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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Kindness of Enemies and Being Lonely While Surrounded

The Russians believed the Chechens were wily and suspicious. The Chechens believed the Russians were aggressive and treacherous. They were both right, they were both wrong. - Leila Aboulela, The Kindness of Enemies
Ah, springtime. My favorite time of year. When yellow-jackets start to build their nests in my backyard and the weeds fight for dominance among the fledgling little plants I try to grow in my garden. When longer days lead to ornery kids who say it's "too light outside for bedtime," and I start to sunburn because I guess I forgot what sun does again and it will be a month or so before I remember to bring sunscreen in my backpack when I work outside. When my morning bike ride is freezing, so I wear a sweatshirt and beanie, then it's blazing hot when I go home so I have to wrap my sweatshirt around my waist like some guy named Chad.

Spring is also my conference season, which is a super specific and not-at-all-relatable time of year when I go to like three 3-4 day conferences in two months and feel very inadequate for one hundred reasons all at once. Here's what wildlife conferences are like: there are talks and presentations by people who have accomplished and are accomplishing amazing feats of real science. These are interspersed with breaks in which one should be "networking" and "meeting people" and "making eye contact" but one is actually nursing a Dr. Pepper kind of by oneself and realizing (again) that one has very few friends and just never feels comfortable anywhere.

At the first of these, located near beautiful Bryce Canyon National Park, the best word I could describe for the experience was this: it was the word lonely. Surrounded by like-minded people in a beautiful setting shouldn't feel that way.

Me: I should take a selfie here
Also me: 

That's sad, right? I like being by myself. That's not the problem here. To me, being lonely doesn't mean that I'm alone, because alone is pretty rad, tbh. I like hiking alone, going on long bike rides alone, and especially movies alone. That's not lonely. That's freedom. Lonely means being alone when surrounded by people, wanting to be among them in a meaningful way, and failing.

In the last few years I feel like the internet has been filled with posts and articles about this secret world of introverts that only introverts will understand. I'm not sure if I'm one of those. I don't know what it even means. Chances are most people who claim to be introverts probably aren't. Does it mean that sometimes people exhaust me and I would rather spend some time in a quiet place sometimes? Sure. But I also deeply enjoy being the center of attention and crave it like Sonic the Hedgehog craves chili dogs. What I am is someone who very much likes the conviviality of social interaction with other humans but who is also very bad at it.

I would say that using words wrong is so hot right now, but that would be literally bananas.

I spend a lot of time during conferences on the outside of small talking groups of people who know each other very well but don't know me. I nod along with them and laugh or whatever and then the group disperses. Was this dispersal because of me? Well that would be pretty narcissistic to assume that my presence had that impact on other peopl- oh look they have formed the same group on the other side of the room. It's true that I'm relatively new at the agency where I am working, and I use that as a consolation except wait a minute is that the new girl just surrounded by uproarious laughter? Dang it.

That's kind of the whole thing. I know some people, and like them, and hopefully they like me back, but I'm very aware of the phenomenon of the conference clinger. I don't want to just follow around the small handful of people with whom I am comfortable, because they're supposed to be networking too and just because I'm rubbish at it doesn't mean that I should drag them down with me like I'm some kind of Jack hanging on to the driftwood that is Rose's effortless ability to be part of something bigger than herself. So I let go and drown. It's very sad but we'll definitely meet in heaven, conference buddy. As the rules of heaven go, we will reunite where we met, so heaven will be a conference. And both of us will really have to question how we lived our lives after all. Is this heaven? We'll ask ourselves, and then the credits will roll on our ambiguous faces -- reality dawning on them too late. The first speaker begins. His Powerpoint is bad.

This year instead of going to the big banquet at the end, I went for a hike by myself and dinner in Panguitch. The hike was fantastic. Eating my too-small smothered burrito in a hamburger and shakes place while listening to a podcast was fine. Going to the gas station to get supplementary chicken strips because of the aforementioned inadequacy of the smothered burrito was just the kind of thing that makes me enjoy being by myself. I can make those kind of unilateral bad decisions without any judgement or grumbling. But the long road back to the hotel room (long because I got lost) gave me time to kind of feel sorry for myself, too.

The truth is, I don't know why I'm like this. I don't know why I'm socially awkward and am more likely to say something that results in the uncomfortable stare followed by a let's-pretend-nobody-said-anything return to the conversation. And I certainly don't understand how in other circumstances I can have a crowd of people eating out of the palm of my hand, as the saying goes, though I want to emphasize with some forcefulness that I mean this metaphorically and not literally because gross. How can this same person (me) be genuinely quick-witted and charming one moment and be such an absolute failure the next? Get yourself lost in Southern Utah sometime and let me know what you come up with.

This is all super small potatoes, by the way, compared to how the main characters in The Kindness of Strangers feel. But because of the aforementioned narcissism, I still managed to relate to it. Natasha calls herself a "failed hybrid" of Sudanese-Russian descent. She considers herself a secular Muslim, which is to say non-practicing but fascinated by the culture. Her favorite student, Oz, is a descendant of Imam Shamil, who in the early 1800s led a spirited defense of the Ottoman Empire against the advances of an imperialist Russia.

Natasha is a professor at a small university in Scotland; an expert on Shamil and his military campaign, and she befriends Oz and his mom. In a post-9/11 world, Natasha is viewed with suspicion in Scotland based on her lineage and her fascination with Islamic Jihad, and in Sudan is rejected for not practicing the religion in which she was raised. Thus the "failed hybrid" part. Oz, a young man fascinated with his heritage, is even more closely scrutinized, and his search history leads to an arrest and detainment. This throws everyone's life into disarray as computers are searched, offices are broken into, and the university shies from the new attention.

That's the one story being told. The other is about Shamil centuries before. His son is kidnapped at a young age and raised as a Russian. Decades later, in retaliation, he kidnaps a Georgian princess for several months and holds her for ransom and his son's return. Anna, the princess, develops a fondness for Shamil and Shamil's son Jameleldin integrates into the more technologically and culturally advanced Russian society.

But nobody integrates fully. Anna is Georgian married to a Russian, but she still pines for a free Georgia. Shamil calls her the Queen of Georgia, which she likes very much, though if her husband heard her say it he'd flip. Jameleldin thinks he's fully part of Russian culture, but is rebuffed when he asks for a Russian woman's hand in marriage. As much as he loves the place where he lives, he's always considered an outsider. Both, when returned to their old lives, feel wrong and shiftless. Anna misses the simple life and righteous cause of defending one's homeland she witnessed in the Caucuses. Jameleldin craves literature and music, forbidden among his family. Similar to the kidnapped children raised as Kiowa in News of the World, there is no world for them left.

That's way more description than I usually get into, by the way. But I guess it's what I keep thinking about. On the one hand, my personality takes getting used to and is not for everyone. I'm the first to admit that. I'm like black licorice in that some people love me, some people have tried me and would rather never do that again, and some people think they know me from the get-go and turn the other way. Also, I don't like black licorice either. So there's that.

The other thing is that I don't really feel fully invested in anything. Having one foot in everything (in this scenario I have dozens of feet) might make me interesting to go on a car ride with, but it makes me so hard to talk to. I like wildlife but I don't hunt. I bird, but not every weekend (or even every other weekend). I watch football but not college football and literally not one second of any other sport. I read, but not any one genre. My politics are left of a lot of people I work with now, but right of a lot of the people I worked with before. What happens is that I'll find a common interest with someone, but I'm not as into it as they are and so the conversation quickly exhausts my limited knowledge of it and then we're casting around for anything else. "So," I ask, desperately flailing for something, anything, that can keep this person engaged. "What's your favorite Sega CD game?"

It's interesting that one of the things I like about myself is how hard it is to put me in a category; but simultaneously that's part of why I struggle so much in social situations. When Wall-E finds a spork and struggles to categorize it, he finally gives up and puts it between the spoons and the forks. It's super cute, but here's the thing: sporks suck. They're useful if they are the only thing available, but do neither thing well. If you have a more specialized option, you go with it. I'm almost 38. I don't know if at this point there's going to be some big change where I'm able to focus on any one thing long enough to make it my own deal. It might be spork-town from here on out for ol' Howie.

This is a look I'm pretty used to when meeting strangers
I'm being pretty hard on myself, I guess. Human beings aren't eating utensils. There's a good chance that I'm a conversational multi-tool. I'm not the best knife or set of pliers, but sometimes you don't need the set of pliers. You just need the screwdriver thing. If you need a screwdriver, a knife isn't going to get you very far, just like the guy who lives and breathes Alabama football maybe isn't going to get you very far in a discussion about disc golf. I've played disc golf like 10 times. I'm not the expert, but I can hang.

"I'm not the expert, but I can hang" may be the thing I request be put on my tombstone.

Also a big part of the book is how different jihad was during Shamil's time, even in a military sense, than it has been in modern times. It's discussed that Shamil would despise the current actions of some members of his own religion, even as his name is sometimes invoked in support of it. That's a very good and interesting discussion but I couldn't figure out how to make it about me, so let's stick with the tombstone thing.

Tombstone generator