Monday, September 18, 2017

“I Married the Waiter” Vacation Romances

Podcast:  I Married the Waiter

I just finished watching one of the most heart-rending documentaries I’ve ever seen, although I am sure it was not the producer’s intention. It was an hour-long exploration of “vacation romances” entitled “I Married the Waiter,” which is, in my opinion, an absolutely inspired title.  What a cautionary tale, I thought, and I expected the hour to be filled with lonely or over-stressed English women swept off their feet by men who were the antitheses of the familiar, rather pedestrian and predictable English men of their own experiences.

I was not disappointed.  Only one literally married the waiter, and she was one of the few who had a happy ending. Her Turkish husband teamed up with her in a town in northern England and they set up a mini-bazaar. They had true team spirit, and it seemed like a true partnership with mutual regard. The other relationships seemed forged by lightning bolts into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory that ignited long dead (and pretty much forgotten) flesh and fleshly libido, while shattering the glass ceilings of ambitious men who wanted to get somewhere in their lives.



The stories were painful, and I, for one, was filled with a “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling of relief.  It was the relief you feel when you what you thought was a shark swimming beneath you in the ocean turns out to be your own shadow.  In my own life, other cultures and other languages have held me in their thrall. I easily plunge into a state of fascination and heightened reality that feels like an awakening, and one in which I’m breathing pure oxygen while everything seems fresh, pure, transcendent.

My first experience with this experience happened when I was 16 and visited the Yucatan Peninsula with the Spanish club.  I was not actually studying Spanish, except on my own.  I was taking Latin and working ahead, but I liked the language, and most especially liked the book I had been reading, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan and Chiapas, by the 19th century U.S. government official and surveyor, John Lloyd Stephens, who was also a talented artist whose pen and ink drawings showed how tree-covered “hills” were in reality Mayan pyramids, long abandoned and forgotten by the indigenous peoples. I loved everything about that voyage of discovery.

I had also read every biography I could get my hands on that had to do with people traveling to Mexico. This particular fascination was fueled by Wednesday night Girls Ambassadors church services at Bethel Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. We studied cultures and countries, met with missionaries and missionaries’ children.  

One particular daughter of missionaries had attended West Mid-High School with me during our 10th grade year.  I, who fetishized thinness, was astonished by her ability become absolutely skeletal. Looking back, I realize she was dangerously anorexic. I felt there was something terrible about her life in Guatemala, where her parents were missionaries.  Perhaps she was simply angry about being there.  That was what I thought at the time.  Later, I wonder if she had been subjected to some sort of violence. She was taciturn and dour, not at all friendly. I was shy and not likely to befriend her. So, I never quite knew what the backstory was.

I remember speaking with the tour guide who led us up the pyramid of Uxmal. He gave me his card and I started corresponding with him. I remember receiving letters from him. My heart would pound and I would attempt to read them. It was extremely motivating, and I started to buy the college textbooks for Spanish and teaching myself.  I never met him again, and I do not really remember his name. But, the letters ignited something within me that flowed when I played Scarlatti and imagined myself to travel in time back to the time of the Spanish court, where Domenico Scarlatti composed sonatas for his prodigy, the Princesa Maria Barbara.



The next year, my Spanish had dramatically improved, and my parents generously paid for a second Spring Break trip to Mexico with the Spanish Club.  I do not think they realized how almost criminally negligent our chaperones were. In fact, I do not even remember having chaperones.  While my classmates were binge-drinking and hanging together in packs, I was scurrying off on my own, engaging in conversations wherever I could. I gave my guardian angel a good case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and came back home happy and without sunstroke, although I did suffer from the Montezuma’s revenge that no one ever hears about any more.

I did not marry anyone, nor did I have any physical relationships. But, I did write to a young chemical engineer I met.  I fantasized about what might happen in the future, and I continued to study Spanish and found myself increasingly drawn to the literature and the culture. I often wonder why I never did live or study in Latin America. But, my life definitely intruded, with marriage, divorce, education, jobs – and a rather turtle-like attitude.

The women in the documentary were definitely not turtles. When they finally poked their heads outside of cold, cloudy England and looked into the sun-kissed beaches and ancient souks of Morocco, Turkey, or the clear waters of the Aegean, they threw their shells into the breach and married, sometimes within a matter of weeks. They were brave, these women, all of whom were at a kind of breaking point when they went on their vacations. A few of the romances actually turned out well.  Most did not.

One woman, who was 71 when she married a 22-year-old young man from a small desert town in Morocco pretty much stated that she did it because she could not believe she was able to have a physical relationship that gave her so much magic. Well. Magic is not reality.  It did not work (not surprisingly). But, that’s what everyone would say. The magic is that it happened at all. I wonder if it was really worth it, though. She said, by her own account, that she has cried “buckets” of tears.  This makes me aware that there’s probably nothing more painful than a March – December romance when the woman is so much older. I was surprised that the rural family was so accepting of the relationship, but, well, there had to be some hopes for material improvement in their own lives. So – we all rise together, right? And, well, we must not forget that the traditional Muslim community is a collectivist society, and she probably did not realize that there would be other wives. She would simply be the first, who would potentially provide for the others.

I remember talking to an Uzbek engineer in Tashkent who was part of an infrastructure project funded partially by USAID.  He had two wives, and it was perfectly legal and acceptable in his world.  He said it was complicated because they maintained separate households, and it was expensive. I suppose he was not lucky enough to catch one with a big dowry.  

I often wonder what kind of personality Barack Obama’s mother had as a young woman. I always think of her as a young women who dodged a bullet.  Obama’s mother could have been like the young American woman, Lori Berenson, who fell in love with a radical in the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, and was convicted of trying to overthrow the Peruvian government. She served 15 years. I remember watching documentaries when she was in prison. Her parents were tireless in trying to free her, and finally their efforts paid off.  I imagine there are any number of young, idealistic, love-stricken Americans who were not so lucky.



It is easy to seduce both men and women into revolutionary causes. It’s not just for young men, such as Simon Bolivar, who absorbed the concepts of the French philosophes (Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu), and then went back to Venezuela as a firebrand and liberator. It also intrigued the Beats, with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel, Travesuras de la nina mala, weaves in and out of the narrative of a young woman who found upward mobility through her revolutionary ideas. Jane Fonda seemed that way as well, and then one realizes she was not the tough woman she seemed to be, but instead brainwashed in a kind of psychological Stockholm syndrome. But, at the core, is passion. I think that’s the ultimate appeal. It’s Byronesque and it sells well.

But, back to the documentary. It’s hard to generalize, but many of the younger women were at a turning point in their lives. They had graduated from college. They had gone through a painful breakup. They had very stressful jobs. They wanted a life with more connections and flow of human warmth, and they saw the Greek, Turkish, and North African lives as warmer and more connected. The older women were made to feel beautiful and desirable, and of course they fell, and they fell hard.

What that says about women’s fundamental basis of self-worth is pretty tragic, if you ask me, but there it is.


What Makes Us Keep Listening? Discovering Jaime Bayly

click here to listen to the podcast (mp3)

I was in a meeting the other day with the goal of coming up with economic development projects for Pawnee. I’m all in. After all, I have some pretty significant skin in the game (a house). But, even if I did not, an economic development meeting would be catnip for me. I love, love, LOVE coming up with economic development schemes. Pawnee is small (pop 2,200), which means that it does not take much positive economic activity to move the needle.  I love it.

At any rate, there were six of us in the meeting:  myself, the Pawnee mayor, the Pawnee Nation College president, a cereals and grains expert from OSU (Oklahoma State), a grant writer from OSU, and a restaurant / hospitality expert. The cereals expert had a Ph.D., I’m thinking in agronomy, or something like that. She was from Mexico, and I asked her if she spoke Spanish. When we were alone, I proceeded to inflict my Spanish on her – it was great! Her first response was to ask me if I happened to be from Peru. Imagine my delight! I listen to recordings of myself and hear nothing but a hideous gringo accent. So, it was delightful to think I might sound Peruvian. I know in my heart of hearts that I don’t really sound Peruvian, but if my accent naturally gravitates that way, I’m willing to try. Plus, I really like Mario Vargas Llosa and I listen to his lectures quite often. So, I decided to listen to all the Peruvians I could find on YouTube.

The first Peruvian I found (besides Vargas-Llosa) was Jaime Bayly (pronounced Bailey). He’s written a number of books, the first one being a coming-of-age roman-a-clef that garnered great notoriety. The novel, entitled, “Don’t Tell Anyone” was made into a movie. I tried to watch it, but was put off by seeing adolescent boys in various homoerotic overtures. It made me think of my son as a young teenager, and I felt a bit sick, and a powerful maternal desire to put a stop to Mother Nature.


Jaime Bayly has a late night talk show that’s available on YouTube. I listened to it and really liked it. He’s in Miami now (unsurprising) and so his Friday program had to do with the potential impact of Hurricane Irma on Florida in general, and Miami in particular.  He was fun to listen to, and I found myself listening closely to his accent and realizing that I tend to drawl when I speak Spanish, and that’s precisely how he speaks. How delightful!

I proceeded to try to listen to every one of his shows I could find. I quickly learned that Jaime Bayly is an American citizen who voted for Mitt Romney, an avowed conservative, and an extreme opponent of anything Chavez or Maduro from Venezuela. In fact, he loves to bring on guests from Venezuela and then grill them about their political beliefs, knowing full well that they can’t exactly denounce the existing political system and expect to have any kind of work when they return home.

Jaime Bayly is every talk show guest’s worst nightmare. I don’t know why they agree to be on his show. He is like the red laser sites in a sniper’s rifle (coincidentally, he was part of an earlier talkshow called “Francotirador” which is “sniper” in Spanish).

Watching his show is awkward and uncomfortable to me, albeit Spanish is not my first language, and nor do I have a dog in the hunt. He’s extremely flattering, even unctuous, but that does not stop him from asking questions designed to elicit the maximum amount of discomfort. It’s raw and potentially humiliating. For example, he grilled a Venezuelan playwright about Venezuela’s voter fraud and corruption that put a president in power who was nothing more than a cheating dictator. The author did all he could to say that politics was not his m├ętier, but to no avail. Bayly was having nothing of that! He attacked the soft underbelly, and the author was utterly flustered. I did not like it. The author tried to explain that art is more universal than politics and with any luck at all, it will appeal to all people and be a unifying force.


Art is not propaganda. The guest did not say that, but he could have, except he was too flustered by Jaime Bayly’s savaging of the entire contemporary Venezuelan political control of art. He did get in a few comments about how even under dictatorship, it’s possible to create subversive art. Sigh. I just realized that I do not agree with my earlier suggestion that art is not propaganda. Actually, it is, and probably always is, whether overt or not.

I had the chance to visit Venezuela in 1999, before Chavez. It was a scary place, with high crime, and yet it was also a lot like the U.S.  There was a very sophisticated highway system, and baseball was the national sport. There were elegant malls and the universities were quite nice. I visited Simon Bolivar University. I also visited the government agency for petroleum, PDVSA, and was impressed by how modern they were.

Needless to say, when Chavez took over, anything having to do with oil and gas took a plunge into the abyss. He fired all the experts and replaced them with his buddies. I know I sound rather brainwashed in saying this, but it is the truth. It has been evidenced by the fact that Venezuela has not updated or upgraded their technology since Chavez’s takeover. Even when oil was $135 per barrel, Venezuela did nothing to reinvest in their fields. Instead, they used their oil proceeds for social and political purposes. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (although Jaime Bayly would attack it!), but I am saying that the failure to put money in maintenance or new technologies will lead to problems.

I have not listened to very many of Bayly’s shows with Venezuelan guests. But, I have listened to enough to know that Jaime Bayly believes that Maduro was elected only because there was the most egregious level of voter fraud. He also thinks that Venezuela is the furthest thing possible from a democracy, and that the policies of the current administration have resulted in the destruction of an entire culture. He considers Maduro & Co. to be murderers.

I have to say that I agree with him on that point. But, I think he’s a bit mean-spirited beneath his unctuous flattery. Case in point: he invited an actress to appear on his program, and he instantly focused on her 5 marriages and her possible infidelities – by asking her how many “furtive affairs” she had engaged in.  I thought it was demeaning and took away from her work as a serious artist. But, since she had gained her reputation for doing nude scenes in the 1970s, and along the way earned the opprobrium of her family, I guess it was what the audience wanted to hear. But, yuk. Who cares!!!!! I think it is cruel.

At any rate, we can assume that since she gained fame and fortune from nude scenes when she was 19 years old in the 1970s that she had “perform” for her big breakthroughs. Jaime Bayly, whose claim to fame rests on his scandalous gay / bisexual behavior (and the fact that his family was very wealthy), can “own” his own transgressive narratives. In fact, in one interview he said that when some even suggested that he was simply pretending to be gay in order to sell books. Of course, sex sells, and it sells for the ambitious young actress. But, there is always a double standard, and she's not able to "own" her transgressive nature without receiving the vitriol of audiences. Madonna tried. Miley Cyrus tried. Countless others have tried.  They sell, but they still do not have the ability to "own" the self-exploitation. The ambitious young actress cannot. She does not have power, nor does she possess male privilege.

So, it was uncomfortable for me to listen to him ask the actress such questions. At the same time, however, I recognize that his success is all about scandalizing narratives and transgression. I would find that creepy and boring as well, except there is enough of the “real” Jaime Bayly that emerges to see that he’s a kindhearted person who cares about the welfare of all people, and especially the vulnerable.

But, Jaime was quite relentless in this case. I’m not sure if she secretly enjoyed the transgressive elements. She kept trying to steer the conversation back to her children and the fact she is a mother. That only served to make the questions more disconcerting and to make me really curious about her acting in the 70s.

At the center of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels is some sort of sexual obsession. I’m most familiar with La Tia Julia y el Escribidor, and Travesuras de la Nina Mala. They definitely have a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream awkwardness – the person who is helplessly in love, and who makes a spectacle of himself because of it. The family is embarrassed. The fascinating and inappropriate woman (love object) is calculatingly Machiavellian. And, through it all, there is a slow burn of desire, only rarely assuaged.

Vargas Llosa has discussed the fact that he puts sexual desire at the center and underneath his novels. He is adamant that it is what life is, and that life is sex, and that it is the engine of art. I don’t like to think so. It seems facile and reductive to me. But, I know in my own creative writing I tried to introduce every possible emotion – especially desire – as a way to express the meaning of life. So, even though my Puritanical side or my I, Robot side would prefer to be either really, really good at repression or simply mechanically logical, it’s not how I like to engage with art. But, as opposed to Bayly and Vargas Llosa, whose novels are very autobiographical, heaven forfend that someone think that everything I’ve written is a chronicle of my life! Scary. And yet, I do blend together feelings, desire, memories, and sensation for something I hope translates as life-engendering.


At least, that’s my feeling about Vargas-Llosa.  I’m not sure about Bayly’s fiction. I’ll have to read a few of his novels.

But, I do like Jaime Bayly’s interviews, even when they make me cringe.
Or, perhaps it is because they make me cringe.

Twisted Cause and Effect: Blame the Victim

(Click here for the Podcast)  Why Did My Gaboon Viper Bite Me? I Thought We Understood Each Other!

Sometimes you really can blame the victim and do it with full confidence that yours is the moral high ground. For example, there are the thrill-seekers who become tornado chasers and then get stuck on a highway that does not happen to go where you need it to go to get out of the way of the approaching vortex, is one example. Also, we can point to the people who refused to evacuate their beach houses before the arrival of a Category-5 hurricane with 10-foot surge and monster waves.

Hurricane Irma in Cuba. From ABCLocal.
Even then, it’s really hard to condemn them, especially since we eagerly devour their close-up videos of nature’s beasts. In a certain way, we’re complicit. Besides, in some cases, they seem heroic, especially if they’ve prepared and are well aware of the danger. We may even be financing their risk-taking. Think of all the expeditions to the South Pole that were funded by donations, even as the donors knew full well that there was a fairly high likelihood that the intrepid crew would not return from their 2 or 3-year quest – for a penguin’s egg, photographs of ice formations, rare phenomena. With today’s technology, there’s not the same need to explore on the ground, given the nano-satellites that have remarkable resolution. We can see it all from space. But, yet, we want the experience. If we learn something, all the better, but what is most attractive is that it’s that moment of raw awareness that this is as extreme as it gets – and you’re a part of it.

So, I can understand storm-chasers and explorers of the Antarctic.

I don’t understand the tourists who run with the bulls in Pamplona. But, perhaps that’s a part of a kind of bullfighter mass psychosis. Go to a bullfight. Experience the corrida.  Then, be a DIY bullfighter and run with the bulls in Pamplona. There’s tradition and symbolism in this, so, again, I find myself giving the victims a pass.

Where it becomes more complicated is where someone is engaged in risky behavior that is self-destructive and seems, on the surface and from the outside, to be really, really delusional.

I’m thinking of people who have dangerous pets. For example, there are the people (mainly fairly young men) who have venomous snakes as pets. Many are ones I had never heard of until I binge-watched episodes of “Fatal Attractions” on Animal Planet. There are pygmy rattlers, West African Gaboon vipers, black mambas, and many more, that are not only deadly, but most hospitals do not have anti-venom. Then there are people who are mauled and killed by their pet alligators, Burmese pythons, lions, tigers, and chimpanzees. What are they thinking? Clearly there is a fantasy scenario and a deep need that is being satisfied. There could also be an identity issue, which is to say that the “pet” serves as an extension of themselves, and perhaps possesses the attributes they’d like people to think that they have. Wild? Deadly? Powerful? Invulnerable? A child of the untamed wilderness? Free? Well, some of those attributes seem somewhat attractive to me, but I don’t think I need to share my living room with a gabon pit viper or an alligator to feel I’m a child of nature. Plus, I think the reptiles smell bad.

from Wildlife.org  - Burmese python hatchling in Key Largo
When we blame the victim, we employ causality as a logic structure.

It’s really simple:
    You kept a pygmy rattlesnake in your house. It bit you. Your own decision hurt you. And, let’s also mention that there was a pretty high likelihood that the snake would bite you, especially since you liked to play with it, because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it.

Safety regulations and codes are built on causal logic, but they’re also fraught with open gaps that make it difficult to actually establish a culture of safety. It’s not just the “blame the victim” mindset, but it’s also because people are not thinking of the delusions and cognitive bias that underlie the risky decisions that are made.

Let’s take a look at the example of the pygmy rattlesnake again:
    You kept a pygmy rattlesnake in your house. It bit you. Your own decision hurt you. And, let’s also mention that there was a pretty high likelihood that the snake would bite you, especially since you liked to play with it, because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it.

Let’s review the last part: “because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it”.  It is precisely that “because” phrase where we get in trouble. It’s the weak link in the actual adherence to safety protocols. They’re why a “culture of safety” is often hard to actually enforce.

It’s why so many people do not follow good advice. They think that they have a special relationship with or unique understanding of the hurricane, the tornado-spawning storm system, the alligator, the Burmese python, the bad boyfriend, and that their unique knowledge or understanding will protect them. If, for some reason, it does not go quite as planned, they think the emotional payoffs (and sometime financial spoils) will compensate.

And, sometimes they’re right. But not often.

And, in the meantime, the simplistic cause-and-effect argument we utilize to blame the victim is satisfies us because it’s elegant in its simplicity and symmetry.

But, if we’re serious about writing a series of safety guides or developing safety training, we’ll need to be more realistic, and actually take the time to address the aspirational hopes and dreams, or the deep-seated emotional narratives that lurk under the surface and influence behavior.