Saturday, April 23, 2011

What's Real?

In the middle of the date I had to run back to my hotel room to use the bathroom, but couldn't go because my niece kept opening the door, so I ran to the neighboring hotel to see if they had a free bathroom.

As I crossed the plaza between hotels, I thought, "This is exactly the kind of thing I would dream about." How funny, because it was obviously real life. I wasn't imagining the concrete beneath me!

When I got to the neighborhood hotel, I climbed a staircase in search of a bathroom. But the staircase suddenly got closed off, and I couldn't continue. Goddammit! WTF! I walked back down the stairs and asked the bellman if there was a bathroom around. He walked me back up the stairs, and where there had been an impediment, now he opened a door to a dingy little dive bar. "There's a bathroom in there," he said.

After some searching, I found the rickety door to the men's room. But when I opened it up, it was not what I expected. It was a huge video game room-- many times larger than the bar I'd come from. I didn't see any toilets, but I walked around thinking they must be behind the huge rows of video consoles.

Then I woke up.


I apologize for springing this dream on you. I know that hearing about other people's dreams is about as interesting is watching videos of their child's birth, and if I had started the above passage with, "So I had this really weird dream...", you would have tuned it out much sooner. As I quoted Nicholson Baker in this blog a while back, "...lovers are the only people who will put up with hearing your dreams." And that's as it should be.

I'm generally not a fan of listening to other people's dreams. Dreams are your subconscious taking out the trash. I don't need to sift through the discarded coffee grounds and junk mail of your mind. (Unless, as Nicholson Baker says, we're sleeping together. Then I take my job seriously.)

But at least real dreams do give a glimpse into a real person. What I really hate is fictional dreams: reading an account of a dream in a novel or seeing dreams in a movie/TV show. Unless the dream is integral to the plot (a la Inception), I don't want to hear a crude imitation of some fictional character's subconscious. Invariably they are either too obvious or too cryptic. It's really hard to make something like that interesting to me.

So, anyway. The particular dream I had the other night was interesting only for the fact that, while I was dreaming, I acknowledged that it resembled a dream, and yet I still believed that it was 100% real. Even though it wasn't.


My certainty that I wasn't dreaming, when in fact I was, makes me wonder what is really real in my life and what isn't. I will often daydream about whether the things I'm seeing, hearing, touching and smelling are real. Am I in The Matrix? The Truman Show? The Sixth Sense? Memento? I love movies like that, because they challenge our basic assumptions about the nature of reality.

Even before I saw any of those movies, I had this elaborate fantasy that I was the only real person in the world. I'm a test subject in a huge alien experiment, and everyone else in the whole world were actors given scripts designed to see how I would react to different situations.

"Let's see how the subject deals with his wife leaving him," the coordinators of the experiment say. Or, "Let's let him win the tennis league." I imagine them with clipboards, recording all of my reactions.

Judging from movies like The Truman Show, I'm sure I'm not the only person who's had similar thoughts. They're incredibly narcissistic, but don't we all have a little of that in us?

Don't we? Don't we?

Or am I the only one?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

First World Problems

I recently heard the phrase "first world problems" to describe almost every problem you or any of your friends/family have ever had. It describes the kinds of things that I complain about on this blog:
  • disappointing music
  • whether or not to blog about tennis
  • writing challenges
  • my TiVo not recording things I tell it to
These are all first world problems.

They don't quite compare to the kinds of things that people in the third world deal with every day: death, disease, war, starvation, ritual gang rape as punishment.

It's that last thing that struck me as I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. This book describes almost every possible example of women being abused, humiliated, and mutilated around the world.

Certain parts of the book made me cringe and put images in my head that I couldn't bear to even think about.

I have a problem thinking about something that happens every day in real life to real people? What a first world wuss I am. For some reason, it's the medical descriptions in the book that cause me the most problems. I'm way too squeamish to ever be a doctor. In particular, I would be happy to never hear the word "fistula" ever again.

The appalling thing I learned from the book is how women are so shockingly undervalued in some parts of the world. The treatment, abuse, and downright inhumanity shown towards women and girls just baffles me. I don't understand how people can be so utterly without compassion. To treat other people like that. I would be disgusted if someone treated a dog like that. Or a spider. And yet these are human beings. And it's not just criminal or deviant behavior within a culture, but a twisted moral code, an extreme view of punishment and justice, that entire villages are complicit in.

As a friend of mine quipped when I told him about it: "It takes a village to rape a child."


The book isn't all about doom and gloom, however. There are some redemptive stories and inspirational successes in the book. The one thing that seems to make all the difference-- the easiest way to make the world an infinitely better place-- is education for girls. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be abused (or to tolerate abuse when it happens), the older she is when she gets married, the better medical care she'll receive, the more she can earn money and contribute to the economy, and the less children she will have.

Education for girls appears to have a ripple effect on every part of a culture. They even make a strong case for how it reduces terrorism.

So from now on I'd like to put most of my international aid effort toward helping to educate girls and women in misogynistic cultures. That seems to be the most significant third world problem, and one that takes precedence over whether I find the right pair of tennis shoes.

It is impossible to realize our goals while discriminating against half the human race. As study after study has taught us, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. ---Kofi Annan, former UN General Secretary

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cruise: Part Three

Here's the last part of my cruise essay. If you want to read the whole thing, start with these two posts:
And then read this:


Foreign Lands

One huge difference between my cruise and DFW’s is that he never left the boat when they were in port. This seems ridiculous to me, like going to a Mexican restaurant and ordering the hamburger. He never really gives a reason for this, but takes advantage of the boat’s solitude while everyone else is enjoying onshore excursions.

Our cruise had two stops, both in Mexico off the Yucatan Peninsula. I was most excited about my day trip to Chichen Itza, a famous site of Mayan ruins. It’s like the Vegas of Mayan ruins: a wonder of the ancient world complete with a large pyramid, tons of temples, and the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica.

My trip to Chichen Itza was almost a disaster. When I got on the bus that morning I thought that I had left my camera, notepad, and leisure-reading paperback back on the boat. Taking a two-hour bus ride to visit one of the Wonders of the World without any way to document it would be a special kind of hell for me. Luckily, it turned out that, in my rush to get ready that morning, I had stuffed all of those things into my insulated cooler.

I had a good touristy time at Chichen Itza, taking lots of pictures and reflecting on the modern way that Europeans now invade the Mayan civilization: as armies of tourists.

Our second day in port was in Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula. It’s a crowded tourist destination with dozens of cruise ships arriving daily. Instead of taking advantage of any of the planned shore excursions the cruise line offered, I decided to just explore the town on my own.

I understand there are people who enjoy shopping. For them, it is not a chore, but a hobby. They plan afternoons, weekends, even entire vacations around this hobby. I am not one of those people. So I was a little disconcerted to encounter the hardcore aggressive manner that wares were peddled in downtown Cozumel. It was like this at Chichen Itza as well, but Cozumel was commerce on steroids.

After I left the ship, one of the first sites I saw in Cozumel were a bunch of t-shirts for sale in a shop window. They were all pretty tacky or offensive, but one of them really got my blood boiling: a t-shirt that said, “SPEAK FUCKING ENGLISH! COZUMEL.” This was the perfect representation of all that is wrong with arrogant imperial tourism. It is the Ugly American at its worst, and I was angry and ashamed that I was a part of it.

I know the uber-hyped commerce was simply a result of locals trying to make a peso. They need to make a living. But it was not my style. I could not walk down the sidewalk, look at items in a window, or make eye contact with any locals (as we Midwesterners are wont to do) without having them try to sell me something. “What do you like, Amigo? I give you good price...” was the refrain I heard at least a hundred times. When I went into the town local history museum, it was quite a respite that only two people inside the building tried to sell me something. I even had a cop on a corner try to sell me a taxi ride.

At one point I took to walking along some side streets just to get away from the constant harassment. A guy on the other side of the street shouted over to me, trying to sell jewelry. When I said, “No, thanks,” he asked, “What are you looking for?” I’m looking to be left alone, I wanted to shout. This task was made even more difficult by the fact that I did actually have to buy some souvenirs for friends and family. I couldn’t come back from my cruise empty-handed. But every time I stopped to just look at something, I was accosted. This is not how I like to conduct business.


David Foster Wallace and I both cruised alone. We were outsiders—out of our element, out of our comfort zone, out of our demographic.

On the first night of the cruise I tried to attend a “Friends of Dorothy” social in the wine bar. This was an event for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual) people. Although I don’t strictly fall into any of those categories, many of my closest friends do, and we often share the same values. I guess you could call me a friend of Friends of Dorothy. So I was hoping this would be a way to meet some like-minded people on the ship. Unfortunately, when I showed up at the event, there was no one there. I would try several more times to attend such events, since the Funtimes announced one every evening, but I never once saw anyone show up for them. This is perhaps the best illustration of the demographics of the cruise I was on.

I did meet people, though, and like DFW, dinner was a good venue for that. (DFW provides an entertaining and detailed description of his dining mates in one of his longer footnotes that spreads over two pages. The man obsessed with footnotes. His 97-page essay features 137 of them. And he does advanced things with them, like double footnotes (two of them for the same passage), sub-footnotes (e.g. 137a) and footnotes within footnotes. I couldn’t decipher his formula for what he included in the main text, a parenthetical aside, a footnote, or a sub-footnote within a footnote.)

Every evening I ate at the same table with the same people. I dined with three parties of three: a married couple from Mississippi with the wife’s single friend, a married couple from Minnesota with the wife’s younger brother, and a mother from New Jersey with her two adult daughters. What was interesting to me about the geographic mix at the table was how everyone seemed to play to stereotypes: the taciturn Minnesotans, the loud pushy New Jerseyans, the laid-back, friendly coastal Mississippians, and... whatever I represented from Central Illinois. By the end of the week we were exchanging email addresses to keep in touch (we haven’t), but that first night the conversation was awkward. We mostly talked about football.

It was awkward being surrounded by so many shiny happy people and not having anyone close to talk to. I carried a book around with me every where I went-- a paperback of Gulliver’s Travels, which I thought would be appropriate-- but I didn’t read much of it because I often got bored or restless and needed to see what was shaking elsewhere on the boat. As if the only way to combat my solitude was to keep moving and mingling among the people. Once when I was doing my rounds, I came upon a family of about 30 Asian-Americans trying to get a huge group picture. They asked me if I would take the picture and I happily obliged, while they handed me four different cameras. That was the highlight of my afternoon.

I spent much of the first half of the cruise being lonely and mopey, but then things started to turn around.

My best source of socialness on the cruise was the dance club, where I hung out every night well past my usual bed time (9:30). It was there that I met a group of dancing nurses who shook their booty every night. They invited me along to some of their excursions, and one night after we closed the dance club I took them to the 24-hour pizza place near the pool. (I’d discovered it during my many walks around the ship.) DFW didn’t mention any dancing nurses from his cruise, but I get the impression his cruise had a much more, uh, mature demographic. According to him, Carnival has a reputation as the party boat.

By the last afternoon of the cruise, I was feeling much more like the life of the party. In one half hour period I ran into three people I knew as I walked around the boat. I toasted someone’s deceased mother, quaffed free drinks at a farewell party, and had a new friend buy me a beer at the casino bar. At dinner, I entertained my dinner mates with tales of the day, and I finished up the week-long cruise back at the casino bar with my dancing nurse friends, up till 2:00 am even though we had to be off the boat in about five hours.

And when I got home, I made a new friend in David Foster Wallace, who took me along on a cruise of his own.