Making a Difference

On Tuesday I signed up with the Team in Training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Despite what my official fundraising page says, my actual fundraising goal is $3200 for the race I’m likely to be switching to, which is the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. I was optimistic – and frankly, the info meeting was extremely pursuasive. I mean, one of the guys raised $10,000! Another guy has friends begging him to hold more charity events for them to give money!

It began to sink in. I don’t have a lot of local friends that have a lot of money to spend. They’re mostly artists, self-employed types, unemployed or incurable do-gooders who make little money, if any. While a charity pub crawl might be fun (and they’d probably all get behind it), being able to front the cash is another story. Looking through the fundraising tips, I don’t see a lot that fit my personality or style (or would work with people I know.) It all starts being a little deflating.

The LLS offers a lot of incentives to raise money, including a most-expenses paid trip to awesome locales. Not to mention the schwag.

But that’s just stuff. I don’t need stuff. I want to make a difference.

Then I talked to friend of mine who does my hair. A friend of hers is going through his second bout with a cancer that the LLS offers support. He’s a person of little means, and will likely be losing insurance soon. A former employer has actually kept him on the insurance rolls through his remission, even though he’s employed elsewhere. His former employer also held a benefit night that got him over $10,000 in assistance.

Then it clicked – research and stuff (but mainly research) is a good thing for a foundation to raise money for – caveat being that this research is heavily tainted by the pharmaceutical companies and medical technology industry. Also – pragmatically, there is the question of quality of life – finding a cure is one thing, but enhancing the quality of life for someone who is dying, whose clock is ticking, is there support for that research? Is there something better we can offer people dying of cancer than morphine, benzodiazepines and Benedryl?

At the Team in Training meeting, we were handed a packet of stuff to go over, included being a few profiles of people who are fighting a type of blood cancer. I wonder, did the LLS help these individuals, on a personal level, as much as my friend’s friend’s former employer? Big foundations are one thing, and appreciated – but me? I like working on the personal level.

Perhaps this year’s goal should be, instead, to give of myself charitably to a small organization, to an individual or group, to help increase their ability to enjoy life, and decrease their suffering.

This may mean I drop out of the TnT – I can’t fathom being able to gather together $3200 the same way I became aware last year that MLM companies like Mary Kaye aren’t for me. It’s not dissing on the product – but on the way it syncs with who I am.

And I, above all, am compelled to be true to myself.

Trip to Mexico: American Pride

I got through 2 weeks in the Yucatan with no illness whatsoever, including a hangover, and it took a trip to New York to get what I can only guess is a norovirus (the kind of virulent stomach ailment known for making cruise ships miserable). I thought that I would take an opportunity, between bed and bath, to list the many reasons I’m relieved (and even proud) to be an American, though my travel in Mexico was amazing and awesome and totally worth doing again!

  1. Potable water (and good plumbing). You’ve heard this one before. Don’t drink the water. This goes for EVERYWHERE, even in the tourist districts where they’ve Americanized the roads and resorts to look more like Las Vegas than impoverished Central America. There are warnings not to drink the water on the sinks in the bathrooms of Cancun airport. You HAVE to drink bottled water if you’re going to drink water. Thankfully, it’s plentiful.

    In America, people choose to drink bottled water, ignoring the fact that we have the amazing gift of potable water out of every single faucet in almost every single place people live in America. We don’t need to drink bottled water in America! In Mexico, even the locals have to because it’s not just a matter of adjusting to the local flora in the water. It’s a matter of sanitation.

    Then, it has to be mentioned – the fact that toilet paper (if available) cannot be flushed down most of the toilets that we came across outside of the resort areas.

  2. Submachine guns. Can I tell you just how nervous it made me every time we passed a police check point where the police were holding submachine or other assault rifles? I don’t speak the language, and even a routine stop, should we have had to make one, is not one I’d have to make when there’s a man with an assault rifle trying to talk to me.

    Not to mention all the high-end jewelry stores in the Riviera Maya have private guards with submachine guns. Seriously.

    ETA: This is not a statement with regard to the heated debate over 2nd amendment rights, but rather the fact that I view guns as tools, I prefer living in a world that doesn’t require an individual to carry a tool that can release a rapid succession of bullets in short order. Where that tool is absolutely necessary is a place I prefer not to be. If it’s not absolutely necessary, then I prefer that tool to be out of sight and out of mind. 🙂

  3. Guilty until proven innocent. The American ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ thing made us very unique in the world, and still makes us unique. Our travel guides warned us to get the full insurance on our rental car, and for good reason – a traffic accident will get you arrested and will necessitate a lawyer, and without insurance, you’ll have to find a way to get one on your own.

    Also, as our travel guides warned us, it’s illegal to take photographs in the airport. This was something I almost violated as that it was so amazing to me that there was a pharmacy in the airport – selling Viagra, benzodiazepines, narcotics and antibiotics (and then some) over the counter, right next to the Hard Rock, Margaritaville, Harley Davidson and Senor Frogs stores.

  4. National security. Let’s just say that there are very few places in Mexico that aren’t experiencing problems with serious violence. All the states that border America, for instance, are heavily embroiled in a drug war where the casualties are extremely high, and not only locals, but especially Americans are in danger of kidnapping and murder. Then there are other states that have other issues with the Mexican government, where there has been periodic violence.

    I can only believe that the lack of national security is the reason we saw the armed check points *everywhere* when we overheard that the President was in the Yucatan.

  5. Poverty. You wouldn’t know it unless you stepped outside of the tour bus traveled roads of the Riviera Maya. Cancun was our last stop, and the most jaw dropping, corn-syrup, deep fried, stomach-churning, three-days-after-a-middle-aged-alcoholics-binge of a place. It’s what Burning Man is to what Burning Man was. It is an authentic siphon of American money into the Mexican economy, done bigger, and better, with all the great hot resort places of America as its guide.

    The roads are wide and well managed, the airport a triumph of bringing all the comforts of your town’s mall with all the access of an international airport. Many of the resorts offer you an all-inclusive option, where you need not even step foot out the door, and can enjoy the comforts of your all-American hamburger, fries and a large Coke (with cane sugar!) It’s a perfect bubble, and most need not leave the Zona Hotelera, the perfect strip of resorts on the most beautiful Caribbean sand and water.

    Sure, you step outside of any American city, and you’re going to see poverty – but not like this. There’s poverty, everywhere. Everywhere, someone’s trying to make a buck off of you, the rich American, and other travelers will talk about it, and it’s definitely evident in Cancun, just with a little less outright desperation and a little more flash. Seeing sometimes how travelers would treat the locals, I couldn’t blame some of them for wanting to cheat them – because frankly, I saw some behavior of Americans that made me really understand how we can be negatively viewed in the world. Having been in the customer service field and experienced these same assholes, I can just imagine the glee that one might get when scamming an extra few pesos out of them. They weren’t going to tip, anyway, after all. But still, boorish travelers aren’t the only reason for the scams. Drive along enough of the back roads and it’s evident. Even impoverished America has it better (in some places, not all.) The roads are not well managed, sanitation is poor, the distances between towns is poor, most people don’t have a means to get around other than bicycle or taxi, and the roads are, to say the least, somewhat challenging to drive on even with a good, new car (such as what we rented).

  6. Roads. I guess this is going to be my last entry, but boy howdy, do I love well maintained roads! I love our grand, American highways. I love the fact that you can bypass little towns (unlike the days of Route 66), fly by at high speeds with convenient off-ramps, gas stations and food establishments you know passed basic health inspections. I love our well-signed roads that clearly let us know what major cities are which way, so you know which way to vaguely drive. I love clear arrows, telling us which way we need to go. I love signs, did I mention that? Signs that tell me more than keep safe distance, where my seat belt or speed bumps. Signs that tell me where I am, how far I am. I also like signs that help me figure out where I am on the map. Those are helpful. I like not having to contend with two-trailer semis barreling down a two lane divided highway at 100+ kph (65+ mph). My only gratitude was that in the Yucatan, it was mostly flat.

It struck me, while in Mexico, that the land that the Tea Partiers are so afraid that America is or is becoming, is not the America I know and love. Despite the Bush-led attacks on our civil liberties that are still in effect, we live in a wealthy, comfortable country that has remarkable freedom. The Tea Partiers that have ever visited Mexico probably only did so within the tourist bubble, and don’t know what life outside that bubble is really like. Tea Partiers, and those like them, take America for granted. It’s true that we need to do something about the encroachment on our civil liberties, that I agree with. We need to be able to check and balance are government’s branches. We need to have accountability. Freedom is a wonderful thing, and we still have an abundance of it.

I seriously believe that a person gets what they expect to get out of a relationship. I believe that if a person expects a person to treat them in a certain way, that there are subtle things they do to create that very reaction. I think the same goes for a person’s relationship to their society. You can create your own worst enemy. You can create the very thing you say you’re against.

Seriously, be grateful for what you have. Others in the world aren’t so lucky.

Tripping: Cenote Diving (part 2)

Cenote DivingLet’s start this off with the facts. I’m a PADI certified rescue diver. I have 40+ dives logged, most of them in the challenging cold water of the Pacific Northwest, in a semi-dry suit. I wasn’t ever sure I wanted to dive in the first place. I hate low visibility, I hate darkness, and most of all, I hate enclosed spaces to the point where I even hate simulated caves at theme parks.

All this is true. I agreed to join my husband on two dives through the cenote named Dos Ojos, “Two Eyes,” near Tulum, Q. Roo, Mexico. This dive required a trained cave diver (who is trained to go into the completely black underwater caverns like the ones that make up the underground river system in the Yucatan). We were allowed on this journey because this wasn’t a cave dive, it was a cavern dive, the difference being that there are exits (not that they are necessarily visible) within no more than a hundred or so feet from an opening to air. Sometimes, during the dive, light from above ground would illuminate these exits. Other times, it would be just you, your buddy and leader, and your flashlight, with rocks overhead and stalactites around you. It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had, and my first fresh water diving experience (requiring less weights in my BCD).

The first dive went pretty well, though I definitely wasn’t sold on the experience. The second dive was to the Bat Cave (and yes, there were bats on the ceiling when we popped up inside the cavern!) The dive promised to be a bit darker than the previous one, and it was. As we went through the sometimes narrow passages, following our guide, Victor, I had a moment where I heard a rumbling. Deep rumbles transmit well under water, and are at a frequency that surrounds you, with no direction to be ascertained. Victor had explained to us before going in, that in this kind of diving, especially, you get panicked? Forget about it. You’re done. You have to keep a cool head, or you’re never getting out alive. I heard that rumble, and it flashed in my brain, this cavern, it’s limestone, I’m diving in a sinkhole, it could collapse. I heard the rumble again. What is that? I imagined my final scene, trapped in a water filled cavern, unable to get out, watching my air gauge needle move closer to zero. It’s amazing how fast these thoughts can filter through your head, just seconds, maybe less.

I looked at Victor ahead of me. I remembered his words. Forget about it. You’re done. This rumbling cavern was less likely to do me in than my own mind, and Victor, our seasoned guide, swam in front of me care-free. Whatever the rumbling was, it wasn’t something he seemed worried about. As long as Victor indicates there’s no need to worry, then I’m just going to follow him. He’ll lead us to the exit. I’m just going to follow Victor.

At times I’m not convinced that I love diving. I do it as a form of mastery, because I’m compelled to do it with excellence. Then there’s the part that forces me to just really focus on yoking my mind in a way that I can’t do as well on dry land. Maybe it’s the pressure on my body, the focused breathing, the nitrogen narcosis that starts to impact my brain at 60 feet, I’m not sure. There is a parallel between the LSD trip and diving. There’s the otherworldly experience of floating, flying, being among other alien, floating and flying things, strange colors, forms, and dancing on the edge of life and death, staring into the face your strengths and weaknesses.

Walking to the edge of panic, and then consciously turning around and walking away from it, is such a powerful experience. At no point, in my dive, did I stop what I was doing, did I stop breathing, or act in a way that was dangerous to myself or those I was diving with. Victor talked a bit later about his training as a cave diver, about how he had to learn how to wrestle with that panic in order to be certified. Imagine being in a long, dark tube, your mask removed (so you can’t see), and one fin taken off, with your job being to get yourself back to the surface.

I have no interest in being a cave diver – but I have interest in that mastery over one’s psyche.

Tripping (part 1)

Skull Wall

We returned from an adventurous trip to Mexico, to just days later leaving on an airplane at an excruciatingly early hour to New York for a funeral.

What brought us to Mexico in the first place was our own need to get out of town, the time period overlapping the anniversary of the loss of our son. Mourning in dramatic ways has never quite suited me, and my preference has been more towards stating the truth, acknowledging impermanence, and moving forward. After all, time doesn’t stop. Our world is full of illusions. I hope, perhaps in vain, to be free of such things.

Mexico was an opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone – which had become, over the past year, one of careful sterility. To say that my loss a year ago left me changed would be an understatement. It was transforming, in some ways that I wish I could shake. The skulls that decorate so much of the Mayan buildings at ruins like Chichen Itza are reminders of the same skulls I see in my life, the intimate knowledge that what we see, every day, is temporary. The great temples of the Yucatan, hundreds of years old, are only recognizable as such to lowly tourists as ourselves because there has been a blatant refusal to embrace the transitory nature of this reality. These places have been painstakingly restored and preserved, the significance of parts of it left to the imaginations of present scholars.

It’s a shame to go on a trip, so far out of my comfort zone (convenient bathrooms, toilet paper, common language, potable water, police not carrying sub-machine guns, middle-class mundanity free of desperation, etc.) Luckily, I brought my scuba gear and we were booked to dive in a cenote called Dos Ojos.

(to be continued)

As I readjust to life, back from Mexico…

Here’s a photo of me that was taken while cenote diving in Mexico. A cenote is a large, limestone hole in the ground (forming a network of underwater rivers, iirc) that are mostly freshwater and were (and are) sacred to the Maya. Our guide was a technical diver (cave diver), as that this is a cavern dive. Dark and challenging, it was a near transformative experience. I’m a bit claustrophobic, and have typically not liked night dives. This dive is both enclosed at places, with places blocked off from direct natural light.