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.