Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Cranky in Paradise: How life in a fairly perfect place makes us angry


     I felt a quick flash of annoyance during a swim this past weekend at Thetis Lake when a group of young people on a raft of floaties cranked up their music a little too much. I then felt an immediate and sobering flash of alarm that a bunch of mild-mannered young people having a little fun in the sun had annoyed me.
     Could it be that Cranky Capital Regionite Syndrome is already upon me, a mere three months after arriving back on the Island? Please say it ain’t so.
     That pervasive air of easy annoyability that has always characterized CCRS in the region has been wonderful to get away from these last four and a half years in Central America. I thought I’d put it away forever at this point, but now I see that it has just been lying in wait for me back on the Island.
     It’s all got me thinking hard about what that cultural state of annoyance is really about. Why is it that I never got jangled by all the unpredictable happenings of daily life in Central America –noise, smells, traffic, gaping holes in the sidewalk, garbage, a constant sense that any crazy thing could happen at any moment – yet I come back here and find myself bugged by minor stuff?
     I’m not alone. I see motorists yelling out the window at each other over perceived infractions that not only didn’t cause an accident, but probably wouldn’t have even if imagined through to their low-impact conclusion. I see genuine fear in dog owners’ eyes when their unleashed dogs come bounding toward me and their owners brace for yet another tight-lipped lecture about leash laws and controlling your animal.
     What is it about this place? Why does it feel like we're looking for reasons to be angry at someone for something? My sense of it is that we have expectations of how our perfect day will go, and any breach in the plan feels like a personal affront. We’ve come to believe that with enough regulation, rule and law, citizens can be guaranteed a day where nothing untoward happens to them.
     Everybody’s going to drive exactly right. All bylaws will be observed. No dog poo will adhere to your shoe. The peaceful day at the lake you’re imagining will proceed exactly as you had hoped, and never mind that all the other people sharing the rocks with you have arrived at the same lake on the same day with completely different expectations of how the day will go.
      I guess with the bar set that high, we’re bound to end up cranky when life gets in the way of our elevated expectations for our day. Evidence of our pissed-offedness is everywhere: We shake our fists; bristle at our neighbour’s poor boulevard management; rap loudly on the hoods of cars stopped too close to a crosswalk; make angry phone calls to whatever regulatory body we think should be doing something.
     In countries like Honduras and Nicaragua, where my spouse and I have been doing long-term volunteer stints with Cuso International, there’s so little regulation that all bets of a perfect day are completely off. You don’t even bother thinking that way. You just step out the door and try to stay prepared for what might happen next. I’m not suggesting a war-zone scene or anything truly dangerous, just an environment that laughs at anyone’s expectations of a managed experience.
     The Victoria experience imagines that through regulation and law, we can control the environment to create a pleasant space for all, where unpleasant surprises are kept to a minimum. I think of it as a very European way of doing things. (I particularly appreciate such an ordered culture whenever I go bike-riding, an activity so risky in Central America that I wouldn’t dream of doing it there.)
     In Central America, it’s the environment that’s in control. You enter it knowing that you are about to have whatever experience it’s delivering that day, and that your wish to have a managed experience is neither here nor there.
     You’re going to walk past speakers so loud and distorted they’ll make your ears hurt. You’re going to step in garbage. You’re going to enter every crosswalk knowing it represents nothing more than white lines painted on pavement. You just have to hope that everything turns out OK, but there’s no saying that it will. (Guess that’s why religion is popular in such cultures.)
     And so you relax, genuinely relax, because you know there’s nothing you can do about any of it. Far from feeling hopeless, it feels freeing. You let go of every expectation and just go where the day takes you. A dozen things happen on your daily walk to work that would annoy the hell out of you back in Victoria, but you carry on without a flinch.
     I’m not saying that their way is better than ours. I do like that cars stop for me here in Victoria, and that green space is everywhere. I like not seeing garbage in the street. I like not having to dodge motorcycles driving down the sidewalk, or eye up every building I walk past for the possibility of a rusty metal pole sticking out of it at head height. I like knowing that if I wanted to, I could buy a small house on a quiet street with no fear that a five-storey, all-night disco might open next door in the following month.
    That probably means I’m not yet a full-on libertarian. But please, please, save me from CCRS. I don’t want to be that boring old lady railing against noisy kids at the lake and unleashed dogs on my street. I pledge here and now to stand on guard against any creeping sense of entitlement, to reject the (admittedly alluring) notion that the world ought to mould itself to my needs. Yes, my body is living in Victoria right now, but I will fight to keep my spirit Central American.
     Party on, gentle Thetis teens.


7 comments:

Valerie, not a robot yet said...

Oh Jody, Jody, Jody. You made me laugh so hard I had to go repair my CCRS face before I walk my dogs. Honestly you hit the bean-height nail so hard on the head it popped out and nicked me in my shawl o' smugness. Suddenly I could feel my jacket flapping in the breeze, my hair stuck in the arm joint of my sunglasses and my keys - poof - vanished. With all these things went vast amounts of my anxiety, overarching concern for things that couldn't happen, either probably or possibly and I lost the 40 lbs I regularly obsess over. I've never been to Central America but your description did put me in mind of my earlier life - of six kids under 10 when a successful day showed no trips to RJH Emerg, enough food to go around, enough beds to sleep in and the blissful promise of another day. Thank you for pointing my heart in the right direction again.

Keep on floating.

Dianne said...

Jody, I got such a giggle when I read your blog today.
Al and I lived two years in Rio de Janeiro. Life was just as you described and we lived there 30 years ago! We paid everybody a tip of some money to watch our car while we had dinner out. Wash our car while we did grocery shopping and so on. It was the way. At stop lights the chicklets folks came to the car window and we bought the gum. At soccer matches in Maracana the scene was amazing, totally out of control yet at half time the fans got up from their section and changed ends. All without chaos. Life was different yet the people, poor as many were, had a joy for life that is sadly missing here, especially in little old Victoria! Keep on commenting. Nice to have you back home, even for a wee while.

Marion Webb said...

Love your picturesque prose, Jody. Loved your writing in the Colonist an missed you when you went on to bigger and better things. Look forward to more!!

Cheers, Marion

Cairine Green said...

Having been part of the system that regulates life in communities, I get your drift completely. We are too fortunate to live here perhaps and sometimes comfort can lead to intolerance. You have expressed so well how a privileged life can fuel an entitled one and find us behaving like "precious people." Thank you for making me re-examine where and how it is that we experience joy through simple, spontaneous and uncomplicated pursuits. Spending "unregulated" time with family, friends, children and grandchildren for instance, where activities are often unplanned and in the moment. Keep writing -- your voice is important to all of us, that inside voice we need to hear.

Janice said...

Absolutely right on...love reading your blog and haiku!

Carolyn said...

Yup that's me re: the loud anything. Mayb I need to revisit my African travels but I gotta love having a container for garbage!!

Carol Topalian said...

"I like knowing that if I wanted to, I could buy a small house on a quiet street " Okay Jody, you just activated the jealousy button which turns on my crankometer. As for your article... true dat!