(Peace down below. Goals here.)
I entered the Peace Corps without any specific goals in mind. As such, and now that I’m at my final site – more on that in a few days – I’ve tried to write my way toward some type of explanation, some form of resolution, as to why I chose two years in Siberia over two years of in-the-prime living back in the States. It may not exactly flow, but hopefully you (or I) will understand a bit further as to why I am now here, sitting in this Kazakh’s house, the wind rolling through my window as the setting sun bleaches the Russian horizon:
The goals of the assorted Peace Corps Volunteers are as varied as the countries in which we serve. Some come for the novelty – to smell the wilds, to eat the insects, to use an Asian long-drop. Some like to shove their unilingualism into the past, becoming one of the few Americans who can converse outside the Anglo sphere. Some are pursuing the dirtiest hippie within them, forgoing razors for dreadlocks and face fleas. And some simply want to escape the world of hybrid fruits, bowl games, and star-mongering that has long subsumed the culture that they’ve known.
Whatever the reason, some 7,000 Americans, compatriots abroad, have taken their goals and trussed them in years of service, earning little but pottage and experience. Theirs goals have seen them through a heinously lengthy application process; through host families who’d rather take the money than the responsibility; through locals who see them as novelty and eyesore and intruder. The goals have to be sound. At times, they’re all you have.
Interestingly, there’s never a moment in which Peace Corps explicitly asks you to delineate your goals. They want to know your reasons for joining, certainly – the reserve of answers runs from the lofty (“I want to make the world a better place.”) to the laconic (“Peace!”) to the languid (“Something to do, I guess.”) So long as you’ve found an answer in that tried, true Peace Corps stereotype, you’ll pass muster. Learn a language. Share your culture. Save the world. Uncle Sam’ll send you.
For the last 16 months, I’ve been asked my reasons for considering, applying to, and, many months later, joining the Peace Corps. At first, the answers sat convolutedly, spurts and twists of reason and ideology. They were simultaneously long-winded and hurried, amalgamations of everything proffered above. Mash them up, and see what kind of bland, blanched cause came out. I loved travelling. I lived without responsibility. The West could provide everything, but I needed to move elsewhere in order to appreciate it.
Such confusion made sense, I guess. After all, there was no predictor, no prior tic, that Peace Corps should catch me, let alone become the nonpareil goal it now holds. For three years prior I’d ridden a steadily-upward climb within the realm of sports journalism,* culminating in a 2009 stint as an editorial intern at Sports Illustrated. I worked a summer in the crest of the industry, with the doyens of the profession, hacking out fact-checks on pieces by writers I both admired and emulated. The position had fallen into my lap – a twist of chance landing me in a glass-filled, sky-high New York office. It allowed me to spend my hours ambling through the most immaculate writing the genre could offer. I wanted nothing more.
*My pigeon-chest stature, set next to the farm-fed Texas boys Rice recruited, had stalled my prospects as a baseball player. But I wasn’t willing to abandon the game I’d grown up with, and thus fell back on the lingua-heavy education I’d received at Catlin Gabel. Since writerly sorts usually forewent Rice, the path toward campus sportist-cum-journalist was that much easier, and I exploited it to its fullest.
Then, that summer ended. I flew back to Houston, buzzed for a final year of seniority and editorship and weekends of sodden, sloppy haze. I greeted that final year with an idealism that, I would believe, most do. With goals. Abstract and purblind, perhaps, but ambitions nonetheless. Of course, as with most tight-wound social circles and hard-stride educational environments, cracks formed. Pieces drifted. Projects sagged. Friendships spread. It was all so … knotted, a muddle of overwrought emotions and unmet expectations. All the while, that light at the end grew steady, and the opportunities for rapprochements lapsed. The year sped ever-more to a close. Senior year blazed past in a wholly unique, remarkably unsteady split. It was a tough time to catch your feet.
It was in this imbroglio that the idea of Peace Corps first slid into my mind. There was no glass bulb, no lightning strike of decision, no unknown phrase caught through the breeze to turn my decision from Mariners to Malawi. Time Inc. had undergone something of a hiring freeze, and, with pride still swollen from Manhattan’s energy, I had no desire to submit myself to a non-national publication. I still had every desire to follow Tom Verducci or Gary Smith or Joe Posnanski. They were my idols, and they held fast. But, with a farrago of pragmatism and ego, I had no desire to piddle about in such a depressed job market.
And so Peace Corps hung, a buzz in the background, pulling on a conscience still pollyannish and stale with Catholic guilt. I’d discussed joining a few times, with close friends and the few neighbors who had volunteered in the decades prior. Naturally, they were surprised. Their responses were varied, volleying from pride to confusion. This wasn’t my path. This couldn’t be my desire. Hell, this wasn’t even something I could do – two years is a nice thought, but such an attempt can’t possibly be seen through. Who could? And why would you?
The reasons still flitted, churning in that miasma of peace and prosperity and White Man’s Burden. Nothing congealed, nothing distinct, unique. Nothing caught that I could share. But at a certain juncture, it no longer mattered. The thought had caught enough momentum, the circumstances fell into passable placement, and I had enough desire to push myself into another instantaneous, by-the-seat choice that’s so often directed me. And thus, on a dreary January day, the kind only a Northwesterner would miss, I walked into a Portland coffeeshop, flipped open my laptop, and began the path to Kazakhstan. On that day, I entered Peace Corps.
* * *
We’d been walking for hours. Swept in surprise out of our Russian classes – nothing quite like a field trip to put our skills to the test – David, Emory, and I had meandered through the Green Bazaar, prompting the prahdavyets on the price of cowboy hats (300 tenge), paint sealant (700 tenge), and brass-cased samovars (20,000 tenge). It was late April, and we were still in our teacherly attire, sweating through our ties and khakis as the temperatures pushed 30-Celsius. We looked haggard. We looked lost.
We weren’t, of course, We were just roaming the bazaar, searching ever-long for fresh figs and horse butchers (the former to purchase, the latter to ogle). A semi-crazed old woman, a ventriloquist displaying a rot-tooth grin, followed us for a bit with her monkey puppet, offering little more than “Praveelnah!” (“Right!”) as we walked past the assorted fruit stands and deodorant booths. Looking to shake this simian marionette – the woman kept behind us, rheumy-eyed, drifting in the April breeze – we jumped into the nearest opening we could find.
We looked at the store which we’d entered. The store was quickly, obviously, different. Instead of an airy display area, the front stood dark, blocked with product. Instead of babushkas forcing down prices, the only customers were a pair of thin, goggled, high-socked 30-year-olds. But most importantly, instead of apricots and chinaware, instead of kitsch and junk and heap, the store sold only one item: books.
It was the first true Kazakhstani bookstores we’d yet seen. There were a handful of other kiosks that sold books, but they were always afterthoughts filled with indifferent minimum-wagers, more interested in T-Pain than Tolstoy.
But in here, the literary gamut stood as wide as we could want. The room was airless and dusty, with the center serving as a sort of panopticon, a fish-eye of books and claustrophobia. Most were stacked in moldy browns and mossy greens, cracked through use and humidity. Others featured hand-drawn Russian bodybuilders, shirtless He-Men who were shrugging off charging bears. Some were romance novels, photo-illustrations of entangled Soviet lovers. Some served no purpose other than nostalgia – Soviet propaganda, lodestars of Red Stars, CCCP road atlases of a nation united
Standing underneath, the shopkeep looked as close to a hippie as you could find in the Soviet world. He looked like he hailed from across the Pacific, a strange jumble of Gagarin and Ginsburg. His gray-streaked goatee cropped into a downward, Leninist point; his cheeks stood rosy, either from eczema or steppe-wind; his necklace, a leather ring, may well have been self-tanned. He wore all-gray-everything, from cargo vest to loose-fit pants, and his eyes lit hazel in the musty light. He was an enigma. But it wasn’t simply his attire; rather, he eyed us not as moneybags but god-earnest customers. It was a change of pace, this cross-the-counter respect, and it instantly made the room seem all the fuller of possibility.
And I thought of one of those goals that, until that point, had been a mixture of abstraction and aim-high idealism. As a student at Rice, one of my foci was English, a major that allowed me the opportunity to bullshit through prose and puck. It’s not an attitude of which I was proud, necessarily, and such hollowness is reflected in the fact that I formed neither rapport nor relationship with any of the English professors at Rice. Likewise, it is reflected in the dearth of classics that I actually read.
As sort of an expatiation, I came to Kazakhstan with the hope of blitzing through the novels I’d cliff-noted while in school. I’m set to have two years of blizzard-induced house arrest – a few years ago Presnovka, my new home, saw nine feet of snow – so, I thought, what better way to spend my white-out days than with a cup of coffee and a book I should have read my sophomore year?
With those winters in mind, I walked over to our beat poet cashier. Putting my Russian to practice, I asked:
“Dostoyevsky? Da, oo nas yest yehmoo.”
The man smiled, eyes glinting. He slid a ladder behind me, finding what little space to maneuver up the first few steps. He grabbed the top of a crust-colored pile. The book he pulled was covered in Russian, scrawled in unknown words, dust jumping off as he handed it down toward me. I looked at the title:
Преступление и наказание. Crime and Punishment.
Haggling 50 cents off the asking price, I walked out of the store having paid $2.25 for a 1956 copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus. As we left out of the bazaar, I flipped through the pages, understanding nothing but the title and the page numbers. And now it sits on my shelf, bookended by Lonely Planet and a miniature yurt. A new book, entirely in Russian, a chance to atone for my sins of apathy during four years of schooling at Rice. A classic, inching toward my understanding every time I use another of my Russian flashcards. A goal, hanging over me every time I sit to work. Making sure I make something of my time here, in Siberia.
Crime and Punishment. I’m going to read that book. That is my goal.
* * *
A friend of mine once told me that it is every journalist’s dream to write a novel. Perhaps such an idea is based on truth – in the age of book deals and celeb-journalism, the correspondents and beat writers jostle for screen time not only on ESPN or MSNBC but on Digg and Amazon as well. Their books cover the tacit and obvious (Rick Reilly, more liverish by the day, searching for the strangest in the world of sport) to the maudlin and Oprah-gasmic (Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie come to mind). There’s no limit to the subjects upon which you can write, and so long as you can pump out 150 pages of snappy prose – and, Christ, if it can sell on a Kindle – you’ll have agents piling on your welcome mat before you can say David Halberstam.
I suppose I’ve always ascribed to such a notion, that journalists secretly want to be novelists. After all, if a journalist works with the idea of having his or her words impact beyond oneself, there is little physical structure sturdier than a hard-bound, thick-cover book to keep impress generations of followers. Stack them on a shelf. Stack them in a basement. Stack them on your lawn, waiting for suburbia to pass by and haggle your junk down to the pittance it’s actually worth. Write the book, for perpetuity’s sake.
It’s not as if this idea is novel*, especially. A couple months ago, I gathered on my lawn with two of my closest friends, two who share paralleling professional pursuits. Matt, Jordan, and I had met during that summer at SI, bonding over fact-checks and foot-high margaritas. Despite living worlds apart – Matt in New York, Jordan in the Bay Area – they’d decided to explore the magic and hyperbole of my city. Portland sufficed, and we paused for a mid-day break to discuss, as we’re wont to do, writing.
Typically, we discuss the latest goings-on in the SI offices, and swap the best offerings we’d recently come across. But that afternoon, as we chewed our cigars, sipped our rum, and wrapped ourselves in a freezing Portland afternoon, we discussed the merits and desires of writing a book. There was no explicit, dye-in-the-wool moment where we decided to push our writing into the world of Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Instead, as the drizzle pocked our smoke, we discussed the possibility of such a path.*
*Jordan’s written more than (and well) enough to warrant at least a compilation, and while Matt and I are currently breaking from that path, I’ve little doubt we will – just as Prodigal Sons; just as Griffey to the M’s; just as Bartolo Colon to ace-hood – return.
We were journalists, after all. We’d be fools to try to shake that two-ton boulder pinning such a goal. It’s in our blood. As we sat in our Adirondacks, hands stiff in the cold, I let the idea nestle in a little bit deeper. Writing a book. Writing a dedication, compiling the acknowledgments and finding the time to index the names of characters, places, and themes alike. (It’d be non-fiction, natch.) As the sky curdled gray above us, and as I previewed the months of free time I’d be staring down come Siberia, I pondered writing a book.
Of course, the romance of such a posit is lost when logistics come into play. Finding a niche. Finding a publishing house. Finding a title. It’s all work, and little wordplay, that makes book-writing a dull exercise. I mean, there’s a reason most abstain from such daunting task. Book writing ain’t a bagatelle.
And yet, I’ll be caught indoors for six months of the year. The world will be naught but white and windy for most of the year, and while I fancy an ice-fort as much as the rest, my inner Yeti can only live with so much snow. So I’ll have my time. And, as you can plainly see, I’ll have my computer, and my Word processor, and my list of words unknown, that concatenation and cortege of high-minded terms, a cynosure and effulgence of literary brilliance. (Or perhaps an excrescence, depending on how you want to look at it.)
I’ll have the ingredients. I’ve been self-exiled to Siberia, all taiga and low wind, and have steady outlets to keep my Toshiba alongside. The idea’s in there, somewhere, jangling next to the English lessons and World Series histories, stuck just beyond all the crap that’s crop-dusted my mind for the last 23 years. Now, I just need a bit of follow-through.
Thus, I figure there’s no better way, no means more shaming, to force through such an idea than to put it in public. To make it known beyond just those with whom I smoke cigars. And that’s just what a blog’s for. So if you’ve made it through this bloggiest of posts, this is your task: Push me. Ask me. Force me. Because that idea’s not in there anymore. It’s out here now, with us, sitting on this digital dacha for all to see. Waiting to be completed. Now, it’s no longer an idea – now, it’s a goal.