Monday, June 25, 2007

Some Reflections

[No pictures in this post, so feel free to skip]

When I started this blog, I promised occasional reflections on life and travel as well as uninformed opinions about just about anything.

And, my original intention was to make the blog short and pithy--in other words interesting to potential readers. I was even writing myself emails with more detail on my trip so I could spare y´all the boring parts but still have a record for myself later on.

Those who have been following the blog may have noticed that it´s become less pithy and more of a plain old boring journal. This has been partly a result of entropy and partly by design.

Obviously, it's harder to be clever and interesting than just dump everything onto the page. But, I also realized that the primary audience for this blog (aside from mom, of course) is me--that is the me of five or ten years from now. In other words, this blog--with pictures and all--will be the best way for me to remember this trip, not some self-addressed emails. So, I've adopted more of a diary style and sacrificed ratings points for completeness.

This is all by way of apologizing and explaining to those of you who have been reading. Now, for some of those promised self-indulgent reflections...

Penalty Kicks

Let's start with the trivial. Being in Latin America, I've watched a lot of soccer lately. It's pretty much on at every bar with a TV and on ESPN 24-7. I understand why people love soccer. I'm amazed and enchanted by the skill of the players; and scoring is so difficult that when it happens the play is usually spectacular--hence the appellation "the beautiful game" (and hence the reason that soccer highlights are the best highlights around).

The other day I was relaxing in a bar in Quito watching the 21-and-under teams from England and Holland play. That game inspired this particular rant.

The one part of soccer I don't understand is penalty kicks. As most people know, when there is a tie game and a winner must be determined (not always the case), the game is decided by which team makes more shots from a mere 12 yards away--as was the England/Holland game.

But, the game is really decided by which team MISSES more shots. See, the penalty kick is so close that players score 90% of the time--it's kind of like the extra point in American football. This means that it's not really possible for any player except the goalie to do anything positive--they can only screw up. Score, and it's expected. Miss, and you may have just cost your team the game.

This seems like a cruel and terrible way to end a game--who will choke more under pressure. By simply moving the penalty line back a few yards, or using the existing 18-yard line, the soccer gods could flip this whole script.

From 18 yards, scoring is actually hard. The goalie has time to react and doesn't need to simply guess where the shooter will place the ball. Opportunities for greatness (rather than competence or humiliation) would abound--great shots, amazing saves.

It would also seem to better serve the ostensible purposes of any tie-breaker: increasing the chances that the "best" (rather than luckiest) team actually wins and being more exciting for the fans.

For example, since I didn't have a stake in the England/Holland game, I spent much of the penalty kick session feeling bad for the one guy on Holland's side who missed the goal in the first round (on his home field, no less) and then relieved when their goalie made a lucky guess, and hence save, so he wouldn't feel terrible for the rest of his life. I wanted to see heroism, not cringe at potential goat-ness.

So, I know that soccer has been the world's most popular sport for eons--but allow me to humbly suggest this small change: MOVE THE DAMN PENALTY KICKS BACK.


More trivia. Why doesn't anyone ever go to the bathroom in novels? It's something that all of us do every day, but I can't remember ever reading about it (whereas novelists will describe plenty of other intimate human acts in the name of realism). Right now I'm reading Rabbit, Run by John Updike. The book follows the main character, Rabbit, for long stretches but the only time it finds him in a bathroom it's to hide, not to...go. Just a random thought.

Traveling Con/Sin Amigos

For the first and only time this trip, I spent two weeks in Ecuador traveling with a good friend. This provides a good opportunity for reflecting on the pros and cons of traveling solo. Overall it was great to hang with Dave for 12 days--and it also confirmed that I made the right decision to do the vast majority of the trip solo.

My time with Dave was characterized chiefly by the significant gap between the level of our fortunes (low) and how much fun we had together (high). Dave, in particular, couldn't buy a break.

First, there were his materials loses. In the space of twelve days, Dave lost: his passport (before even leaving the states), his camera (at his first stop in Montanitas), his MP3 player and headphones, his flip flops (which became part of our Quichwa guide's tip--they were a nice pair), one shoe, his beloved "space pen,"and his equally beloved UVA hat. Damn, that's impressive.

But his bad luck didn't stop there. He also developed strep throat on his way to Ecuador, wrenched his back helping a casual anti-Semite lift his 4-wheeler out of the mud (see post on Banos), and felt too feverish to party on our last night together in Quito. Finally, on his flight home, the airline lost his bag filled with $170 in duty-free booze. He eventually got the bag back, but one of the bottles had broken, soaking his luggage in alcohol.

Then, there was our joint misfortune of spending an entire day trying (and failing) to raft because the river was dangerously high--which according to our guides happens only once or twice a year.

The bottom line, though, was that despite all of this we had a great time (at least I did, Dave will have to speak for himself when he guest blogs). We talked--a lot; and it was great to be able to discuss real issues of real consequence with someone who you know cares deeply about you. Plus, Dave is/was amazingly equananimous in the face of all of the above. Any one (or at most two) of them would have driven a more high strung person to distraction. I literally don't think I've ever seen another human less disturbed by losing a nice digital camera.

The positives and negatives of having a traveling companion were largely as I expected. The biggest positive was having a good friend around to talk to and never being lonely. It was also nice to have someone else take the lead on logistics for a while.

The most obvious negative was that much time spent hanging out with Dave was time spent not meeting new people and practicing Spanish. This was especially true because we chose to stay in double rooms rather than dorms. In terms of price, it's definitely worth the ability to nap and shower whenever you want; but you definitely don't meet as many people.

But, I also think there's something about traveling alone that builds character. You are forced to be creative, adaptive, decisive, and probable other -ives. And, perhaps most importantly, you must own all of your decisions and come to terms with the fact that your experience--for better or worse--is entirely of your own creation. It's kind of like life in that way. We have family, friends, etc., but at the end of the day we construct our own realities and those other folks are part of what we've created (we don't choose our family, but we choose how we relate to them, for example).

In traveling as in life our experience probably depends a lot more on the attitude we bring in than on our material surroundings. This reminds me of the reason for the name of this blog. Moving houses in Guatemala because of a rooster (gallo) caused me to reflect on the fact that the key to traveling (as in life) is to strike the right balance between seeking the best experience while at the same time being satisfied with (and living in) the experience one is currently having.

I've been happy, sad, lonely, introspective, hopeless, hopeful, dull, and enchanted on this trip--in other words quite human. I'm not sure I would have had the time or perspective to explore these emotions as fully if I was always traveling with a partner.

So, I'm thrilled to being doing this trip alone. That being said, I've seen a lot of happy couples on my travels and I'd love to have a similar adventure with a woman I love. I think that would be a completely differently fantastic experience. Applications available at the front desk...


Spending time in a Quichwa community in the jungle with a smart, thoughtful friend provided a unique opportunity for reflection on the subject of happiness. I think this is a pretty important subject because (not being religious) I believe maximizing and fairly distributing happiness (human and ecological) is our ultimate goal.

The Quickwa are not wealthy people. Many live in the jungle without electricity. This leaves them without most of the standard gadgets that have become such a significant part of our modern lives, and with minimal contact with the outside world.

And, yet, they appeared to me genuinely happy...and well adjusted. More so than most communities I know. This struck me most in the children. They seemed carefree, and they seemed to respect their parents.

Now, granted, I only met young kids who have not yet hit adolescence. It occurred to me that many of the girls I met may later develop body image issues, eating disorders and other maladies of our modern sexist world. But, I think there's a good chance they won't develop these afflictions at anywhere the rate our female population does in the U.S.

So, is being poor and out of touch the answer to our problems? Probably not, but being rich and constantly connected may not be all it's cracked up to be.

This reminded me (and Dave) of two essential facts about happiness that we tend to forget.

First, happiness can often be defined as the ratio between reality and expectations. We may be living the high life, but if we expect to be billionaires, we'll be disappointed with our material status.

Second, happiness is relative. We feel rich or poor, strong or weak, secure or insecure, in relation to our peers. This is why human happiness has not increased measurably with great advances in material wealth. [Economist Robert Frank makes this point elegantly in his book Chosing the Right Pond.]

The Quichwa don't have much, but they also don't expect all that much either. They're not inundated with ads that tell them it's impossible to be happy without an iPod or a Blackberry. They don't have the option of being a corporate lawyer, fancy consultant, or having a column in the NY Times (my secret ambition for years). So, their reality compares well with their expectations--hence happiness. This, of course, is largely a factor of their relative isolation. Their "pond" is the village--or at most nearby Tena--where no one has much more than they do.

This likely works in non-material ways as well, and here's where it gets complicated. If we expect love, fulfillment, contentment, etc. through work and/or personal relations and don't achieve them, we're unhappy. If we try our best, we're likely to end up smaller fish in a bigger pond--and risk feeling relatively...less.

But can the answer really be to lower our expectations radically, to moderate our ambitions and give up on becoming "all that we can be" (as the old army commercial put it)?

At 30 years old, should I give up on love and settle for "looks good on paper, probably won't drive me crazy?" Perhaps arranged marriages weren't so bad--they remove the expectation of pure romantic love but hold out the chance for a happy accident. Should we all forget about finding fulfillment in our work and personal lives and settle for "just getting by?" Will this acceptance make us more happy?

As you can probably tell, I'm not quite ready for that. I'm not pretending to have found any answers here, but my conviction is that the answer lies, as always, in balance.

We should nurture expectations that are high, but realistic. The major problem we have in U.S. society, I think, is the creation of unrealistic expectations--from airbrushed models to sitcoms in which semi-employed "Friends" live in ridiculous NYC apartments.

For this reason, it's always infuriated me when we tell our kinds "you can do anything you put your mind to." Actually, no most people can't do anything they want. Even if I practiced all day every day, I'll never be an NBA basketball player--or, probably, a nuclear physicist. We need to find a way to be realistic with our kids without robbing them of their dreams. [To be honest, I've also never understood why pumping our kids full of falsehoods, I mean fantasies, like the tooth fairy or Santa Claus is good for their development either--but I don't have a degree in child psychology and that's a topic for another day.]

Of course, the trick is in the detail, and I'm not revealing anything new here. But, I think that with all the privilege we enjoy in the U.S., there are certain things we SHOULD shoot for (if not quite "expect"). These include, love in our personal lives and fulfillment in our work. They do not include a BMW or a perfect body--and here lies many of our problems.

Interestingly, there is a project under way to bring electricity to Rio Blanco, the Quichwa community I visited. This, of course, will bring TV, ads, and a splash of "kalifornication." Some enterprising grad student should do a thesis on how all this affects happiness in the village.


The Auto Snob said...

As expected, this post is some of the best and most entertaining writing I've seen from you. It's even got a similar tone to my blog, when I rant about things that don't make sense. You make me so proud!

Anonymous said...

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