Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Civic Duty

Well, it's officially over.  I can stop running.  Most people who skip the country do so for financial reasons.  Unfortunately, mine were not so lucrative.  Nor did I leave in order to escape from a dismal climate to a more tropical abode.  Not even to get away from a clingy family friend who just can never take a hint in social situations.  I tried not to bring it up, whenever possible.  A stigma like that can only lead to awkward conversations, averted gazes, whispers.  But it's over now.  I suppose I can talk about it.

For all of my adult life I'd avoided that most tedious of necessary duties, that most thankless of thankless appointments, that longest of remedial sitting activities, by which I mean Jury Duty.  Yes, somehow for eleven blissful years I had moved often enough among the counties of New York State that I never got pinned down to serve in a municipal or country court trial.

And then my summons came.  Twas almost a year ago now but I can still remember, with the haziness of something fairly uninteresting and not really worth remembering, the day my mother said to me over Skype that my jury summons had arrived.  Her exact words were (not really), "you'd better email them that you're out of the country or you're going to get arrested!"  (She likes to exaggerate [I'm nothing like her]).  At the time I was happy, even optimistic at the fact that I'd get at least a year's reprieve (surely it would take them a while before they realized I was back in the U.S. again).  All I needed to do was email a copy of my work visa to the court, and I was off scot free.

Or so I thought.

In a move I did not see coming at all, the court sent me a jury summons two weeks before I even left Astana!  And in even worse news, it was for a week when I'd already planned to be out of town for an author signing (you remember those; no? well, there are these people who write what are referred to as novels, and then these people write a fair number of novels and then readers [the ones who read the novels] like them, and the novel-writers [novelists, if you will] become famous and then when they publish a new book they go all over the country and read from their book, and talk about their book, and you can buy their book and they will sign their book.  delightful, truly), which was to last from Thursday of my jury week until the weekend.  Wonderful.

Despite what I'd heard about jury duty being tedious and taxing and all that, it turned out actually to be quite tedious and taxing and, well, just plain annoying.  For starters, it was repetitive.  Every day for a week?  Just wonderful.  Taxing, as well.  All those cell phone minutes spent on local calls!  And the way that it was run, why, you'd get the impression they had no idea how it was going to turn out from one day to another.  No wonder people with good, steady, well-paying jobs dread this sort of thing.  The time commitment is just dreadful.  All the time, I was watching the clock.  One week began to feel longer than the entire year I'd just spent larking off.  It really was as bad as everyone said.

And they just heaped one indignity on top of another.  It wasn't just the complete disregard for people's valuable time.  They also treated everyone like just a number, referring only to designated juror numbers for all announcements, as though we're no more different than cattle.  Cattle!  Every day I called into the number listed on my jury summons, and was subjected to the same pre-recorded voice, spewing out orders as though we were all just products on an assembly line that needed to be added in the correct order.  "These numbers go here.  These numbers be prepared to go here on no notice at all.  These numbers call tomorrow."  I really wanted to quit, after the second day.  It was interfering with my family life, causing stress around the interruption of my personal time, and had the possibility of derailing a trip that had already been paid for.  What a nightmare.  It really is a wonder that anyone calls in the second day, though I'd be willing to bet call completion goes down quite a bit after the first.

But I didn't give up.  I made the call every day until the announcement was that we were all dismissed.  I made a quick cheer (I couldn't help myself), and decided since I'd already gone ahead and gone on my trip I might as well enjoy it.  I feel, to this day, still a bit exploited by the whole experience, and may yet write a strongly-worded letter about making jury duty a more humane process.  I just may.  But for now, I will put my trepidations away, until the next time I have to do my civic duty.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Land of the Free

Even after nearly a month since I got back to the old ancestral abode, it's nice to know my consciousness that any minute could be my last, if not my heart, is still in Kazakhstan.  Culture shock is a funny thing, not least reverse culture shock.  From the realization that the light doesn't actually have to say walk for me not to get killed while crossing the road—I literally had to have my husband teach me how to cross the street again—to the sudden giddy knowledge that in this country you can literally pay someone to do just about anything.  And not only will they do it, but they'll be pleasant and happy and actually act like they want to do it.  Whether or not they actually do is, of course, irrelevant.

The best part about being back though?  The freedom.  You can do anything here! Be anything.  Say anything.  Only in America can you not only pay anyone to do just about anything, but you can have a job or not have a job.  You can choose to blame yourself for lack or surplus of said job, or blame someone else.  You can expect to go out and find a job, or expect someone else to find you a job.  Only in America, do citizens have the freedom to go jobless.  Entire families have the freedom to go hungry, live out of cars, and ask other people for the money to get by.  It's that easy!

The post-Communist world, for all its progress, certainly can't boast that.  In Kazakhstan, you're still forced to feed your family, even if you can't get a job.  The government will literally use its own money to feed you.  And if you're extra oppressed, the government might even go out of its way to get you a job.  True, you can still choose to have a ridiculous number of kids, but be aware that if you get pregnant, the government will force you to let it pay for your doctor visits up to and after the baby is born.  

Surely, it can't be all that bad, you ask?  Well, no, not entirely.  You still have the freedom to smoke all the cheap cigarettes (and they are cheap, thanks to lack of taxes and, I'm gonna assume, also regulations) you want and no one says a word.  Exercise is also relatively frowned upon, unless you're an Olympic athlete, so you shouldn't feel an inordinate amount of pressure to be fit.  But be aware, no matter how long you live, unless you die before you retire from your government-provided job, you will be forced to live off the government mandated pension fund that was put away for your future benefit.  So don't get too damn cocky.

Ah, to breathe the free air again. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mountains to Climb

Or, stepping out of the steppe (and into a wholly unfamiliar existence)

The other day, less than a week after my exciting 24-hour voyage back to good old Fairport, I did something totally new and, to be honest quite terrifying for me.  I attended a 5-year-old's birthday party with my husband and his son.  Apparently, this is a thing among the kids these days.  But rather than 10 screaming kindergartners running around some poor parent's backyard, with bursts of games, cake, and gift-opening mixed in, this particular instrument of parental torture was hosted at a place called Bounce-It-Out, which, as the name implies, is a warehouse full of various bounce houses and other climbing/jumping paraphernalia.  Waterboarding has nothing on the shrill ferocity of 15 kids who suddenly realize they're allowed to run around indoors.

But of course before we could actually attend said party, we first had to go buy a gift, which involved soliciting the dubious advice of our own little attendee.  Upon hearing of the fateful party and gift, I couldn't help but think of the musings of McSweeney's own Dr. Amy Fusselman on the subject of child gift-giving in her column, Birthday Parties Are Different Now.  Generosity, thy name is not kindergartner.  The boy was more concerned that his friend not receive something he himself did not already own, or that didn't fit some other arbitrary criteria he made up on the spot ("No, I don't want Christian to have a monster truck").  There is nothing children don't already have that they really want.  Or that doesn't cost more than what their parents have already spent on the party.

And of course, while the children run around and play games as though they've known each other forever (which, in their conception of time, they have) the parents who actually decided to stick around for the party mill about, each in their own little bubble of free space, rarely crossing orbits or making eye contact.  If they're anything like me—which is unlikely—they're all wondering what is going to go so wrong in the next 10-15 years that will turn these little social, semi-sociopathic, butterflies into the constrained social unicorns we all have become, and if it's really worth it.  Somehow I doubt that's what everyone else was actually thinking though.  As far as I can tell, alcohol was the popular subject parents broached when they did manage to utter a social word or two to each other.  Don't get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with them, but is a three-story-high, 170,000 square foot room full of air-inflated dirigibles really the venue for that kind of talk?

Possibly the biggest hit among party-goers was what they called an "indoor playground," but which for some reason reminded me of Rambo 4.  Maybe it was the dark, jungle-esque atmosphere of the bottom levels, and all the mesh netting everywhere.  And the screaming.  At least there were no flame throwers.  The other big attraction was the giant inflatable slide.  Over and over kids went up then down, up then down, up then down.  But ask them to take their clean laundry upstairs to their bedroom and suddenly they have lead feet.

I also got back just in time to catch the tail end of the school year.  Having grown up living out the "the country," I never got to experience that kind of school's out feeling you see on movies and tv shows where children, dismissed from class,  pack up their stuff and proceed to have all kinds of adventures walking home from school every day.  Where I come from, if you missed the bus, then you'd better home you run into someone going your way who has a car, because mom's working til 6 and otherwise you get to hang out in the school lobby til she comes to get you.  Here, the young one takes the bus in the morning but, living 1/4 mile from the school we have have the option of walking him in if we want, and we walk up to get him after school (except in the case of the kind of rainstorms that wash small animals down the streets).  And I say up because the school somehow manages to be built upon the only hill in the entire village, and yet still only 1/4 mile away.  I feel like an astronaut just returned to earth every time I try to climb that hill and realize that my steppe-atrophied legs an barely get me there.

I guess I've got a long way to go before I feel comfortable doing this kind of thing.  How far to Astana?