Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wasting Time

For the past two weeks, I have spent a good part of each day trying to disentangle the Foundation from two bureaucratic messes.

The first involved a visa application for one of our staff who has been selected for admission to a prestigious course in London but had her visa denied.

The second has to do with an enormous customs duty levied on a box of speech therapy software and equipment which was donated to us by a volunteer who has arrived her herself from the UK to train our staff in how to use the programs. The only "duty free" software allowed in is that specifically designed for the blind and the deaf - the law can be read rigidly and the customs officer chose to interpret it as such.

Both issues were time-bound (the course starts on the 27th of this month; our volunteer is only here for eight weeks), hence the urgency and the need for me to devote the better part of each morning to their pursuit.

Well, I have given up on the first. The visa has been denied, but the man in the Embassy has promised to re-consider the case once the institution where the course is being held gets its accreditation (this is all to do with post 9/11 suspicion and fear and the need for Western countries to "protect" themselves against potential terrorists).

The second rages on. The details are too boring to go into here, but what struck me very forcibly one afternoon last week was what a total and utter waste of time such hassles are and yet how easy it is to get pulled into them, as into a vortex, and begin to forget the nonsense of the first principle in the excitement of the chase.

That afternoon, after having spent the whole morning on the phone and fielding emails, I felt thrilled with myself. WOW, I said, pleased, I got so much done today! I managed to get through to three PAs to important people, actually got one of those important people on the phone, received emails from seven friends who had promising leads, wrote three official letters and a case for support. A good day's work.

Except, I suddenly realized with a thud, I shouldn't have had to do it in the first place. The good day's work, the real work, was actually for our staff member to do when she went on the course or for the speech therapist to do when the software arrived and she used it to train the teachers in how to use it with the kids.

I thought about these experiences, oddly, when reading a review of the new movie "The Hurt Locker", an Iraq combat film which focuses on the work of a three-man bomb squad. I hate both violence and suspense in movies and I have no plans to see this one, but over and over, just in reading the review, I was struck by the amount of time and effort that must go into being in a bomb squad, time and effort naturally resulting in soaring exaltation when things go right, as if defusing bombs is a worthy calling, something deserving of our attention and care, enough to do as a life's work.

The work that suspicion and mistrust creates spins gloriously off on its own axis, creating a whole new kind of employment - whether on the front lines, where the bomb de-fusers are, or back in the safer non-combat zones like the customs office or the embassies. All the related employment has to be counted too - people like me, spending hours and days trying to figure a way around the roadblock the suspicion has created.

At least for me, though, it's a diversion and a nuisance. I worry about those people who do nothing but this, who spend all their working hours judging and labeling, who see every person with a cell phone as a potential terrorist about to set off a bomb, who see every visa applicant as at best a possible refugee and wanna-be, and at worst, again, a potential terrorist and who see every customs exemption request as a fraud and a tax evasion.

It's a wicked world and we do well to be "as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves". The serpents bit a lot of people seem to have gotten down perfectly. But where are the doves?

1 comment:

Entropy said...

The last image of “The Hurt Locker” expresses a theme I’ve often tried to articulate. In the film, the main character cannot completely return to America, to the norm of a life back home. In a sense, he’s in Iraq whether he’s physically in a supermarket in the States, or in a bomb suit walking into the hurt locker.

That image rings true to me, but I’d take it a step further: I’d say that we, as a nation, now contain this explosive ordnance within us. Within our national psyche. We have generations of combat veterans and military family members woven throughout the fabric of our entire culture. Some of us have to walk down those dusty streets. We have to approach that which might tear us apart. We have to try to defuse what is explosive within.

-Brian Turner in New York Times