Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Long Way Forward

Sitting in an alcove of the Cove Café shuffling papers between stacks, folders and and a briefcase of sorts, she seemed to be completely oblivious to her surroundings. She sat on the floor using a coffee table as a desk for her computer. I sat down on a nautically decorated purple and gold sofa that shared her work area. It was also a coffee table after all. As I looked closer I could not make up my mind what the exact theme of the sofa was as I stared at an identical one across from mine. Surely these were the points of the compass in gold, but absent my being on a cruise ship, I’m not sure what theme I would have chosen for it. At night I suppose the compasses could remind one of stars. If traveling in Mexico the larger circles might seem more like ornate suns.

All the while she kept shuffling papers. She would type for a while and move on to the next document. I resisted the temptation to look closely at her  papers to clarify what she was doing. As closely as I examined the sofa I was completely successful in ignoring everything about her while concentrating on my eBook reader, or more accurately stated, my book. The sofa opposite me faded into a background and I began reading about the subject of perception.

Alan Watts wrote a book that was quite an influence on my life.  It was a little pretentiously entitled The Book and was designed to be the book that would give the reader a way of understanding the strange secrets of life, like a marriage manual given to newlyweds, only for less prurient reasons. I had actually intended to do exactly what the typing lady was doing, well assuming she was not a very highly paid medical transcriptionist or something equally dull. I wanted to write on this cruise but no subject occurred to me except the cruise ship, a cop out I did not want to indulge in. She looked like she was fairly intellectual, her face pale white with the look of someone who did not get out in the sunshine much. Her eyes and somehow her reddish nose indicated a bookish inner life. It was all in the perceiving, much like the design on the sofa. I merely perceived a portrait of her life from these observations of her obvious work ethic and physical appearance. After all, who would sit on the carpeted floor typing on a computer in a public café?

I found it hard to concentrate on The Book as the atmosphere of the café became a bit distracting. The weather had begun to chill on the trans Atlantic crossing and the café, where the coffee isn’t free, was warm and popular. I recalled a day I had been in Disney World when a very unseasonal cold spell forced me in my t-shirt to investigate a lot of shops one spring day. I remember learning a lot about Disney retailing watching people shop, browse, and strike up small talk. As I get older I find it harder to make the most out of adverse circumstances but in those days I went more with the flow of life. Finally, I went with stream of life and purchased a Disney sweatshirt which I had not budgeted for.

The Book was really about coping with this natural flow of life. An essential element of Watt’s way of thinking is the philosophy of Tao. Life is a flowing river, it follows the Tao, or way. We find ourselves in a canoe-like boat guiding ourselves down this all important river with very little chance to actually affect our overall fate. We can paddle hard to get to a particular place we may spot in the stream ahead but the stream carries us ever onward on a general course we cannot influence. Sometimes with minimal effort we can make course changes as if with slight movements of our paddle while at other times we are fighting the unchanging current to very little avail. Such is our choice and lot in life. The practical wisdom Taoism gives is in how to cope with the flow. This I could have learned from an experienced surfer if only I had the right perception to guide my philosophical understanding. And while this deterministic world seems a little on the depressing side, that too is mere perception, and rejoicing in the beauty surrounding our journey is an equally valid way of experiencing things.

This was precisely why I started writing today absent any other topic except my surroundings. It was this way of perception that I seemed to forget somewhere along the great path. And, oddly, I focus a lot on perception at my job. I focused on it when I took psychology. I studied it in management courses when I changed to a business major. The point is that I studied about how other people perceive reality. I, of course, believed I possessed the only accurate perception of life. It is only time, thought, and various religious moments that brought enough wisdom to rid myself of a portion of this illusion.

I usually appear absent minded to others. Frankly, I am absent minded. I don’t seem to be concentrating when in fact I am, just not on anything anyone else might think important at the time.  I can see that taken to an extreme one would appear crazy following this particular course of the stream. Who would fill the insane asylums of the world if it were not with those like me who regarded a great deal of what everyone else thought as unimportant in detail?

Who was this lady typing and shuffling papers?  Unless she was a famous writer, why would she be on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic obstinately ignoring everyone around her to accomplish her tasks? And I, too, the next day, am sitting here doing my writing in the chair whose lower part had yesterday been used as her backrest, my feet now planted where she had been sitting. So I, too, am out of place with my typing and non-cruise-like tasks; although I am at least using the chair in a more traditional way as I type, with my laptop on my actual lap.

Events have changed dramatically in the past week as 5 nights in a row the instructions have been to move the clock forward an hour for each time zone we crossed. I am now 6 hours from my usual time zone. My dinner time started out as a late dinner and now is a late lunch.. The Pope apparently has uplinked to astronauts on the space shuttle for some reason I cannot divine without sound on the café television. (I think they have wireless headphones for the sound or something which I am definitely now recommending for every restaurant trying to lead a double life as a sports bar.)  Apparently, there are demonstrations ahead of election day in Spain, a cruise destination in a few days. My perception of the world has changed as I am insulated from this news. It nags at the back of my mind that demonstrations might be a rarity before rather than after an election. But I will trust in the solitude of unknowing for another week. Hopefully my safety will once again be the result of the stream’s mighty flow.

I continued to completely resist any attempt to notice exactly what the pale typing lady was doing.  Later I related the event to one of my dining companions, an exceedingly likeable Englishman. He suggested that he might not have had the same willpower to resist taking a peek. I’m not sure why I prided myself in the achievement of focusing on my book while ignoring the Pope, seemingly important information about a future port of call, and the strange typing lady. I guess I usually never get long uninterrupted times to read so I am making the best of it. As a child I remember having days and days to read during summer vacation. But at that time, I read little philosophy.

It’s not really the absence of time to focus on any particular thing that is missing from my life but the problem comes in with the number of competing things that seem so important. Admittedly, I do seem to have plenty of time to watch television, but that is a sharing experience with my wife. I hardly want to watch anything alone. We have begun reading at night after our television time before our sleep, she being quite a bit more successful at this latest reading pattern in our lives. I still find things I have to do or television shows I want to watch. It is sad really to think of the lack of focus in my life.

I have been on many cruises on Disney ships but none on any other cruise line. I know many of the things this lady is missing but I too am choosing to not be distracted by  activities available around me. Does this mean this lady is also a frequent cruiser or maybe just a bored new one? For an instant I flash to the possibility that she might actually be a member of the crew or important entertainer, but I think it unlikely.

It  is hard to explain what I find so alluring about Disney cruises. The first thing the non-Disney cruising public ask about is the kids. While I have no reference points from other cruise lines, the kids are the best thing about Disney. Their joy infuses the voyage with the exact way of perceiving things one should have on a vacation. The children influenced by the dreams of Walt Disney lead us.

Last night I watched children alternately gathering and throwing confetti up into the air. This cycle went on for over an hour after I began watching. Disney has great confetti, although my experiences with confetti are probably out of date. This modern confetti was thin and floated slowly. Disney has other types of confetti, the most beloved being the “pixie dust” silver Mickeys. These kids were having the best time they had ever had in their lives with thin pieces of paper. Dollar bills would not have held so much interest. The kids could have been anywhere but their perception was magnificently changed by the Disney characters that must have appeared during the original flight of the confetti that resulted in a great tide of confetti that covered the carpeted floor. If the magic felt by these kids doesn’t fill any adult with wonder then certainly they don’t belong on a Disney cruise.

I’m fairly certain one of my dining companions doesn’t belong here. He keeps switching dining rooms appearing to be bored like an epicurean in search of nirvana. His domination of the conversation when he is present is an adverse influence on my particular perception of an enjoyable dinner. I have had loud and sometimes dominating dinner companions but never to a degree that crossed the barrier into offensive. He reminds me a bit of Rapunzel's mother in the Disney movie Tangled at times. “Oh you are such a bore, just kidding, my princess.”  But isn’t any unique influence from outside our experience just a little jarring? We learn to enjoy something and inevitably the current of life changes and that thing is modified or taken away. We meander through life and ultimately our job is to learn to navigate the flow, or at least Alan Watts and I think so.

I do not have an objective viewpoint when it comes to Alan Watts and Taoism. I have read the book before and it influenced my life early on. I went on to study Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Now as the water current has changed in my life so The Book seems a little different now. The wisdom is there but I ask myself a question now. Once the wisdom is achieved then what is next? If I have a goal oriented life at all then there obviously seems to be a predictable tragedy that will sometime occur. People around me always seem to vigorously ignore this obvious inevitable discomforting outcome, at least in polite company. And I am decidedly in polite company, except for my annoying but thankfully infrequent dining companion in search of the ideal dining experience and just maybe this odd lady sitting on the floor doing hours of work in the midst of sounds of laughter, stains of conversation, tinkling glasses and a background of ethereal music befitting a good cruise ship café.

I once tried to live the ideas of Taoism and Zen. Even today I see that there is an underlying current that never fails to go it’s own way. It follows many rules that are as good to know as the rocks ahead on a whitewater rafting adventure. Recently I have felt some amount of understanding about the flow of life and it’s relationship to politics, economics, and war, among other things. Yet, I was powerless to help steer the collective boat. I could only watch from a distance with an ever increasing understanding of the peril ahead. Paddling furiously to no avail,  my efforts seemed more like mental illness than anything resembling any influence on the great ship of nation. I guess my question after a week of this extraction from my normal daily life is about what the heck was I thinking? I’m not one to ignore my responsibilities in life but, goodness sakes, how little influence I have. Perception is a strange thing.

Three noteworthy things I have learned in the past couple of hours. Coffee is good for writing, writing is hard work (whether it be good or bad) and given limitless time I could probably write an arcane book of immense proportions.