It’s in the Water or the Air
February 11, 2020
PHILIPPIC AGAINST GLASS TOWERS
I watched glass towers invade a city. By the time I arrived in XVNT the city was already represented by one. In icons and outlines of skylines, the glass tower stood in for this metropolis of a hundred thousand alleyways, of an indigenous concrete modernism, of a unique market architecture. The country’s capital city was represented by a famous pagoda, but here – the commercial center – was in most cases simplified as a glass tower.
Once I traveled to a neighboring country. A day and night by bus brought me to the world’s largest temple complex, a dead city of monuments. Inside the primary temple one becomes disoriented. The rings of courtyards, ancillary stupas in those, and the ever-climbing temple-mountain in the center. The temple is not labyrinthine, it is a world unto itself. Exiting an arcade I was surprised to find myself still two stories above ground. On my first visit here I watched a procession of monks and initiates make their way alongside the temple. But, eavesdropping on tour guides, I knew that this little ceremony was nothing compared to the grandeur of the place a millennium ago. The inner gallery was flooded then, the king alighted from elephants at special ports, and all who viewed the place understood the stories told in the stretching bas reliefs. The place was alive. Today the site is in ruins, managed by a UN initiative, and overrun with tourists like me.
Maybe it was when I returned to the city after that trip that I came to realize an invasion had begun. Or maybe it intensified then. Old buildings torn down, deep foundations dug, and digital renderings of clean sidewalks with a few business casual pedestrians lined construction sites.
A year and a half later, I visited the temple complex again – nothing had changed – but six months after that I went to a different city, two countries away, an old capital whose architecture is still defined by surviving colonial offices.
There was a pagoda there that is not so dizzyingly massive, but is resplendent in gold, white marble, and relics. It’s closed for a year every four to be cleaned, but I saw it crowded with worshipers from outside the city loaded with food for the day. They came to pray.
Worshipers had been in the ruins too. Shrines were set up in some crevices and at the tops of stupas, but the emphasis was historical: who had built it, when, what it meant, efforts at preservation. This pagoda was alive. Its meaning and splendor were fresh, still rich in victories, wizards, and jewels.
Barefooted, we took long escalators to the top of the hill and squinted at the golden spire that rose above us, shuffled along the white marble gallery (it was slippery in a light rain), and the tour guide in his skirt showed us shrines, fountains, and trees. We only stayed in that city for a weekend before flying back to XVNT.
XVNT has its temples and pagodas too. Some bits of European architecture are left in its center. The concrete indigenous modernism speaks for whole blocks of three-, four-, and five-story homes and apartments. But the glass towers command the city’s energy and future.
They are opaque and featureless. Locals say they look like the incense sticks that are burned for the dead. They have only one remarkable attribute: their height.
Are there unfinished temples or pagodas? Cathedrals? The age of glass towers must be unique in that it produces dead specimens, too tangled in financing and regulations to complete and otherwise meaningless. Some people explore those skeletons in the same way I visited temples. I haven’t, but I have gone into a glass tower once. In one of the city’s most expensive (a correction to the above: rent per square meter rivals height as a measure of worth), I sat in on a meeting about e-commerce.
The office was funded by the company’s new foreign owners. But a competitor, also newly acquired by a foreign company – a competitor of my host’s owner – had just moved into the same building. Everyone in the meeting was amused by this. The host said “We are in the platinum level, and they’re in the gold. I double checked our lease when they moved in.”
The group I was with wanted to see this other company’s offices, but something about our guest passes didn’t allow it. We could only return to the lobby. As we left I enjoyed a final view, just as I had at the temples and the pagoda. A faceless clock, an abstract mobile, office women in short skirts. The room was all in white marble. At the time it didn’t remind me of anything except hotel lobbies I’d been in at home. But now, as I prepare to return to my own city, with its own glass towers, I draw a mental line between that glass tower and the pagoda.
The functions: welcoming, impressing, discriminating. And their roles in the contexts of what they serve. I’ve been reviewing job listings in the companies housed in my city’s glass towers. Certain words and phrases recur in all of them. These phrases begin to look like prayers or declarations of faith. I don’t mind that so much. I’ve taken off my shoes as custom, I’ve even burned incense before idols I have no faith in. But I’ve never needed to convince anyone of my faith in those.
Which is why I’m returning to my city. Between the towers or the pagoda, it’s too late for me to become a monk. So now I need to find a place where I can understand what’s said around me, where I can begin to fit in as a native.
IT’S IN THE WATER OR THE AIR
I didn’t think anything of my mom’s mysterious illness. She’s a hypochondriac. But more than that, everything in this country is designed to make you anxious about your health. TVs, computers, tablets, and phones are, of course, made to spread stories of “invisible killers,” horror diagnoses, treatment centers, and insurances. And now I realized that even cars were afflicted. From the back seat – because sitting in the front made her dizzy – my mom asked me to press an analogue button on the dashboard to stop outside air from getting into her SUV. She coughed when I was slow to. “I don’t want those fumes in here.” She pointed to a truck in traffic ahead of us.
“It’s something with your lungs too?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Well you know, water and sleep help everything.”
“Right,” she said, but no one in my family drank enough water or slept regularly. Exercise was verboten – for a certain kind of person, who was to be thought of ironically. In fairness to my family and others like them, those exercisers did largely define themselves by their habit and the supplements they required and the braces and bandages they needed for specific injury prevention or care. So although exercisers should have been – and usually were – healthier, they were also wrapped up in the peculiar value system of medicine that prevailed in my country. Still my family could have benefited from regularly taking walks or worrying more about preparing balanced meals than how prescription medications interact with each other.
I hadn’t noticed how much medicine influenced daily life here before I left nearly five years ago, so it had nothing to do with why I left, though it eventually became why I stayed away. It was on my occasional visits home that I began to see the pessimistic cult built around healthcare and hygiene and even genetic testing done to determine predispositions to certain diseases. All of which horrified me. Not that the developing world is free of illness or its own problems, but health insurance companies and pharmaceuticals added little to the GDP where I lived, so doctor’s visits, medications, and the fear of being caught without insurance when tragedy strikes did not weigh so heavily on the public. Agriculture was a big part of the economy though, so a traditional diet was viewed as important. Even the barest lunch was served with a generous helping of vegetables.
“Get over, get over or you’re gonna miss it,” my mom said. “Not so fast you nearly clipped that guy. You can’t stop here.” I missed the ramp and had to circle back.
Other things had come to outweigh my aversion to medication, though, and I returned for good – it just so happened the night before my mom’s doctor’s appointment. And since my dad had something at work and she wasn’t feeling well, I drove her there. After making the ramp the second time, I remembered the way. I had gone there myself once or twice for vague symptoms, the standard battery of blood tests, a list of possible diagnoses, and follow-up dates.
We arrived at the office park. I let my mom off at the door and found a parking space with a lot of room around it. When I got in my mom was waiting for me in front of the check-in counter. “You’re not going to sit?” I asked. The waiting room was empty save an elderly couple.
“In there,” she said – a waiting room for the sick. It was packed. “I asked about you here. You’re overdue for a follow-up from years ago.”
“The blood tests,” I said.
“And then I realized that you aged off of dad’s insurance last year.
“Knock it off. This stuff ain’t cheap.”
“I’m applying for jobs,” I said, and my mom went to the sick room and I was left with the elderly couple.
What a well run business this doctor’s office was. I had tried to start my own company while I was away, and in those months learned the importance of tracking a potential customer “journey” through the conversation funnel – how close they were to paying you. These doctors had that figured out. Before they even saw you, you had to tell them I think I’m sick or I don’t think I’m sick. I’m sure that you were treated accordingly. Those that accepted their condition, reassuring, on their team. Those that didn’t, scary, stern. If I had been such a good businessman maybe I wouldn’t have needed to come home. My mom came out nearly two hours later with a paper that said she needed to get blood tests, so we drove to another office park. After that, we went home.
Saving jobs to my phone, writing cover letters, re-entering my resume into dozens of systems, following up to generic email addresses, calling into automated systems, waiting. Diversity and Entrepreneurial Spirits were in demand according to those postings, but my having lived overseas for several years and starting a business was not, apparently, what they meant. I didn’t want to lose hope or lower my expectations; already I’d been applying for entry-level positions. So in a misguided attempt to keep my portfolio fresh, I wrote an article for the city newspaper.
It was about health and wellness in the US – activity, obesity, family structures. I compared our country to where I’d been living. I also included 2 graphs illustrating that the decreased death rate over the past century is largely due to better treatment for just 8 diseases. I’d seen it once online, but it took me a day to find again, which didn’t surprise me. Search engines were not designed to spread information like this.
The article was published in the opinion section. I was proud of that. Writing it had felt great itself – I’d lost touch with all of my friends and I only had my dad to talk to now, so it was good to put into words a lot of what I’d been thinking about. More importantly, getting it published gave me a reason to reach out to my old boss.
“Back in the neighborhood! And getting my feet wet in the writing world here. Would love to catch up when you have time,” I emailed him and linked to the article, but he didn’t respond. My email suggested I email him again after four days. I did.
“Let me see what I can do,” he replied immediately. I had hope for a second, and then I realized that he’d sent me an automatically-suggested reply. I didn’t understand why he would do that. We’d had a good relationship. Joked around, even grabbed coffee twice on my first trips home. So this – what was surely meant as a fuck off – was unexpected, and hurt me.
“Does Wednesday work?” I sent back. “I’ll be in the city for a job interview.”
“Let me get back to you about it.”
My email suggested “Is Tuesday better?” which I sent.
Finally he agreed to a quick lunch.
He didn’t care what I’d been up to. He sat across a cramped table from me picking at a granola bar nodding, mumbling “Cool cool” as I told him about my life overseas.
“So, now I need a job,” I finally said, “and I was hoping you could help me.”
He made a show of inhaling. Widened his eyes. “I am probably not the best person to ask.”
“Yeah I know it’s been a while but I could—”
“It’s not that. See, that article you wrote. You know, my wife is pretty sick. She has – well, it’s an invisible illness.” I had written that those aren’t real. That they were tricks played on us by doctors. All mental. “And anyway if I were looking to hire a writer, well, that article maybe wasn’t the best representation of work, in terms of structure and grammar. Next time you might want to use a pseudonym for something like that, or just not publish it.”
“Well to be honest,” I said “if you were offended by it or whatever then maybe you aren’t the best person to judge it. Right?”
He shrugged. “Did you know that my wife works in HR for Aleziex? Let’s just say that the community of pharmaceutical hiring professionals in the city and support groups for her condition overlap a lot.”
“Sounds like they’re part of the problem to be honest,” I said. “Maybe they should stop taking their employers’ pills and go on walks or something.”
“I have to go. All the best on your search.”
I hung out in the city a bit before heading home. I went to a bar and got an IPA. When my dad got home I came out of my room and from the top of the stairs told him that my old boss’ wife didn’t like my article. I was still pissed off about it. Incredulous. But my dad said “Yep. Doesn’t surprise me” and made to keep walking.
“Come down.” I didn’t. He came back to the steps. “A lot of people are sick, and you told them they’re making it up.”
“I did not—”
“Or that it’s fake, or something,” he said. “To be honest, it irked me a little bit too. But I know that I’m unhealthy. But some people don’t. And some people are just unlucky. But even me, it irked.”
My face burned. I was glad that I was standing in the dark. “OK well whatever then.”
“Well then you’re not going to get a job from that guy, or his wife, who works at a big company here. And I bet she’s got friends in similar positions. You shut a lot of doors for yourself.”
“It was important.”
“I don’t know. I read some of those comments,” he said and walked away. That was just to get me. And it did hurt. Who trusts comments? What kind of person comments? Dumb asses, and they all hated my article. Both sides. Only a racist had even read it: IT’S THE WATER OR THE AIR… I’VE BEEN SAYING IT FOR YEARS… IQS KEEP DROPPING… and a link to some insane website that I spent the entire afternoon on.
A few weeks after that my parents began arguing about me within earshot. My mom wanted me to “speak with someone, a professional.” My dad wanted to know who was going to pay for that. “We are losing our son and you’re worried about money? That is horse shit!” Finally we agreed that I would see an unlicensed psychologist who came recommended and would pay them back later for it. But when my mom found some drafts of articles and stories I’d been working on for my blog, she freaked out and had me committed to a place. To think I’d ever pay them back what this cost – uninsured – was a farce.
“How are you feeling?” my mom asked their first visit.
“Totally fine,” I said. “I wish I was not here.”
“So why do you keep telling the doctors that they aren’t real doctors?”
“Because they aren’t.” Her face sank, she shook her head. “No. Listen. I get it, she has an MD, great. But doctors try to help people – by curing them, right? These people are literally making up new sicknesses, so they can say that people like me are sick, so they get to keep their jobs.”
“Well maybe you should try listening to them,” she said. She was sad, which made me sad.
“Look they’re not idiots, right?” my dad asked.
“I don’t know. I think they’re wrong about me.”
“I don’t know if they are. Some of what they’re saying makes sense to me.”
“Like it’s craz—Like it doesn’t make sense to complain about people on the internet stopping you from getting a job.”
“But that’s exactly what happened!” I said. Now my mom told my dad not to get me worked up. “You know that’s what happened. Because LinkedIn, and the fucking diversity—” I didn’t mean to curse in front of my parents. Especially here. In these pajamas I had to wear. Surrounded by nut jobs, with them worried that I was a nut job. It made me look immature, which got me upset. “I have no friends,” I said. “No job. I left my life of years behind me for something that didn’t exist. It was a good life, and now I’m getting swallowed up in all this stuff that I hate – hate. How would you feel?”
Later that day the psychiatrist got me to admit that I was depressed, and I agreed to take pills for it so she would let me leave.
My dad drove me to the first support group meeting. We sat in a big circle, and then little circles, and people complained about the difficulties they faced doing everyday things like dealing with coworkers or going to the bank. There were really two groups there – paranoid delusionals and delusional paranoids. Both tried to claim me as one of theirs during the 10-minute mingle at the end of the meeting. The mediator had to step in. He patted me on the back and told me I could take all the time I needed to decide which one I was. Or that some weeks I might be one, and the next week the other one. Whatever I felt like. He was a good guy.
At another meeting one guy heard me share that I wanted to be a writer and told me that his company always needed SEO writers. He said that he could put in a good word for me. It was entry-level, the pay wasn’t the best, but the insurance covered my prescriptions, he knew.
The portfolio I submitted with my application didn’t include the article I wrote, or anything I’d written in my years away. Just stuff from college that wasn’t that good. I got an interview – my friend told me how to answer – and eventually an offer.
So I leased an old car to drive the fifty minutes to and from the office park every day. I stayed at my parents’ until I’d saved up a deposit for a place fifteen minutes from work and an hour from my parents. I spent my days writing about restaurant equipment, travel apps, and trailer hitches.
One Monday afternoon I was assigned to write about boxing gyms, and that night I dug out from unpacked boxes an old journal. I’d started keeping it shortly before moving back. I had wanted to learn how to box. And go camping. They didn’t have those things in the tropics really. Spend time near lakes. Grow raspberries. Bicycle to work. I’d written in one of my last entries before leaving: SHOW THEM HOW IT’S DONE. I put the journal away and got a beer from the fridge. I wondered if I should share this at the next meeting.
The next day I watched hours of YouTube videos so I could write the boxing articles, product descriptions, comments, and reviews. Boxing was dangerous. It required such balance, which I had never had and the medication made even worse. I realized that I didn’t need to share my journal at the meeting. I was crazy when I wanted to learn it, not now.
Tuesday night was quizzo, and I was part of the support group that said it was OK to drink in moderation. We named our team the F*CK UPS!, and sometimes after a few drinks I’d jeer the host for not saying our name. “We’re proud of it!” I shouted and my table giggled.
“Family restaurant, kids here man, it’s only 9.”
“That’s right. Thank you,” a man with his family said and gave me a dirty look. I was a little bit embarrassed, but my friend patted me on the shoulder and winked, which made me feel a lot better.
Then there was a question about the country I used to live in. I answered it before it was even finished. My teammates were surprised. Even more when I told them that I used to live there and for how long. They didn’t ask but I talked about it anyway. Everyone did that.
“But how did you get your prescriptions?” my friend asked eventually.
“I didn’t have any then,” I said, “they do have pharmacies, but they’re different. I don’t know if you can”
My friend shook his head. “That would never work.”