Tuesday, November 3, 2009

You should listen to everyone like they are crazy. It's the functional definition of love.

So I have been really depressed, right down in the shitter and I am engulfed in an existential struggle where I am trying to determine how much of it is pathological and how much of it is, well, living in Cambridge. eecummings wrote a poem about how bad the whole situation is here. The Cambridge Ladies.

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things--
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless,the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

So you can see the issue. These people are in a provincial academic cocoon that sort of blocks out reality.

This makes communication difficult. Where I am, when the American accent appears, the locals immediately cease to listen to what I actually am saying. I can see it in their eyes, their minds are racing to create the conversation they think they are having or should be having rather than listening to what is being said. It's tough. (My friend Nick arguably has it worse in a wheelchair). I am not from this tight little comfortable community of shared experiences, so everyone really has trouble in understanding I say. So they respond to what they think I ought to have said. Communication is nearly impossible. I'm not kidding. Even with people who are trying. I wore my absolute favorite Texas Prison Rodeo t-shirt to yoga last week and a very nice, seemingly very bright woman spoke to me for 5 minutes. We chatted about this and that. I thought I had imparted all relevant geo-biographical information that the locals require in detail, being from Washington, but grew up in New York, but not New York City. I mean for god's sake, these are place names, not nuanced, witty cultural observations. And no shit, she ended the conversation sort of obliquely asking me why I had been in prison in Texas.

This thing about being divided by a common language is so very true. I do not feel this in my French, Dutch and Swedish friends here. To the contrary. But the British culture, by its very nature, when you are in the thick of it, is a war of words. You are not allowed to communicate with emotions. That leaves words.

And think about all the vastly different cultures share this tiny overrated island. Welsh, Irish, Scottish, from Yorkshire, from Liverpool, from Cornwall, from Manchester, every one of them have their own accents, their own song, their own food, their own idioms. The rivalries are unbearably tedious to me, but they are very real, especially in football. The truth is they are still a bunch of warring tribes. And they also divide into classes, and those classes have their own pronounciation, idioms and ways of living.

Apparently the point of language here in the provinces is to create ever smaller circles of protection against the rattling lavender. They must need it to feel safe in the Fens.

I am coming to the conclusion that the only place bearable on this island is London where the warring tribes are diluted with immigrants.

And what makes London bearable - even often great - is that people have to work harder to understand what strangers say to them, people interact with a variety of different cultures, public transportation is more diversely populated. Consequently they must frequently negotiate situations where language is the only bridge between two people with completely different cultural assumptions. (Dress, stance, class)

The place where I saw these slender bridges grow into beautiful Golden Gate affairs was Teddy's West Hampstead. Owain went there from six months to three years and he had such a great experience there. And what made it so great is that people from wildly different cultures - Polish, Jamaican, French, Hungarian off the top of my head -- had to work together to raise children - an event that is very laden in any culture. And the only thing they had in common was a minimal proficiency in English. So they really had to work to work together and listen to each other.

Surely this is the functional definition of love.

And even though they weren't always feeling it, they worked together. They did it by listening hard and trying to make sense of what other people were saying. They did it by asking a lot of questions. They treated each other gently, maybe not in peace but in detente. The point is it worked. Because they worked at listening. Strained. Like their lives depended on it. Like the other person was batshit crazy but they still had to find a way to talk to them. What a wonderful atmosphere. Not perfect, but sublime.

This skill is missing big time from the hinterlands and this is seriously getting me down. I don't think this problem is limited to me or to the UK, my criticisms would be true in any country. I think my advice after two and a half years in Camrbdgie is that immigrants generally probably shouldn't venture to the outlying villages.

I find any sort of communication very difficult in this culture. Painfully, horribly, humiliatingly difficult. Except for ordering delivery pizza and sushi.and buying Champagne. That I have mastered even in Cambridge.

I am trying to figure out whether how I feel is subject to pharamceutical improvement. These cultural observations make me wonder whether it is. In the United States I excelled at communication. Here I live an epic fail.

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