was worth commenting on—something that happened; news to give—but it was news that could be delivered with a smile.  It rained yesterday.  The corn’s about ready to harvest.  Your dog died.  It was certainly nothing to get worked up over, nothing particularly sad.  I know the family already has trouble understanding my attachment to my dogs, and while they try to make excuses for me as an American, they disapprove, on some level, of me feeding the dogs meat and letting them into my house.  The children aren’t ill-intentioned, but they can be thoughtlessly cruel, and I knew if I showed emotion, they would laugh. They would not be amused by my pain, but amused by the strange thought that someone would cry over a dog.

So I swallowed hard and carried on, putting my bags away as quickly and efficiently as possible before walking to my postmate Alizabeth’s house.  As I told her the news, I began to feel a lump in my throat, and when she immediately pulled me into a hug, I dissolved into tears.  As I wiped them away and took a few deep breaths, Aliz gathered a shovel and an old cardboard box.

Cousteau’s little body was already stiff; Death, the taxidermist, had done his work.  I tried to fold her into the box, and bit back an inappropriate impulse to laugh at the legs that determinedly jutted out, as though she were trying to brake an unexpected fall.  Too late for that, little girl.

The children goggled at us as we carried the canine corpse out to our garden, currently at the height of bloom.  We found a clear spot, behind the sweet potato mound and adjacent to the cucumbers, within sight of a wall of exuberant sunflowers.  Scipio Africanus, Cousteau’s mother and my first dog, came bursting out of the rows of corn; she sniffed the rigid cadaver before losing interest and wandering away, not seeming to find anything in the dead dog that related to her.  As Aliz searched for rocks to build a cairn, I began to dig. 

The sun beat down mercilessly, and I soon stripped down to my sports bra, sweat rolling down my back as I attacked the red clay hardpan.  I fell into a rhythm, the thud of the shovel head matching my heavy breathing.  A half a foot deep.  A foot deep.  I realized I was crying again, although I wasn’t sure it was only over Cousteau. 

My two dogs, while sometimes an impediment to my fuller integration—I have far fewer visitors than my postmate, and neighbors have told me it is because people are afraid of my unchained beasts—have been one of the most important factors in keeping me sane during my service.  In an environment where I am constantly required to adapt to other people’s culture and expectations, having a dog, unpopular as that decision is, is a way to draw a boundary, to push back, to stake out some territory that is mine.  It is my small way of forcing people to meet me in the middle, which doesn’t often happen here.  The relationship between a Peace Corps Volunteer and her community is not one that goes both ways.  We cannot insist that things be on our terms; our communities can and do.  We must try daily to understand a point of view and set of values that may be alien to us; our communities, unaccustomed to this practice, rarely try to understand our core beliefs or why we think and do the way we do.  The burden is on us to bend over backwards in the name of cultural sensitivity.  Knees are inappropriate in a Muslim village, so skirts shorter than mid-calf are excommunicated from my wardrobe.  Vegetarianism is inexplicable and perceived as rude, so I eat meat.  Never would I insist that my village try and understand that in America, we rock booty shorts in public and embrace veganism.  Don’t get me wrong, I think being forced into this kind of humility is an extremely healthy exercise.  It’s something that we don’t do enough of at home, where trumpeting about Rights in a Free Country often drowns out empathy and respect—but it’s wearing, to so rarely feel comfortable asserting what I really think and believe and stand for.  It’s hard to feel forced to subjugate parts of myself, as much as I understand the value of doing so. 

The dogs, then, have come to be more than just dogs.  They represent a small but public declaration of my values and my culture.  I cannot come out to people here as an atheist.  I cannot be honest about my beliefs regarding gender and sexuality.  I cannot insist that people show me respect equal to that they would show a man.  I can, however, go running every morning with my two dogs bounding along at my side—and if it makes people uncomfortable, which it almost certainly does, well, that’s healthy for them, too.
Obviously I don’t always think of my dogs in these terms; the vast majority of the time, they’re slobbery, dirty animals, who are cute and annoying and loud and eat everything and track mud into my kitchen.  They’re dogs.

But as I panted and sweated and shoveled dirt onto my feet, I felt that it was more than a dead dog in the cardboard box.  It was, for that moment, my right to make decisions based on my internal compass, not on the fear of judgment and gossip from my narrow-minded community.  An Elspeth Huxley quote came to mind: “Africa is cruel.  It takes your heart and grinds it into powdered stone—and no-one minds.” 

If this seems dramatic, it was.  Cousteau was my favorite of the litter of puppies, but she was a dog; she was not a person, and unlike some Americans, I know the difference.  The moment passed, as do all such low points.  I worked my frustration out, the ache in my shoulders cathartic.  By the time Aliz returned, laden with stones, I was in control of myself again, and had settled into a very Cameroonian state of (depending on your point of view) fatalism, or practicality.  She was a dog.  She died, as all things die.  And so we were burying her, and life would go on. 

My favorite friend with my favorite puppy. Rest in peace, Cousteau.