Monday, January 21, 2008

A Diet of Dreams

I just saw the film “Into the Wild.” It is a different perspective from Krakauer's brilliant biography of Christopher “Alexander” McCandless, but it's telling of the brief enigmatic life of McCandless is no less profound in it's effect on me. It is the story of a life I could nearly have chosen. I highly recommend both the book and film. I have included the response I wrote in my gridbook journal after I first read the book in 2003:

I finished "Into The Wild." Who cannot love this reckless young man? What older man cannot read this and see his own self in younger dreamier days? Chris McCandless lived out so many of my boyish fantasies. How many times have I looked longingly into a forest or a mountain range and thought "What if I just left the road and walked out into that?" I read and recall myself running a tiny path through the woods in the heart of a violent storm hearing the ancient trees crashing across the path behind me—exhilarated and feeling more alive than ever. I remember myself wandering the remote mountain villages in Haiti with nothing but a water bottle and a camera.

I recollect hearing Alexander often spoken or even sung about by friends in college; he had already become a sort of patron saint for young men like us. I got out my old CD of songs from college which mentioned McCandless. Listening to Tom singing years ago on these recordings always is emotional for me—relics of a world that no longer exists for me, a world that shaped me. I recall the nights in the cabin beside the fire with other wild-hearted young men singing songs, reading each other our melodramatic poems. We all had bigger dreams and bigger ideas then: meeting before sunrise to sing prayers in the form of Gregorian Chants, because ancient monks had purer hearts than we ...playing soccer naked at midnight after butchering and cooking our own pig ...reading books by men long dead ...growing long beards ...sleeping in abandoned garages and cotton fields as we wandered the back highways without a map ...walking barefoot and reading books in trees.

We didn't take things as far as Alexander. We were mostly normal college students who usually slept in beds, flirted with girls, and ate processed foods, but we all had a piece of ourself in another world. When we wanted we could partake in the food of saints and dreamers. Now as an older man I am exclusively a man of the "real world." Alexander turned his back on the "real world" and lived exclusively on a diet of dreams far more vigorous than our occasional tastes, and he died of starvation in his sleeping bag. Who cannot envy this arrogant, foolish boy who never sold out?

My days of risks are over. I have a wife now, I will not run in a hurricane or wander uncharted villages alone again. These minor risks were appropriate for a young man, but now my wife is my priority and I must act responsibly. I am proud to be her husband and would never trade her for any one of McCandless' freedoms. I will soon have patients that depend on me for their life and health, and this will also be good. The ties that bind us are good. There can be virtue in this world too. One of those virtues is discipline. I have a huge test soon, and I have spent an entire day in this book and these sentimental musings. These are things I cannot do. Too many people are trusting me.

I leave this now to try to refocus myself on the work that has been set out for me. As I go I say a silent prayer for Jade and Fernando–the last two among us to live so exclusively on a diet of wild dreams–wherever in the world they might be . I could imagine either of them turning up dead on an adventure even more beautiful and foolish than Alexander's, but I pray that they are safe, as I also earnestly pray that they are doing nothing so banal as my work today, that they never give up that which I have chosen to leave behind. Somehow knowing that they are out there living these dreams makes my own burdens feel lighter.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Other Caribbean

How should we best live in a world with inequality?

I just went on a cruise in the Caribbean with my in-laws: a celebration of my wife's parents' birthdays. We celebrated on a large beautiful ship that carried us through the warm waters of the Caribbean. The ship was a floating pleasure palace taking us to private beaches with perfect turquoise water.

Perhaps I am already too disillusioned to enjoy this Caribbean, because I have seen the other side of these islands—the side hidden from vacationers. I lived a summer in Haiti eight years ago, so the warm blast of tropics brings to my mind suffering, disease, and death. Unlike our own sterilized tropics of Florida, the paradise of the Caribbean seems to me a bandage hiding a gaping wound of human suffering.

This place has become the perfect escape because here among the impoverished the American can live like a king. We are taught to imagine the poor people as living charmed idyllic lives. Their suffering and squalor is carefully hidden from tourists.

On this cruise another island people, Indonesians, did all the manual labor on the ship. They were hard working and kind to all of us over-eating vacationers. I asked one Indonesian man what he does on his days off, but he has no days off—not a single one in his 11 month work contract. I asked what he does when he goes ashore, but he isn't allowed off the ship. All this labor for what I'm sure I would find a shockingly small salary. This is certainly a job he chose of his own volition, but not in some fair system in which transactions are beneficial to all parties, rather out of desperation because his world contained no opportunities at all. It is his cheap labor that makes this pleasure cruise affordable to Americans.

I don't think all inequality is necessarily wrong, but it is not a thing to desired. It also seems obvious that inequalities easily become opportunity for exploitation of those less advantaged. Our use of the people of these islands for our enjoyment demonstrate a pattern of exploitation, both intentional and unconscious. These island are populated by the decedents of sugar plantation slaves—the sweet, fattening substance was produced by the most brutal form of slavery this continent ever saw. Are we so sure that now our behavior towards them in the tourism industry is not also exploitation? Do we not purchase the destitute of the world cheaply with our dollars?

When I was a boy I first saw third world poverty in Mexico on a vacation. We were American tourists on buses, being taken from a beautiful hotel to a scenic destination. Out the windows I couldn't help but see them, people dressed in rags living in tin shacks. My father saw me staring. He said, “A lot of people here have it very hard, but I am glad we came here. Being here on vacation means the money we spend goes to improve their economy here.” My father is a good man, who worked hard and saved to give his family a nice vacation. He was genuine in his belief that he was being socially responsible with his tourism, and I believed him then.

But I have since lost my confidence that trickle-down economics will save the destitute in a world that is stacked against them. I have also come to believe that coming here to celebrate our good fortune in front of those who have nothing is an unintended insult to them. Treating our fellow man with dignity requires we don't use him wrongly.

I'm not always sure how to live in a world with inequality, but I am certain this will be my last pleasure cruise in the Caribbean.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Gridbook Endorsement: Ron Paul

The Gridbook Blog endorses Ron Paul for President in 2008.

First I should say that it is not my intention to tell anyone how they should vote. Many people of good conscience, strong values, and excellent intelligence (such as my wife) vote differently than myself for various reasons. The intention of discussing politics on a blog, however, is to influence thought and shed light in the sometimes dismal world of political power. With all the discussion of politics (with a good bit from a personal perspective) on this site I think it is reasonable for me to also let you know for whom I am voting and why I think this person would make the best president.

With an atypical set of political stances it isn't easy to choose a major party candidate to support. It is much simpler to pick out the ones that I think would be the worst (such as Gulliani and Clinton) than the best. I initially found Ron Paul by accident when googling the term "consistent life politics." All I knew about Paul before was that he is a Libertarian with a small but passionate following, particularly on the web. I decided to do a little research on this congressman. Although Dr. Paul doesn't use the term "consistent life" to describe his politics, his positions seem to adhere better to consistent life values better than any other candidate of which I am aware.

First of all Dr. Paul is very pro-life on Abortion. Unlike a lot of Republicans that give the tragedy of abortion lip service but don't seem inclined to do anything to stop it, Paul is pro-active and has introduced legislation to amend the constitution to define human life as running from conception to natural death. Paul is also opposed to aggressive and violent intervention around the world. He is the only person running for president in either party that voted against the Iraq war from the beginning. While he is not a pacifist, he seems opposed to the use of deadly force in most cases that don't involve national defense. He is opposed to the federal death penalty, although he seems open to it on the state level.

Dr. Paul mostly discusses these positions based on his constitutionalist, limited-government values, however, his underlying beliefs seem consistently compassionate and anti-violence. His experiences as an OB/GYN and a serviceman during Vietnam seem to have left him with a strong aversion for violence. He is quoted pointing out how odd it is that his fellow pro-life, Christ-loving politicians so often seem the most eager for war and bombing. I couldn't agree more.

I certainly am not a Libertarian. I do not have the same confidence that just because free markets create wealth they can also fix all other ills if sufficiently unrestrained. (I have even been known to border on Socialism) But with the recent poor performance of liberals and conservatives in the executive branch, I am certainly willing to give a Libertarian a try. Having listened to quite a few of his speeches and interviews I cannot help but be struck by his intelligence, straightforwardness, humanism, and apparent integrity. Like his policies or not you have to be impressed with Paul's character. I know that looks can be deceiving in politics, but he certainly seems a breath of fresh air compared to most candidates who seem unable to speak in anything other than prefabed sound bites.

There are certain positions on which I would differ from Dr. Paul like immigration and certain approaches to civil rights, environmental policy, and medical care, but looking at the overall candidate I cannot help but pick Ron Paul from the rest of the major party candidates as most worthy of my vote.

I strongly encourage everyone to learn more about Ron Paul before you go to the polls this primary.