We Owe These People Something


 

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We weren’t at war with Laos. Heck, we weren’t even officially at war with Vietnam, but poor Laos didn’t even have much of an army to fight back, and they were certainly no match for our constant aerial bombardment. For eight years we dropped an average of a B-52 load of bombs on that country every eight minutes. Because we weren’t officially even there, there was no strategy. When pilots asked what was the target, they were told “anything that moves.”

 

When I was in Laos, I saw huts in the countryside with fish ponds in front of them. I assumed these were enterprising people who had dug fish ponds to harvest a food source. Then I realized these ponds were all around. Then I realized they weren’t fish ponds, but bomb craters filled with rainwater.

 

The side of Laos that borders on Vietnam we dubbed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” At one point, we even considered dropping nuclear weapons on it.  North of  Vietnam’s DMZ, Laos is about thirty miles wide, and Vietnam is about twenty miles wide. The ground along the border is often mountainous, which means that the unexploded ordnance isn’t routinely uncovered by farmers planting rice. But it’s still there. Maybe we might offer to help clean it up? Of course, we have some pressing business to take care of back home. Building the wall between us and Mexico should strain the budget for a while.

 

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RUNNING FROM SMOKE


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For the past three days I have been literally racing up and down haze-choked hills in Northern Thailand, looking for some fresh air. I’m driving my new/used motorcycle, a Honda CB500, which in these parts is considered a big bike. I’m driving in the mountains, on two lane blacktop roads which at the right time of year would have offered luscious landscapes, but because this is the end of dry season, and because the air is full of gray smog from burning crops, it’s not much fun.

I left Chiang Mai when the particle levels were at the danger level, and after looking online for a possible refuge, noticed that the levels in Phayao and Phrae were in the normal, safe zone. But as we drove the three and four hour rides, I noticed that the air here looks every bit as bad as it does around Chiang Mai.

That’s because it is. Turns out that the monitoring stations in Phayao and Phrae are using old equipment that doesn’t measure the smallest, most dangerous smoke particles, the ones that work their way deep into your lungs and stay there. Emergency cardiac admissions at local hospitals soar this time of year. Having your lungs poison your blood with microscopic smoke is no picnic.

The only solution is to admit defeat and fly south to the beaches. There the smoke isn’t a problem. 

 

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Dong Hoi Vietnam


Nobody’s ever heard of it. They will, someday. Miles and miles of beach, the biggest caves in the world in a nearby park. We’re staying at a luxury hotel for $35 a night. Fresh sea breeze, cool air. It’s like Northern California. We came here to escape the smoke in Chiang Mai.

 

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Phong Nha Park near Dong Hoi, Vietnam


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It straddles the mountains between the China Sea and the Laos border. It has the biggest caves in the world, and the massive limestone hills are covered with vegetation so that it looks like the set for a King Kong movie.

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The road south to Khe Sanh was suitable only for walking until lately when they paved it. It was nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trail West and is now considered one of the best motorcycle rides in Vietnam.

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Progress is Our Most Important Product


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Nothing much stands still for very long. Constant care must be taken to slow the effects of entropy, the gradual decline that is built into all structures. Even then, the good often become overwhelmed by the bad. Corruption rears its ugly head. For example, the laptop on which I am typing this essay has developed a problem with the letter “h” which now sticks and requires extra effort. Sometimes, the cursor randomly hops around the page while I write. Four years ago this was a high-end laptop. In four more years it will be sitting in landfill.

Even rarer is when things get actually better. Progress is an elusive butterfly, and rare because there are illusions of progress which when examined closely and over time prove not to be progress at all. False progress is even worse than entropy!

In Saint Louis, Missouri, the city fathers had come up with what they thought was a progressive idea. They tore down miles of old Victorian brick homes lived in by poor people and built a complex of eleven-story apartment towers to house those displaced by Progress. The Japanese architect who also designed the World Trade Center in New York City designed this complex, which was named Pruitt-Igoe. Despite the architect’s drawings, which showed happy families relaxing on the common lawns, it rapidly became a war zone of sorts.

Gangs occupied the elevators, extorting money and sex from occupants who could not easily use the stairs to reach their homes on the upper floors. Drug dealing went on night and day. Within a decade those city fathers had to admit defeat and the entire complex was razed through the same sort of controlled demolition that brought down the World Trade Center thirty years later.

How did they get it so wrong? This debacle was a terribly expensive boondoggle, a black eye in urban renewal that proved myriad experts to be dead wrong every step of the way. At one point the United States army had secretly installed blowers on the roofs of the Pruitt-Igoe towers to disperse radioactive zinc cadmium sulphide into the air in order to test rates of possible mass poisoning by an enemy. The inhabitants of this failed social experiment must have felt like laboratory rats in more ways that one.

Rarely do we get things so wrong on such a grand scale. But when we do, we do it with great verve. The Vietnam war lasted for a more than a decade, as did our secret invasions of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, seventeen years after invading those countries. Looking back, it’s hard to remember why anyone thought these military actions were a good idea. But someone did, and the rest of us are still paying for it.

Compared to amount of our planet’s surface taken up by oceans and deserts, there really isn’t that much fertile land on the planet, but the Russians managed to remove millions of acres of some of the best of it when they contaminated Chernobyl. In ten thousand years or so it may be useful again. Meanwhile, Fukushima continues to pour radioactivity into the ocean at a steadily increasing rate.

When you’re headed down the wrong trail, there comes a time when you have to stop and admit to yourself that this is the wrong path. You’re not getting any closer to where you wanted to go. With each step, you’re making it harder to fix this problem. Walking faster won’t help. Wishful thinking won’t make it magically become the right trail. You’ll have to retrace your steps and start over again. This is a painful choice, but the only choice that has any chance of success.

Nobody said finding Progress would be easy, but it does help to remember that there are good choices as well as bad, that sometimes Entropy can be forestalled, that things can get better and stay that way for a considerable amount of time. Becoming teachable and staying flexible are more important than saving face and defending yourself against criticism.

 

when it’s time to find a new line of work:

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Playing Hippie Fifty Years Later


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Yesterday I attended the Shambala Festival in Chiang Dao, Thailand. It’s a small city in northern Thailand that is dominated by a tall mountain that abruptly rises from the rice fields. It’s a lovely, dramatic setting for what is essentially a “Rainbow Gathering.” The participants were mostly young people, a mix of Thais, Europeans, Americans and Japanese. Anyone who wanted to walk around barefoot and smell of patchouli oil.

 

At age 67, I am the age of most of their grandparents. A chorus I’m a member of was performing at a small venue near the kitchen. We were by far the most professional and rehearsed of the small stage acts, but yet the audience sprawled in front of us was half-asleep. They were here for the long haul, days of hanging out. It was a bit unnerving to perform for such a laid-back crowd. On the other hand, I’m sure things liven up at night at the evening stage, now baking in the sun during the day but which would come alive after dark and would host amplified bands which would inspire hippie dancing. Shake your dreadlocks, baby.

 

There were many beautiful young people there but there is a new sort of odd, non-sexual thing happening now. No nudity. No coupling in public. Lots of hugging and flamboyant physical displays of yoga inspired gymnastics, but the obvious sexual attention-seeking is a thing of the past. They’ve moved beyond that.  As someone who was their age at about the time of Woodstock, I am pleased that there is still a demand and audience for this sort of thing, and glad to see that I am no longer the least bit tempted to partake of it. It never even occurred to me to sleep on the ground. I went into town and rented a hotel room, something you can do in Thailand with pocket change.

 

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Be Yourself Because There’s Really No Alternative


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If you’re not at least attempting to please yourself, whom do you intend to please? You probably won’t be very good at pretending to accomplish another person’s will for you. You will do better dropping the pretense and simply intending to please yourself.

If you’re trying to be what other people want you to be, then who will be you?

People who are truly themselves ring true and are often a delight to watch and be around. Jimmy Cagney was an actor as well as a real character. Even when pretending to be somebody else he was enjoying himself. We only know of his acting in movies where he pretended to inhabit character parts written and directed by others, but he brought so much of himself along for the ride that he retained ownership of the performance. In doing so, he inspired and pleased others. From all accounts, he lived…

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