Monday, December 27, 2010

Socially Irresponsible Vacation

Last week I met with a financial adviser about investing my money in socially responsible companies. As Wikipedia describes it, "socially responsible investors favor corporate practices that promote environmental stewardship, consumer protection, human rights, and diversity." It's just the sort of thing a liberal pinko commie like myself would do with his money.

It turns out that after buying a car, a house, and a divorce, I don't have a big enough nest egg to do any serious investing yet.

So instead I'm taking a socially irresponsible cruise.


I've never taken a cruise before, but I'd always wanted to. For some reason I imagined when I did take one, it would be with my family or with my significant other or with a good friend or with my cult.

But I'm going solo, which is also another first. Although I've traveled a lot by myself, I've never had an entire vacation where I wasn't meeting people I didn't already know. So that will be an adventure.

I'm not sure that a cruise-- where you get pampered, use up tons of resources, and take advantage of locals in economically depressed areas-- fits with my liberal values. Some times I'm embarrassed to tell people about it. On the other hand, I'm single, it's 20 degrees outside, I have three weeks off during the semester break, and if I don't have some sort of diversion to look forward to I might just gnaw off my own hand.


Despite my liberal white middle-class guilt, I'm really looking forward to it. It's something to plan for and get excited about. Suddenly everyone wants to tell me about the cruises they took, so it's a good conversation piece. At the very least I will get to enjoy tropical weather in January and eat my weight in free (or pre-paid-for) shrimp. I can sit in the sun, read, drink margaritas, and escape from my regular life for a few days.

So, the deets: The ship, the Carnival Triumph, departs out of the Port of New Orleans. It's a five-day cruise with two stops in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula. Although I've lived in Europe, I've never been to Mexico. So that will be something else new.

I'll spend a "Fun Day At Sea" crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, the official itinerary actually says "Fun Day At Sea," so the destination is Fun!

On day two we land in Progreso, Yucatan, Mexico. I keep forgetting the name of this port when I tell people about it. Isn't there a name of a soup called Progresso?

There's also an insurance company called Progressive, and a pasta sauce called Prego, which I thought was Protego, and which I keep mixing up with the port name.

Thus my brain goes from Progreso, a touristy port city in the Mexican Yucatan peninsula, to Prego, the brand name of a pasta sauce made by the Campbell's soup company. See, this decadent cruise is already putting consumer products in my brain.

While in port in Progreso, I'm taking a 2-hour bus ride to see Chichen Itza. It's the most famous, and most extensive, tourist site of the late Mayan empire. It's kind of like the Vegas of the Mayan world.

I'm also very excited about this because it's one of the Wonders of the World from the Civilization III game that I used to play so much. I've never visited such a famous virtual wonder before. I hope the real thing can compare to the Civ III version.

On the third day we'll visit Cozumel, which is a place that most everyone's heard of and that I don't confuse with soup or pasta or insurance. I don't have any plans for that yet, but I figure I'll wing it once I get there. It's supposed to be a happenin' place, and by then I will have made great life-long friends from having been on the boat two days, so they'll probably drag me around jet skiing and scuba diving and frolicking at the topless beach. Or something. It'll work itself out.

Then we get another Fun Day At Sea as we head up through the Gulf back to New Orleans. After that I fly home and it's back to winter, back to work, back to real life. Back to being socially responsible, shopping at the co-op, driving my Prius, and being anxious about my privileged middle class abundance.

After that my itinerary will be nothing but Fun Days At Home and Work.


We've had a lot of snow the past few weeks. This picture I took from my desk tells the perfect contrast of my real life versus my upcoming vacation. Outside it's snowing, and on my desktop is a picture of Cozumel.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

This post is going to be awesome. It will get me everything I want. Because I can visualize it. People will flock to it and smother me with love and affection. Because other people exist to help me reach my personal goals. Yay me!!!

At least, that might have been the case if my positive attitude hadn't been hijacked by the curmudgeonly Barbara Ehrenreich in her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

It's an amazing book, and like all eye-opening nonfiction, parts of it disgust me.

Ehrenreich shows how positive thinking, something that in general benefits a person and a society, has become so perverted in our culture-- in medicine, psychology, religion, and business-- that it's turned into a form of propaganda that subverts reason and critical thinking.

She writes about her own struggle with breast cancer, and how she was never allowed to feel angry, sad, or frustrated by the disease. People who voiced any negativity over the fact that they had a possibly fatal disease were chastised and told they were only making the cancer worse. Some went as far as to say that it was their negative energy that gave them the cancer in the first place. (Despite some earlier studies that showed a positive attitude increases your chances of beating cancer, further studies have shown this not to be the case. But the attitude remains in the public mentality.)

Having cancer in America means that not only do you have to deal with all the shit of having cancer, you also have to deal with the "additional burden" of feeling guilty if you ever fall off the positive train.

Positive thinking has infected American business to such an extent that it's used as a justification for downsizing. Yes, you CAN lay off thousands of workers and increase your stock! If you're one of the laid off workers, you're told to stop moping about it and find a new job. If you can't find one, you only have yourself to blame! This mania has also contributed to our current recession. So many investors, bankers, and loan officers were so busy saying, "Yes, I can!" they didn't bother to ask, "But should I?"

In religion, mega churches adopt the business model and use positive thinking to attract members (some churches even call them "customers") by avoiding all that pesky stuff about sin. Instead, negative thoughts are the only sin, and the basic message is God is there to make you rich and happy. God is a servant, and if you only stay positive, he will get you everything you want.

The most insidious extreme of the positive thinking movement is books like The Secret, that preach that you can control all the events in your life merely by your mind. They are so afraid of any unpleasant thoughts that they advise you to avoid or dump any people in your life who are negative or critical. Parents, friends, spouses, children. Hey, if they complain, get rid of them! You don't need that in your life!

The worst thing about The Secret is how ultimately selfish and self-serving it is. It completely disregards the reality that we are all interconnected. In one story, a boy doesn't like having to wait in long lines at an amusement park, so through positive thinking he decides he's not going to. The next day his family wins a special pass that allows them to jump to the head of the line all day. But what about all the other kids who still have to wait in line? If you can get whatever what you want merely by imagining it, and at the expense of other people, then other people are simply pawns in the story of your life. It's an incredibly narcissistic and juvenile way to view the world.

One part of the Bright-Sided I found particularly interesting is when Ehrenreich writes about the American myth that everyone will get rich. The reason so many poor Americans politically support conservative fiscal agendas is that they hope to one day become rich. This, despite the fact that Americans are less likely to move from one economic class to another than members of many other industrialized countries. This is exactly the lottery mentality I wrote about last year.


As Ehrenreich points out, in nature animals survive because they are vigilant. The antelope doesn't escape the lion with a mind full of positive thoughts. The meerkat doesn't find yummy grubs merely by visualizing them. Humans don't protect their children from harm with mere thoughts that they'll be okay. Real world vigilance is what helps us survive.

Ehrenreich's solution isn't to just be negative all the time. She says negativity can be just as delusional and dangerous as positivity. Her advice is to "get outside of ourselves and see things as they are." We need to emphasize critical thinking over positive thinking.

In short, pull your head out of your Secret and see the world as it really is.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chilly Feelings

This may surprise people who think of me as an anal numbers freak, but there's one measurement during winter that I really hate.

The weather person on the radio this morning announced, "The wind chill makes it feel like it's 13 below."

Excuse me? Feels like? This is science, not a support group. No weather report should include what the weather feels like. It should give the cold, hard facts. Temperature. Humidity. Precipitation. Wind speed and direction. These are actual things that can be measured. Not feelings.

Sometimes they bypass this by simply saying, "The wind chill is 13 below. " But they're not fooling me. They're still just talking about an imaginary measurement. Something that represents how cold it feels to humans, not how cold it really is.

No one appreciates more than me how the wind can make a cold winter day miserable. I live in the flat Midwestern plains. Wind chill, as an effect, is something I'm on intimate terms with. But wind chill, as a measurement, frosts my boxers. It's one of those pet peeves that I can't quite explain.

The thing about wind chill is, it's just a measurement of how people are affected. It doesn't tell us how the ground or the trees or the cars or the houses or anything else relate to the cold. It's a made-up, for-humans-only factor. Scientific measurements should be universal. It's like measuring the level of disappointment or hunger. It may be important to people, but it has no business among the hard facts.

That's how I feel, anyway. The tim chill factor is at -22 on this issue.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Miracle Snot Rag

In an ongoing effort to better myself, I have made a lot of changes in the past year. I've started cooking more. I joined the local co-op and buy more organic, local foods. I've learned to love onions. I've started using cloth napkins instead of disposable ones. I've started doing push-ups, sit-ups, and leg exercises on a regular basis.

None of these changes were very difficult. I added them to my daily routines without much complication.

But my latest improvement, the transition from disposal tissues to cloth handkerchiefs, has not been seamless. It turns out there's a learning curve to carrying around a snot rag.

This is the actual model of hankies I bought. The blue ones. Six of them.

You see, I blow my nose A LOT. Maybe it's because I'm so fastidious, but I like to clean that thing out as much as possible. And I never realized how often I did it until I started keeping all my sinus detritus in a pretty little patterned cloth hankie.

I'll spare you the details, but it's pretty dis-gus-ting.

With my disposable tissues, I had them strategically placed throughout my house. There is a box on my nightstand, in the bathroom, on the kitchen table, on the coffee table, on my computer desk, in my car, and on my desk at work. I never like to be more than an arm's length away from a noseblowing apparatus.

But how do I do that with a cloth handkerchief? Do I put one of those in each of these locations? Keep collections of my boogers all over the house?

The other challenge was having yet another thing that I have to carry around with me everywhere. It used to be that all I needed when I left the house were my wallet and my keys. A few years ago I added a cell phone to that. Now I've added a handkerchief. My pockets are starting to bulge with all this stuff. I wonder what the next item will be that I do fine without today but will be indispensable in the future.

I was also worried about washing my handkerchiefs. Would I have to soak them first before I put them in the laundry? Is this going to cause me more work?


Well, I'm glad to report that I have successfully integrated my handkerchiefs into my daily routine. The transition is complete.

The trick to dealing with carrying around a collection of your own snot is in the folding. I have perfected the art of folding my handkerchief in such a manner that I can hide the grossness in the folds, thereby allowing multiple uses out of one hankie. I use it, fold it over, and a new pristine section of the handkerchief is ready for more punishment.

And now that I've started carrying my hankie around with me, I've gotten used to it. And realized there are many advantages to having it around. It fits well in the front of my pants pocket, and it's kinda nice to have that little bit of inconspicuous padding there.

It turns out that my sinus genetic material breaks down with laundry detergent, so I've never had to do anything more than throw my used hankies in with my regular laundry, and they come out clean and fresh.

Before, when I went out in public, I always had to worry about whether there would be tissues there. At people's homes, I would usually seek out the bathroom to see if they had tissues in there. Many didn't, and I'd have to use toilet paper. But what about just out on the street? In restaurants? At the movie theater? At funerals? These were all places where I often found myself needing to empty my nose but having no recourse.

My portable ubiquitous handkerchief has solved all of those dilemmas. Also, there are times when I need some sort of cloth rag, like to wipe my glasses after coming in from the rain, or to rub a stain off of something. Sudden crying fit at a boring meeting? Thanks, hankie! Now I have something handy. It also can double as a napkin when I'm eating away from home. It's like a miracle square of cloth!

The cloth handkerchiefs are now an integral part of my life. It's good to know I can weather such a difficult transition and embrace change, even at my advanced age.