Dreams Worth Having

When I left on the Conquest, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head.

“Be serious. Act your age. You’re just running away from your responsibilities. Everyone else is getting married and having babies, and you’re going to burn through your savings to chase what?”

Expectations and societal pressures have a way of doing that, creeping into one’s psyche so deeply that we can’t differentiate the desires of our own heart from our (insert years here) of intense training.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 or 15 or 50. Society has a set of expectations for you, and acting outside of that framework is considered risky behavior. Why not stick on the main road? It is safe there.

Not the main road

Not the main road

 

“It worked for Larry and Suzy and Paige. Hell it even worked for Bob, and we all know that he’s not playing with a full deck of cards.”

Societal norms end up being codified “best practices.” People wonder why pork isn’t eaten by in Kosher (Jewish) or Halal (Islam) traditions. Have a nice case of trichinosis and get back to me. The origins of both of those religions were in the desert nomad way of life. Pork goes bad…fast. It doesn’t take too many people keeling over from food poisoning or trichinosis before someone says, “hold on, maybe God doesn’t like this.”

After a few thousand years, that social more becomes ingrained well past it’s “consume by” date. Modern refrigeration makes the consumption of pork no more dangerous than any other meat, but the taboo continues.

Modern society is no different. “Get a job, find a nice girl, buy a house and pay down your mortgage. And STAY MARRIED.” This path was a road to success for generations. People lifted themselves from squalor and into situations that their parents only dreamed about.

Then in America we started bumping up against a dazzling diamond ceiling. The dream ceased to be “become a homeowner” and began to be about owning a BIGGER house or a MORE EXPENSIVE car. We substituted aspirations for a better life for a desire for the meaningless and ephemeral “MORE.”

That house is a bit less than 4000 sq ft, but everyone there seems happy.

That house is a bit less than 4000 sq ft, but everyone there seems happy.

As far as standard of living goes, there is no reason that a family of four in a 4000 sq ft house is better off than a family of four in a 2000 sq ft house. Unless playing hide and go seek from our family members is considered a material good (which in some families it might be) we’re accomplishing nothing besides paying to heat and cool unused space.

Driving a 10 year old Chevy Impala and driving a brand new Mercedes SLK has absolutely 0 difference on one’s quality of life. If both cars function properly, both cars will get you from here to there without walking.

I'd take a bamboo platform, 2 railroad axles and a gas engine over an SLK any day...

I’d take a bamboo platform, 2 railroad axles and a gas engine over an SLK any day…

That iPhone 5 in your pocket? There is only the barest of marginal difference between that and an iPhone from 4 years ago. If someone says, “but it is faster” I want them to ask themselves what they actually accomplished with that half second saved. Did you get a half second closer to learning Spanish? Or maybe you used those cumulative half seconds to cook a healthy dinner. If so, fantastic, the new iPhone has made your life better.

If you played Candy Crush for 45 minutes today, your life didn’t get better because your phone was faster.

Technology has gone from making our lives markedly better, to making us notably more distracted. We call ourselves busy, yet no one in America (or the rest of the First World for that matter) has ever been forced to carry their drinking water from a well, chop wood to heat a home, or butcher an animal to have dinner.

We’ve started to concentrate on the margins. Utility is ubiquitous, so instead we concern ourselves with unnecessary luxury. There will be people lined up around the block to pay $500 for the next iPhone. Between the time they spent waiting and the money they paid to replace the perfectly good phone in their pocket, what could be accomplished?

Get on kayak.com and check out the Explorer function then get back to me. $500 can almost assuredly get anyone in America a round trip plane ticket out of the country.

Our society doesn’t look at this as a sickness, but it really is. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that “new” must be “better” that we no longer look at whether there were any material benefits.

According to 2007 New York Times article, Americans see more than 5000 commercial advertisements today. That is just shy of 1 every 10 waking seconds. Can we really act like this has no effect on our internal thought processes?

No billboards on this "highway"

No billboards on this “highway”

If society can delude itself into mass hysteria about something as simple as a smartphone, why don’t we examine those other mores that society tells us? Do we look with an objective eye at the “why” of those “best practices”?

We blindly push more and more kids into college without any serious consideration of alternatives. Nothing screams “blind tradition” like sending a kid to learn about the internal rate of return in business school but never asking him to run that calculation on his own college debt and future earnings potential.

In the same vein, nothing screams crazy like America training our future “world leaders” while never sending them outside of the country.

For all my initial fears that I was “running away” or “keeping my Peter Pan tights on a little too long,” I finally came to the realization that the safe, conventional road wasn’t right for me.

I also realized that some of those moderating voices in my conscience aren’t actually “me.” They are an echo of everyone else.

People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”

Almost no one says, “first, make sure your dreams are worth having.”

Seemed like a dream at the time

Seemed like a dream at the time

Is having a big house and an expensive car a dream worth having?

Well…maybe for someone? I think most people just do it because they listen to the voice in the back of their head saying, “Let’s be “better” than our parents. Let’s be “better” than our friends.”

That’s all well and good, but we’ve got to remember to look at what actually makes something “better.” To the kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Speedway, Indiana, the Chicago suburbs seem like heaven on earth. Everyone has a college degree, drives a nice car, vacations in expensive places, and there are more culinary choices than Gene’s Root Beer and Applebees.

You can wear argyle socks and sweater vests without being laughed at, and leather shoes are encouraged instead of scorned.

At the end of the day, he can look in a mirror and say “I’m better off than everyone back home.”

But did he ever look in that mirror and ask, “Is this really the life of my dreams? Or was I so concentrated on being better than someone else, that I forgot to figure out what I actually wanted?”

I thought that I wanted that life, I really did. Then I got a real taste of it and said, “Christ this is too sweet, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste. And to top it all off I’m still hungry.”

So I shoved off. I said to the man in the mirror, “This didn’t work, not sure if the next thing will either but if we keep swinging we’ll find something that makes us whole.”

By ignoring that voice in the back of my head, I realized that there are an awful lot of ways to live a life.

You can be the Swede who leaves his home and trains to be a Muay Thai boxer. He has his jaw broken in his 4th fight and has to sip all his meals through a straw for 2 months, then gets right back in the ring to fight the BIGGEST Thai guy they could find.

You can be the vagabond oil rig worker from Ohio, who saved his money and leases/runs a guesthouse in Laos, complete with a pet monkey.

You can be the Swiss woman who comes to Laos on vacation, falls in love with the place and starts a school, with no intention to ever leave.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

You can be the engineer from America’s frozen northland, Minnesota (I just shivered typing that) who gets sent to Vietnam for work, realizes that there is a satellite package for the NHL, decides to rent a boat, fill it with booze and attempt to start a business. 7 years later he owns 5 bars and 2 apartment buildings with his beloved Vietnamese wife.

Or you can do what everyone else does, trudge off down that old familiar road and hope that it works better for you than it did for the countless unhappy people who did it before you.

I’m not sure I’ve found the one that is right for me yet, but at least I’m looking for what I ACTUALLY want, not just what I’ve been conditioned by society and the media to desire.

Take a little time for introspection today. You might be amazed at what you find.

You’re in there, somewhere. There’s an awful lot of vestigial nonsense and carefully calculated advertising muddying up the water, but with enough effort, you’ll find some pure, unadulterated YOU.

I bet that person is pretty sweet.

Say hi for me.

 

 

The High Cost of “Getting There”

As we walked past the cracked windshield and torn up grill and onto the ripped vinyl stairs of the bus, I just started laughing hysterically.

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The unicorn themed sticker display surrounding the driver’s seat and TV, combined with the hideously fabric used for the window and stowage coverings were just too much. I sat down in my seat, where the air was completely still and the outdoors were approaching 100 degrees. My ass immediately started sticking as if a whole bushel of chewed Bazooka was cleverly disguised as the ripped red leather seat that I would call home for the next 150 miles.

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The bus driver said 3 hours, which is Cambodian for 5. The seats did have the luxurious option to lay down to a wonderful 140 degree angle, fantastic for pinning your shoulders between the window and the seat next to you in a manner that would cause Houdini to feel claustrophobic.

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Fear not though gentle traveler, the person in front of you is a ¾ replica of the average Western man, so he can lay his seat right down into your lap with no issues at all.

I looked gratefully at my last minute decision to grab another 1.5 L bottle of water, and tucked in my headphones for what I knew was going to be a long bumpy ride down another wonderfully unpaved stretch of the Cambodian countryside.

You’ve got to laugh, otherwise you might cry. Otherwise I might have started thinking about the fact that I’ve spent the last 73 nights of my life in no fewer than 35 beds.

Maybe I’d remember that I haven’t been properly dry since landing in Hanoi 34 days ago. I’d probably think how great it’d be great to just have a nice simple hot dog on the grill, complete with MUSTARD and a soft bun. Or how I’d love to be bullshitting with my buddies at a fraternity brother’s wedding this weekend. I might remember the fact that there won’t be cars on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for another 345 days.

Here's your toilet

Here’s your toilet

Hell I’d give just about anything to have my own deodorant back, as opposed to the underarm Russian Roulette I’ve been playing to find a replacement in a series of pharmacies smaller than the standard supermarket aisle. Brushing my teeth with tap water is yet another luxury I’ve not had in months. Hell, having a shower curtain in Siem Riep was a cause for real joy of the non facetious variety.

I’ve had mornings where I woke up and said, “Hell I can get another job and go home. 71 days is more than enough. What’s a 1 way cost out of (fill in the blank) airport?

Then I get in a tuk tuk and drive straight up a mountain where I came to a view that afforded me the opportunity to see the horizon drop in the distance. I walked into massive caves and could still hear the spectral sounds of babies crying before they were dashed on the rocks and thrown into the pit.
I got the picture of a lifetime, a man praying for his family killed in this very cave 36 years ago in front of an altar full of skulls beside a full Buddhist temple in the middle of the caves where so many lives were lost.

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I wouldn’t have had a conversation for 2 hours the day before about the rise of autism in Canada or talked Roman history with a German named Marius while drinking beers and playing ping pong in a bamboo hut.

Wouldn’t have sat overlooking the river as the sun rose, working on writing when the familiar fingernails of a beautiful, honey skinned British girl started raking down my scalp and neck.

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Probably wouldn’t have discussed the EU Parliament elections and upcoming World Cup in a rooftop bar in Phnom Penh where the beers were $.75. And I certainly wouldn’t have had monkeys steal the cutlery off the dirty dishes next to me and drop them down the mountain.

I wouldn’t have drank weasel shit coffee or swam in isolated waterfalls without another person for a half mile. Certainly wouldn’t have gotten my Dorothy on while walking through acre after acre of pristine flower farms.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

I also wouldn’t have ridden on a bamboo platform at a breakneck 40 MPH over the most warped and winding rails the French ever laid.

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I wouldn’t have done all those things because the pile of reasons “I can’t” became bigger than the “Christ that’d be amazing.” I’d go back to everyday life and talk about what I’m going to do in that elusive “next year,” putting off for tomorrow what I was too (busy, lazy, broke, scared, etc) to do today.

The problem is, next year becomes today. Then it is 5 years down the line, and the responsibilities are too great to ever get this done. Then instead of “next year” it is “when I retire.”

It never gets done. Those dreams you said you had once, never got closer than the mountain of reasons ”why not” to reality.

Then you never drink your coffee and watch straw hatted Vietnamese pole down the river to cast their fishing nets or get escorted to a scuba dive site by gunboats because you’re mere miles away from an international conflict.

You have your coffee at Starbucks and head into work. Your last 72 days looked a lot like the 72 before those.

Mine were full of miserable bus rides, ineffective deodorant and toilets flushed with a bucket of water.

But Lord Almighty was there something to see once you arrived.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Suburban Nightmares

I always told myself that if I wanted a tattoo, I should write it down, put it in a drawer, and pull it out a year later to see if I still wanted it. That saved me a lot of unnecessary laser removal bills when I was younger.

Still tattoo free

Still tattoo free

The same is true in life. When I was younger, I really thought I had THE plan. Get a good job, move to a big city, marry a pretty girl (whose mom still looked good, this is chess not checkers) and raise some cool kids in a nice suburb. I’d seen it work for other people, or at least thought I had, and I wanted that American dream for myself. I was getting the hell out of the podunk town where I grew up and goddamnit I was going to drive a nice Lexus crossover SUV to get there, and I’d park it in a garage with real wood garage doors.

Someone else got that life, and I hope he’s happy with it.

Mostly for her sake.

I got this, and I’m thrilled.

Giving rice noodles a shot

Giving rice noodles a shot

Then life happened. I watched my model for this lifestyle completely blow up. I watched what a lifetime of “doing the right thing” and “playing it safe” had done to a couple who I considered an absolute example in this life.

I saw the suburbs be a defective competition of people who had tried to eliminate all risk from this life, and in doing so had manufactured a game of “keeping up with the Joneses” to stay engaged at all. The delusion that fulfillment can be achieved through the high regard of others is dangerously fragile.

One day they woke up and neither one felt fulfilled. The only way to get out of the trap was to blow it up completely.

The collateral damage of that is staggering. Kids, spouses and extended family all feel the repercussions of a life that just couldn’t bottle up the pressure anymore. It is no one’s fault, just the consequences of taking the safe road one time too many.

We’re meant to throw off the bowlines, test the high seas, and fail occasionally. America’s suburban class has made failure an outcome that must be avoided at all costs, with the victim being greatness. We tell 14 year olds to do 3 hours of homework a night so that they can get into a “good school” and do the same for another 4 years. Then we immediately go to work and work as hard as humanly possible to “get ahead.” Eventually there will be a payoff, some magical Kathmandu which will make it all worth it.

Making woven sleeping mats

Making woven sleeping mats

Then we see the All-American Dad die one Thursday night on the treadmill. We stand around a casket and wonder how life is so unfair that he never got to reach that magical “retirement” so that he could see the world and finally enjoy himself.

That really throws some people for a loop. Now we want fairness, we want to know why, and we want to protect ourselves from a premature end like that.

Life isn’t meant to be lived at the end. It isn’t supposed to be safe and riskless either.

Life’s goal should not be a destination, it is the journey that should be enjoyed.

That isn’t found in a Lexus SUV behind a wooden garage door beside a perfectly manicured lawn. It isn’t an Instagram picture with 112 likes of a $15 cocktail from an urban rooftop. It isn’t having your kid go to an Ivy League school, or having the prettiest wife at your 25 year class reunion.

It is appreciating a laugh with your best friends.

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Laying under the stars and pondering your own insignificance.

Put down the iPhone

Put down the iPhone

It is sitting across from an Argentinian girl and temporarily forgetting the names of every girl you ever thought you loved in this life.

Eating a meal on a 12 inch tall plastic stool in a dark alley where no one speaks English, and not pulling out your phone to check your text messages.

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It is sweating your ass off in 95 degree heat in a concrete shell of a house making rice noodles with a mother and son who don’t speak English, and understanding why they smile so much.

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

It is going to a beach without a single tourist, and watching four generations of a dirt poor family play in the waves and sand while eating dinner, smiling like a staged picture at Disneyland.

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

Life is meant to be enjoyed everyday. Not at some point in the mythical “future.” If your life isn’t fulfilling, don’t wait for the next pay raise or girl in the bar to make you happy. Go find a way to do it.

A wise man with an uncanny resemblance to a former American Vice President once told me that he’d promised himself two things when he was younger. That he wouldn’t sell things for a living, and he wouldn’t live in a suburb of Chicago. At the time he told me that, he was doing both.

I always wondered if he ever thought about the road not taken.

We rush and we rush, and we tell ourselves it’s worth it. We consume heaps of nonsense that we don’t really need, in order to save face with our neighbors.

Not beating the Joneses

Not beating the Joneses

We sacrifice our dreams on the altar of safety and get nightmares for our trouble. We work ourselves ragged 50 weeks a year, so that we can go “enjoy” ourselves the other 2.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

The finished product

The finished product

As scared as I was to start the Conquest, the factor that pushed me to buy that first plane ticket was the fear of ending up like that All-American Dad in the casket, who had done everything right, but always put the rewards off until tomorrow. He was one of the best men I ever knew, and he deserved better than that.

I hope when they put me in the ground someone doesn’t cry for the things I didn’t get to do, but quietly appreciates the things I did.

I’m trying to live life in a way which makes each day a reward unto itself. Just because it doesn’t work everyday doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

Naperville please don’t be expecting me anytime soon.

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.” Albert Camus