Monday, January 3, 2011

2011: "Nace con estrella"

New Year's Eve, 2008.
I had a light conversation in broken Spanish with the taxi driver in Lima, Peru.

I asked him what he was doing for New Year's eve. He said he would be having some sort of dinner and party with his family.

I asked about seeing any fireworks, or watching them on TV. I had thought about this ahead of time, trying to be culturally sensitive, thinking that folks often can gather at a friend's house or public place or a friend's business that has a TV, so I certainly wasn't implying that he should own one...and I certainly wasn't able to explain that I didn't have a TV at home capable of picking up any channels.

He became more animated and described how hard things were in Lima. I don't think he was necessarily upset at me -- I've learned that taxi drivers can become animated about many things -- but he was clearly trying to make a very important point.

It's not that easy here. You, you are lucky. He explained. Tomorrow, you can take off on a plane and leave Lima and he gestured with his hands.

Nace con estrella. Me entiende?

I was born under a lucky star.

Ironically, he was picking on me, a young person wanting to experience and share in different cultural experiences. Many of the Americans he would encounter would likely be similar idealistic young backpacking types -- what would he think of the even wealthier upper class citizens that would never venture past a cruise ship terminal (if they left the country at all) without a guilded guided tour?

But as far as he was concerned, I was a rich, privileged American. And on the world stage, he's exactly right. But everybody has a habit of looking up, and looking at how much easier it is for other people, the ones who inherited wealth or happened to be employed at the right time (internet, finance, or real estate 15 years ago), that it's easy to forget the billions -- literally -- of folks that are much worse off. Is that a comfort? Absolutely not.

I cannot come up with any life philosophy that scales to everyone, including the whimsical luck and random misfortunes across the world. I've read books, I've scoured the major religions...and I'm still mystified.

So what do we -- I -- of guilty conscious and some privilege owe to ourselves and the rest of the world?

The best I can come up with is
Make the best with what you've got.

More crudely:
Don't piss away what you've got

If you're healthy, don't piss it away by smoking or filling your body with crap.
If you have leisure time, don't piss it away watching TV. Spend it with family and friends, or doing something that enriches your mind or body or soul, or helps somebody out...or all of the above.
Extra money? Figure out the things that make you happy long term -- travelling with my wife and other experiential activities has fit the bill here for me, but buying the latest and greatest disposable crap rarely does for anyone.

What are the things you look back on and think, I wouldn't trade that for the world?
I clearly fail often at these simple ideas, but its a good framework.

So what does this have to do with running?

Running -- ultras, especially -- is clearly an indulgence, a luxury of health and leisure time. But most of those experiences, I wouldn't trade for the world. These experiences come at a cost of 10-15 hours per week, on average -- which is around half of the time an average American spends watching people they'll never meet do things inside a box.

I think the constant around the world isn't just simple envy, but rather that we all get frustrated when others are privileged, and seemingly waste it. We think about it mostly in terms of highly visible superstars that crash -- hard -- but it applies to all of us.

Yes, I am privileged, and incredibly grateful. I intend to continue to use a vital mind and body, as long as I've got it, to push forward and experience the world.
Anything less is just pissing it away!


  1. Yeah along those lines, my thoughts post-Czech trip were how incredibly comfortable my life is compared to so many. Get my kicks from travel, but it's nothing compared to the challenge most have in daily life.

  2. Good call Justin, welcome back! Can't wait to check out more of your Czech pictures and writings.

    Do you also have an urge to purge some of the excess junk in the house? I generally come back from travel and want to get rid of a bunch of stuff.

  3. Excellent post. Much better said than what I was grumbling on earlier.

  4. Thanks GZ, what you were 'grumbling on' was insightful enough to bring on ideas, which had mixed with some things I was thinking about, and unrelated things about traveling and New Years' past that I had been thinking about.

  5. Mike - not sure if you guys plan on having kids (is that indulgent?) but if you do, the urge to purge will be a daily one. I don't know where all the (plastic) crap comes from in our house - mainly as presents/hand me downs from other people - but, I guess, if 'stuff' is one of the major frustrations in my life then that means I live a pretty charmed one.

    Far as I am concerned, life is essentially meaningless (much like running) and completely random, so I try not to read too much of anything into the whys, hows and what ifs. I like the 'don't piss it away' philosophy though. If you're one of the random ones born into relative comfort, then at least make the most of it. Is that selfish? Probably.

  6. Hi Nick, yes, kids eventually and hopefully.
    Your "random number generator" theory is the closest logically consistent explanation. But I also (and you'll probably agree and have seen in your travels) think that "Do no harm" is the minimum, sustainable baseline, so we can't do and have everything that we want just because we can, if it causes harm to others (see: plastic crap) now or in the future. So even if it's meaningless, we should avoid making it worse for others; and hopefully make it better. "Leave it better than you found it."

    I'm not claiming to succeed at either of these, but I want to remind myself that we're all (middle-class and up) born into relative comfort, much as I might complain occasionally about living in this tiny apartment in Auroraghetto (temporarily!)

    Which brings us back to running, which is essentially meaningless, -and- doesn't really hurt anyone (else). Which is nice!

  7. Mike,

    Yeah sorry that I didn't post any thoughts post-trip, you get the jist of it I think though. We spent two days in Prague and then the rest of the time in incredibly small villages, which were a world away from Prague, but had far more character.

    On purging - first thing I'm purging is removing myself from about 20 of the junk email lists that I receive. When I only checked my email maybe once/day, it was apparent that I get a lot of junk. Not sure that I'll throw anything away, but there's little that I need to purchase in the coming year. My failings at all winter sports brought my lack of balance (too much running) up a bit (although I ran zero miles over there), so I hope to work on adding some of that stuff in this year yet.

    Funny that Nick brings up kids then. I was talking about this to a co-worker yesterday and telling him that I could live anywhere, don't need much, etc, and he told me that I'd better get my travel bug taken care of before I ever think about kids.