On Feeling Helpless vs. Feeling Hopeless

I don’t talk about my work much here for a couple of reasons. Even most of my close friends are clueless about what I do and I like it that way most of the time. People who talk about their work are boring. And my work, although exciting sometimes, can also sometimes put me to sleep while I’m doing it. But to understand this post, you need to understand two things: I write for a living but I’m not a journalist, though the Kunstler Sozial Kasse has pigeonholed me as one. After having a loss of faith in my abilities as a writer a few years ago, I also started studying international human rights law. I thought that by becoming an expert on a topic that really affects me emotionally, I could maybe regain my faith in myself as a writer. Because I wanted to write stories that rose people’s awareness, changed people’s minds, and I felt like I needed to have the basic background information to do that.

I’m not so naive anymore.

For years I tried to make a living as a person writing on human rights issues. I’ve offered to write and edit reports, to write magazine features, to cover important conventions on transitional justice. And though some organizations and magazines have taken me up on these offers, for the most part, no one is willing to pay for my words or for the therapy I need regularly to deal with nightmares from some of the stories that I’ve heard. So I’ve had to turn to corporate communications to pay the bills, writing about fashion designers and computer programs and a million other things that I could give two fucks about. A waste of my time and expertise and talent, I’m told, but talent doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a messed up world when I can get paid more to write about clothing than about an Afghan woman struggling to get an education. And I don’t know if that’s the editor’s or the reader’s or the advertiser’s decision, I just know that it’s a position that’s conflicting to be in. Do what I love and feel is good or pay my rent and provide my daughter with a better life than the one I had as a kid?

These internal struggles that I’ve had for years become more and less acute depending on what I know and hear about happening in the world and most of the time, when it’s acute, it feels so bad because I feel helpless. Like I can’t do anything and whatever I do do, it won’t ever be enough.

When we flew into Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war, I was warned strictly against going outside the areas we were approved to be in. That meant no Bakaa Valley, no refugee camps, no Tripoli. I was not there for work but I listed online as a journalist, which could have meant trouble (as most English language journos in Germany know about from the Michael Scott Moore kidnapping case), and I had my daughter with me, and so, for the most part, I obeyed. We were there for a wedding and although I didn’t know this at the time, the bride came from one of the wealthiest families in the area. It wasn’t until I arrived and we were whisked away by their chauffeur that I realized how conspicuous our presence would be; we were told thereafter to be extremely careful so as not to be kidnapped. I got chauffeured around in a Mercedes, taken to luxurious Mediterranean beach resorts that were carved into the middle of banana plantations, places that required driving through Army checkpoints that left our driver a crying mess and through some of the poorest ghettos I have ever witnessed, to reach. We drove by the Holiday Inn on the Green Line that still bears the marks of decades-ago shelling and got rerouted because a crater from a car bomb just a few weeks earlier had made the road impassable. Never have I been so aware of the privilege I experienced through accident of birth and acquaintance. I may have grown up poor but I have never experienced poverty like this. I wasn’t naive enough to think that getting out of the car and handing out dollar bills or sweets and treats would do anything but ease my own mind about the poverty I was witnessing but what could I do? I felt totally helpless, a feeling that has ebbed and wained my entire life but which has, since then, not receded.

When I got back to Germany, I set out to write about these experiences. If editors didn’t want to buy the story about the reconstruction after the ethnic cleansing of my driver’s village (they didn’t), then maybe they would buy a story about six talented fashion designers from Beirut (they didn’t). They’ll publish 500 trend pieces on Paris Fashion Week but nope, sorry, not enough room for Lebanon. It’s okay. I already knew that. Words aren’t powerful in the face of disinterest. They aren’t the vehicles for positive change or awareness bringing that my grad school professors had tried convincing me they were.

Which is why what happened across Europe this week was so startling to me. I’ve been following the Syrian Civil War for five years now, been an expert on Afghanistan for seven. No one has given a shit for all these years. We have seen pictures of dead people in the Mediterranean for at least two years now and no one flinched. I was at a conference this summer which specifically addressed these wars and their consequences and watched Middle East experts begging for press and the world’s attention. Little came. I sat through panels addressing how the xenophobia and racism in the Balkans is once again reaching a boiling point, with one panelist saying the unsteady peace won’t last much longer, while for months at least, Balkans minorities keep turning up in Germany begging for asylum only to be deported quickly. I still haven’t read or heard about that in the media. I had a conversation with an expert on the to-remain-nameless-because-of-Google group currently rampaging across the former Mesopotamia that made me literally vomit and when I left this conference, for the first time in a while, I realized that the feeling of helplessness that I had when deciding to study human rights law has now shifted towards complete and utter hopelessness. I don’t want to be as disenchanted as this last expert, a former war reporter, is; his take on the world is that human beings are awful creatures undeserving of redemption. I don’t know how you can live with that kind of world view and yet I can absolutely understand based on his stories why he would say that.

For a second this week, my faith in humanity returned. Seeing some of those pictures brought tears to my eyes. I felt less hopeless and back to feeling merely helpless. Maybe that’s a start, I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot more weeks and months and years to reverse that last feeling and I’m hoping to continue to see this rising tide of immigration turn into a sea of positive change.  I’m trying not to be cynical about it. I’m trying hard not to make this about me. But I’m still a very long way from saying, as Liv Hambrett quite eloquently put it, that I am proud. Don’t get me wrong. What’s happening on the civilian level on the ground in Germany is wonderful and admirable. But as the saying in the development world goes, good intentions are not enough. I can’t wait to see the permanent change brought on by these actions. That’s the notion giving me hope at the moment.

On My Fear of Flying

I didn’t get on a plane for the first time until I was old enough to drive. I had been living with an aunt in Florida, working as her nanny while my parents got a divorce, and suddenly, two days before Hurricane Andrew made landfall, I had to make my way back home without getting stuck in a natural disaster. My dad booked me a flight and after a summer spent realizing there was more to the world than my tiny-ass country bumpkin town, I gladly got on it. Flying, I realized, would be my ticket to the outside world. I ordered a sparkling water, a drink that tasted terrible to my Coke-adapted tastebuds, and I drank it down imagining the people around me on the plane thought I was far more glamorous than I’d ever imagined myself to be. After all, those were the days before everyone was flying and I was the only “kid” on her own on that plane.

When I moved out to Boston half a decade later, I realized that flying wasn’t as exotic as I’d made it out to be. Yes, airplanes took me to Europe and across the country, but they did that same thing for everybody who could afford them to. As I moved up into the middle-class, I finally realized that the costs of flying didn’t make it the luxury it had once appeared to poor little me. I flew to Chicago and Los Angeles and Charlotte. For fun. Because I could. Because all my middle class friends expected that of me. I was a worldly woman, sophisticated, I traveled on a whim, went away for the weekend. I took a near empty commuter shuttle between Boston and New York City in late August 2001 because my sister was having a hard day and I wanted to do some shopping.

When I visited her a month later, I took the train. On my morning walk to work just a week before, I had crossed a bridge from which I could see planes taking off from Logan Airport. And that afternoon, on my walk home, the only sound I heard were fighter jets cutting through the air above me. After that, flying felt like less of a luxury.

“Just calling to make sure you weren’t on your way to LA,” my friend said into my answering machine. I wasn’t but an acquaintance of my sister’s was. I guess that’s when you could say my fear of flying began.

In the meantime, I’ve flown quite a bit. I took a short break from it, but it’s a part of the middle-class life I’ve adapted since living in Boston. Upon moving to Germany, I knew I’d have to keep flying, hopping the pond at least once a year. Working as a freelance journalist, I knew I’d have to grab a flight to Leipzig for a day spent filming or a quick appearance at a Fashion Week. But it hasn’t been easy.

I had a panic attack on a short-haul flight ten years ago — the first I’d ever had — and the OCD rituals to prevent them from ever happening mid-air again began. Checking the safety records of every style of aircraft before settling on Airbus 320/330. Checking the safety records of every airline imaginable before choosing which to fly (Lufthansa, always Lufthansa). Choosing only direct flights (avoiding stopovers), never flying through England, the list goes on, has grown longer each year. It got so bad two years ago that I would have nightmares just even thinking about booking a flight; my hands would shake so badly I couldn’t book my tickets online and yet I would somehow book them. The Dramamine tablets I would take for motion sickness in the air would be swallowed before we’d even get on the train to the airport. A friend who saw this, whose brother was a pilot, admonished me for the rituals. “You fly too much to be afraid of flying,” he’d said. “And it’s way safer than driving.”

I know these things. But panic and logic are two completely separate ways of thinking and the parts of your brain handling those two things do not communicate. Panic, if you’re wondering, comes from one part “thinking too much/too catastrophically” and one part being so stressed out you can’t cope with life’s little things anymore. It wasn’t surprising then that my fear of flying grew uncontrollable when I was already being treated for exhaustion. What was surprising was that the doctor treating me for burnout also prescribed me some sleeping pills to help keep me calm during flights. If I were really exhausted, as he claimed, I shouldn’t have continued flying everywhere. A doctor looking out for my best interest would have told me not to go to Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war and to get more sleep instead. Instead, I got magic blue pills, a medication so strong it can cause amnesia even after small doses.

I flew more in the year following than I had ever done in my life. With those pills, I had the same terrible fears but none of the physical symptoms. I could worry that something was wrong with the plane without having to puke. I could feel the turbulence and my heart wouldn’t race. The pills dulled my senses, made flying feel finally okay again.

Portugal Beach

What the doctor didn’t tell me was that those pills had hideous side effects, that they were so addictive, they weren’t something for recovering addicts like me. I found out the hard way while lying on a beach in Portugal staring at the rolling surf while feeling completely out of my mind as I’d only felt when coming down from a high as a teenage junkie. I knew, before I’d even talked to a doctor, that it had to do with the pills. I also knew that it had to do with me, with feeling overwhelmed by this middle-class life and by having catastrophic thinking.

Since I came back from Portugal 18 months ago, I haven’t flown. I haven’t gone to the US. I have turned down lucrative job offers in other cities, taken a ten-hour train ride instead of a two-hour plane ride, avoided holidaying with friends I haven’t seen in ages, all in order to not have to get on a plane. It’s given me the time I need to recuperate from the exhaustion. To learn how not to catastrophize in my thinking. To prioritize. Do I really need to be in Copenhagen for Fashion Week again? Can I not just live here in Germany and ignore the rest of my family in the US?

And I have to admit: it was working. Taking the stress out of my life was a great step, even if it hasn’t gone far enough yet. Therapy to retrain my thinking was working, even if the voice now judging me in my head is my therapist’s (auf Deutsch, too, which makes that voice so very harsh!) I was just about to book tickets to Portugal for the summer break. And thinking about Christmas in the US. But after this week, I realize I still have a ways to go. Although in reading all of the news reports, I’ve realized my fear of flying has less to do with the realities of flight than with panic. All the OCD rituals in the world can’t prevent things from happening. And though I don’t want to make this about me, it’s hard not to feel it when it’s that close to home again. I — and I think a lot of other people — need serious time to digest what the fuck has just happened.

What about you all? How are you coping with the tragedy?

Why I Won’t Use AirBnB Anymore

I travel a lot. Not as much as I used to and not as much as I want to, but I do get out of town at least once a month. Most of the time when I’m traveling, I’m doing it for “work” but as my work is writing and I’m a freelancer, I nearly always have full control of where I’m traveling to and when and what I’m going to do there (“chasing the story,” I guess). And most of that time, that means I’ll be staying in a place for longer than a day and if I’m staying somewhere a while, I like to stay somewhere with a kitchen. Which is why AirBnB seemed like such an awesome idea when I first read about it four years ago.

During my first ever tour of Europe in 1999, the ex and I would arrive in a city and walk to the tourists’ office and ask for a room in someone’s home and we would get a great place to stay where we could boil water for Ramen noodles or make sandwiches. We had such great fun doing this in Copenhagen and Nice and Paris and Budapest that when my parents (notoriously not spontaneous people) popped over for a visit in 2005, we took them to Brugges and walked into the tourists’ office and got a room above a patisserie that my parents found just the quaintest little thing. Much better than the standard Holiday Inn by the airport.

Before AirBnB, I used Couch Surfing twice — once on a trip to Berlin and once on the way to Istanbul. Not just because I was broke (as a freelancer, I have to foot the bill in advance, and nearly always, I am broke as hell), but because the idea of staying with locals was highly appealing when I was traveling to cover the “local scene.” These were incredible experiences, meeting really nice people I wouldn’t have met otherwise but once I became a mom, and became moderately more successful as a journalist so I could actually bill my expenses, I scrapped Couch Surfing. Besides, there were a few horror stories already coming out and though I used to be willing to risk my own life, after having a kid, I realized I had to be a lot more responsible so I switched to AirBnB, stupidly assuming that if money was exchanged, the places and people advertising were vetted in some way similar to that which the tourists’ offices had previously done.

Of course, the Amis took the nice concept of Couch Surfing and found a way to make money off of it. And of course, as experts at having so much stuff one doesn’t know what to do with it all, the Amis of the Bay Area launched AirBnB to great heights when they started renting their rooms out while it was still Beta. People who had the space but wouldn’t do it for free had zero problem with opening their houses to strangers once their was cash in it for them and as a journalist, I caught wind of this before many others in Europe did. So on a trip to Berlin right after AirBnB launched, I booked a room near the Gethsemane Church, a place it was near impossible to get a hotel at at the time. It was great, if a little awkward. I’ve never lived with male roommates before so Italian dude in his shirtsleeves grabbing coffee in the morning was…strange. The couple was broke, both working for basically free at start-ups, but the apartment was beautiful and they were nice to be sharing it with me. That was in 2011.

Since then, I have tried and tried with AirBnB, but all that I’ve come up with are greedy bastard hosts. In Lake Tahoe, I rented a cabin for far too much money and though the landlord was very nice, she completely disappeared after day one… leaving me to fight with the neighbors for over three weeks about a porch light that could not be turned off and which led to the neighbors throwing the breaker on our cabin in freezing temperatures. Every night for four nights at two a.m., the electricity (and heat) would suddenly stop working and the landlord could and would do zilch about it. She has, nicely enough, now added me to her pyramid-scheme e-mail list. Guess that AirBnB lodging thing just isn’t working out as she’d planned.

Maybe it was just the Amis, I thought, and so I tried my hand again in Berlin. Fifty inquiries later, I finally got one person to respond and that answer was “although we are listed as family friendly, no kids are allowed here.” Hmmm…. another 50 inquiries, this time without putting Diva in my note and I finally got a response, “sorry, I keep forgetting to update my calendar but there’s no room for you.” That didn’t include the numerous people who I didn’t ask after, people whose profiles blatantly stated, “you can only stay here on nights I feel like staying at my boyfriend’s so my calendar isn’t updated.” Fuck that. I asked a friend of a friend for her keys because who needs to stay at Boxhagener Platz with a million other tourists when I can just crash on a friend’s couch, I guess. Besides, I’d begun feeling really shitty for the plight of Berliners whose rent has magnified tenfold thanks to these asshats in Silicon Valley, et al.,

Then this summer, I booked again, this time in Copenhagen. I have a friend there but wanted my own place — a penthouse because I’d be with family and I’d need to have people come by the apartment for work stuff and because I am a fucking snob like that. First the booking system messed up my bill and billed in a foreign currency, so I complained about it in about 10 emails that only got responded to when I tweeted (ugh, social media customer service) and finally got them to work it out and reimburse me. They also offered me a discount on my next stay because I’m a journalist and might write something bad. Fucking whatever, I said. Probably not using them again anyway, right? AND THEN! While we were on our way north, our reservation got cancelled because of a broken water pipe (I will try to not be cynical about this but seeing as to how long it took to even find this place, I doubt it was true). The trouble was that the refund for this place wouldn’t happen for about a week so I couldn’t really use my credit card to get a standard hotel since it was maxed (I keep my limit low on purpose); instead, I’d need to rebook an AirBnB place using the play money that they’d already booked off my card. In August, when the entire country of Denmark is on vacation, I needed to find a room/place with one day’s notice that would accept kids. Grrr….

Eventually it happened but it cost more money and hassle than I had the time or energy for. The hostess wasn’t all that nice (pissed that I’d brought a kid, too, even though Diva ended up leaving with her godmother), which says a lot because Danes are not assholes at all. The apartment was tiny and loud and HOT and I couldn’t invite my clients over as anticipated. You had to stand on the toilet to take a shower. Fucking UGH. I ended up leaving and staying with a friend even though I’d (i.e., my client) paid for the apartment. Overpaid, actually, because AirBnB once again messed up the billing. But whatever. I give up. I hate them. I will not use them and even though I know people have had great experiences (I did too, once!), I won’t be recommending them. I’m glad they got their asses banned in Berlin.

So much for the shared economy. As much as I’d love to believe in bartering being the way of the future, so long as money is involved, this collaborative economy nonsense is just all about greed and exploitation and I’m not buying into it. Giving my money back to the tourist’s offices and mom and pops with a spare room.

A Change of Wallpaper: On Travel

One of the things that used to drive me fucking insane about my ex-husband was his complete and utter apathy, his disinterest bordering on disdain, for the art of travel. Given that my first trip to Chicago — a two-hour drive from my parents’ house — took place when I was 18, you would think that I’d have been the one to never want to set foot in a foreign country. But I got my first passport as a result of his interest in returning to the Vaterland that he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade and right after I graduated college, my ass and his spent a summer on numerous trains across Europe. I decided then that I could not stay in Small Town, U.S.A. any longer and started doing everything I could to get the fuck out. Not just moving, mind you, though I’ve certainly done enough of that in the last decade and a half. Traveling.

There’s a reason my to-do list every year includes the statement, “Get out of town at least once a month,” and that reason is simple: I believe firmly in the healing powers that a new location can bring. The incredible goodness that can come from, as the Germans would say, a change of wallpaper (a phrase which always reminds me of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which always then makes me think of travel as an antidote to insanity). I experienced it most recently in Copenhagen, but I have also recently seen the exact opposite of that experience on other trips. I spent a weekend in Berlin this summer that, although fine in theory, really did nothing for me. I was there instead of here but everything felt the same, just with different wallpaper that I still felt like ripping from the walls.

My trip to Lake Tahoe over the winter was even worse. I quickly got myself into a cycle of hating everything about where I was, which was not only unusual, it was frustrating. I was in the most beautiful place I have ever been to, with people who love me, and instead all I wanted to do was to go home. A home, I’ll have you know, that I’m in due to circumstances beyond my control. A place that I wouldn’t have naturally chosen but I’ve come to simultaneously appreciate and loathe. I chose to go to Lake Tahoe, to stay as long as I could, and I hated nearly every second of it.

Instead of looking at and adoring views like these:

TahoeI was dreaming of going home to a place where the sun didn’t shine for nearly 300 days straight, where the main selling point to my apartment was the fact that there was one single tree planted on the corner, where the only nearby trail I can run is famously packed to brimming every Sunday because it’s one of the only areas in the south of the city where you can see green if you want to run more than 1k at a time.

But it wasn’t the scenery that was making me miss home. It was the familiarity I’ve come to know here. The routines my daughter and I have put into place. My friends. The unfriendly bastards I bump shoulders with out on the streets. The knowledge of how everything here works.

It might sound a bit like reverse culture shock that I’m experiencing, but I’m getting these feelings in other German cities, too. When I went to a “wellness hotel” (ha ha ha, a fucking rich word for a normal hotel with a pool that they want to charge 3x the money for despite its location in the middle of nowhere) last April, I felt it, too.

What this is, I’m afraid, is age. I’m getting older and more curmudgeonly in my old age. I want everything just fucking so, and when the goddamned pencils are not sharpened to my liking, or the towels are a bit too stiff, or the soup too salty, I’m less flexible than I used to be about it. I want to unlock my door, slip off my muddy sneakers right there in the foyer and leave them there for days, not scrub them down so I can slip them back in my suitcase so they can see a new trail in a new city. Which is a shame, given how much I actually do like traveling. It’s just getting so damned hard. So I’m taking a few months off. We’ll see how long it is before I start tearing this here wallpaper down.

Gaining Perspective

It’s been a while, I realize this.

The three readers I have who I know in real life keep asking when I’m going to write again and though there are words in this post, they don’t count. They’re a start — a way to get myself back onto this blog on a regular basis because lord knows I could really use an outlet for all the fucks I want to use and can’t in my every day, thanks to corporate censors and a parroting potty-mouthed toddler. But this post isn’t going to amount to much because it’s a spot of navel-gazing and if there’s anything I hate worse than people who take themselves too seriously, it’s reading blogposts by those assholes.

But.

It’s been a rough couple of months.

I won’t go into detail here because life is on the upswing again and I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but life sometimes is just all sorts of ugh. And the biggest lesson I can take from all this ugh is that perspective is everything. Everything.

I have a pretty nice life. If I were religious, I might say I’m blessed but that’s just bullshit. I had a lot of advantages in my life by being born blonde-haired and blue-eyed in the wealthiest country in the world (at the time) and maybe some deity played a role in that, but I worked my ass off, too. At no time have I worked my ass off more than these last two years and so I have to appreciate that even when life isn’t easy, it’s still pretty good. That doesn’t stop it from sucking sometimes, but you can’t let the suckiness drag you down — hence the need for perspective. I’m nowhere near where I want to be in life, but I am a million times removed from where I thought I’d be when I turned 36, so … perspective. I can focus on what’s not working or focus on what has gone right.

So what do you do to get that perspective?

fireplaceFor me, that perspective came (back) after a four-day weekend in Copenhagen. Cuddled up next to this cozy fireplace with a ridiculously awesome couple, watching Californication and reading Kierkegaard and just generally taking a step back to see what in the fuck had been happening in my life that made it feel so horrible. And you know what?

It was just a feeling.

As Denmark’s most famous philosopher himself would say, “There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you so, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: ‘No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.”

 

America, a 4-year-old’s Perspective

The diva’s been to the States many, many times, but our most recent visit back to my hometown is the first in which she actually started to make observations about the place. Someone asked me once what it’s like to fly back and forth so often and after this trip, I was like, “You know, it’d be nice to land somewhere new and interesting after all the hassle that comes with a transatlantic flight. But it’s just the same as always.”

For her, though, being in the midwest was like being in a whole new world. It didn’t help that she got to meet nearly a hundred members of my extended family so there were all these new, strange people around. She also got to see and do a bunch of new stuff. Like kayaking. And hiking through a real forest. And sit in the car for hours. She talked her way through a lot of this strangeness, and it was fun to listen to a four-year-old’s thoughts on this place that’s so familiar to me, yet so alien and new to her. So without further ado, a few random observations on America, courtesy of DiT:

1. Toilets there flush too loudly and are super scary. Sometimes they even flush while you’re sitting on them. More scary.

2. It’s weird that people can a) look through a crack in the toilet stall and see you pee, and b) that when you’re done using the toilet, you can just crawl out beneath the door without unlocking it.

3. There are too many cows to count.

4. Tractors are huge. HUGE. Much bigger than this one.

tractor5. Random strangers talk to you and it is not okay.

6. Choices. So.many.choices. (Discovered in the Barbie aisle at Target. Fuck that store.)

7. You can buy noodles at just about any restaurant, but they call it macaroni and that name makes it taste bad.

8. Adults go swimming in their clothes, not in bathing suits, which is strange.

Along with these hawk-eyed observations also came a bit of new vocabulary auf Englisch that was kind of fun to hear. All those sayings I’d tried my darnedest to eliminate so that people would never know where I was from are now popping out of Diva’s mouth. Sometimes when she speaks now, I think, oh wow, that’s my mother coming out right there. Like when she said, “Oh my garsh.” Or even better (and not from my mom), “Oh, what the hell?!?”

It’s kind of cute and sweet, but as I’m all Americaed-out, I’m really looking forward to the days when I can send her on over to visit the grandparents all by herself — then we’ll see what new vocabulary comes back with her.