Friday, July 29, 2011

Stop Waiting on the World to Change

It's a friendly sounding little tune, but simmering under the catchy melody is a sinister message.

Though I'm mostly a fan, John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" has always irked me. It's not just the sound of the song (though I hate those bells used in the intro and interludes). It's the lyrics.

I would ask if you've heard the song, but I'll assume that you've turned on a radio in the last three years. On the surface, it's a protest against against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cry of frustration from a generation that's misunderstood and exasperated with stubborn leaders and a perceived powerlessness to effect change.

The sentiment seems right on target, especially as our legislators butt heads over raising our national debt ceiling. How can We the People be blamed for the polarized political system we've inherited? Maybe we should just hold on until the crisis passes, like an earthquake or a seizure. Maybe we should just wait, and the world will heal itself.

But listen a little closer and you'll hear the problem with the song. It subtly permits us to do nothing, assuming our efforts will be futile anyway. It's classic ostrich mentality, where passivity becomes a form of self-righteous protest.

Though the song presents it in a government-citizen context, I think waiting on the world to change has become a guiding personal philosophy for many. We see it in the erosion of responsibility in our country as more people rely on the government to meet their needs, their entitled mind telling them all the while that this is the way it should be. 

Even worse is the way it has seeped into men's lives. I need look no further than the mirror for evidence. I'm often waiting on my job, marriage, faith, Chinese language ability or any number of aspects of my life to change, rarely recognizing that if I would just do something about it, they probably would.

We live in a spoiled generation - at least I do. Pessimists will disagree, pointing out issues like global warming and the fact that last year's doomsday recession still has some people checking the unemployment rate like it's the weather.

Still, think of the progression our fathers and grandfathers faced: World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Korean War and Vietnam. They knew real crises; we often melt down at the slightest inconvenience.

This is neither American nor manly nor Christian. Men take responsibility, even when it's not their fault, knowing that ownership of the problem gives them the ability to fix it. Christian men don't lament that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. They dive into the fire to keep the basket from burning. We must reclaim that spirit.

Start today. Whatever the problem is - family, finances, career - become the solution. Stop waiting on your world to change. Change it yourself.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Puerto Rico on Four Wheels

The motorcycle zipped past, riding the dotted center line that separated my rental car from the one just a few feet into the next lane. My wife gasped. We looked at each other, eyes wide, then wondered aloud why someone would risk his life to show off for motorists he doesn't know or shave a few seconds off his commute.

I would say we couldn't believe it happened, but after a few days of driving in Puerto Rico, it wasn't much of a stretch.

I was warned that driving would be an adventure in the island territory, and we weren't disappointed. Along with the motorcycle fiasco in San Juan, we were trailed by an old clunker in Isabela that rode our bumper for miles, beeping fanatically until we finally pulled over to let him pass. 

Generally, driving in Puerto Rico isn't stressful if you see it as an exercise in cultural adaptation. Just as you reset your watch in a new time zone, you have to learn a different brand of road etiquette when entering a new place, even if the traffic laws are the same. Here are a few rules that I learned while urging my gray, four-cylinder Kia Rio up near-vertical hills in the rainforest and across freeways spanning the island from east to west:

Our Kia Rio in Pinones. 
1. Yellow lights mean speed up. Traffic lights rigged with cameras don't seem to have made their debut in Puerto Rico.

2. Drag racing is permitted (perhaps encouraged) in parking decks.

3. The crowded, brick-paved streets of Old San Juan could hold the world parallel parking championships. Extra points are awarded for moving trash cans to open up spots that obviously aren't big enough for your car.

4. Dents in the island's ubiquitous Toyota sedans are more like scars on a warrior than blemishes on a maiden. These show that the car has taken on Puerto Rican traffic and lived to tell about it.

5. Exceeding the speed limit while going backwards on a dead-end street is OK, as long as the other cars frantically move out of the way.   

6. If you are an outsider, you must rent a Kia Rio, a Jeep, or a Toyota FJ Cruiser sport utility vehicle. 

Perhaps the biggest driving rule could be borrowed from a mob boss's manual: If you want something, you just have to take it, whether a U-turn that would make your driver's ed teacher cringe or a better spot in line at the red light. A little bit of offensive driving helps earn your street cred, showing other cars that you will nose yourself into that lane, no matter how loudly their horns protest.

A tunnel of trees driving east from San Juan.
The surge of confidence this brings is amazing. I quickly learned to honk while rounding narrow, blind curves in the rainforest. I slowed to miss iguanas in the road and accelerated through yellow lights. I even began converting kilometers to miles, a skill that evaporated again as soon as I arrived back in Georgia. (In Puerto Rico, distances are measured in kilometers, though speed limits are in miles per hour.)

In some ways, I would've liked to have better public transport options, even those that are less than official, like Panama's red-devil buses or the makeshift cabs I hailed in Mongolia. But this was my first time driving abroad, and it felt freeing. Our exploration wasn't limited by train or bus schedules, and a $3 map from Walgreens was the only ticket we needed to access this scenic and photogenic 90- by 30-mile world.  As the concierge at our first hotel said, you can never get lost. On this island, you'll always know where you are. You're in Puerto Rico.