Go Lean


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Nobody Brings All Their Crap Here

A great opportunity inherent in retiring on the other side of the world is that you’re strongly persuaded to get rid of most of the crap you’ve been dutifully hauling around for the last thirty years. That dining room table with eight chairs, the sideboard, the wardrobe, the boxes of pictures and old tax returns, the clothes that you were going to wear again one day when you lost weight…all of it goes before you move many times zones away.

The airlines help with this by charging exorbitant rates for extra luggage. Nevertheless, I met a guy who had brought kayaks, canoes, a grand piano, oil paintings in a shipping container and then paid for it to be hauled up the entire length of Thailand to the mountains in the North. Some people take their shit seriously.

I arrived here three years ago with two suitcases. Since then, I have accumulated a minimal amount of “stuff,” the things that one puts in no particular order in boxes and then hides under the bed. I change residences every year, so I am not tempted to engage in recreational shopping. It was a lousy pastime anyway. Back in Iowa, I used to frequent auctions and delude myself into thinking I was running an antiques business selling the smallest items on eBay. Truth be told, I was simply a shopping addict justifying his addiction.

I was bored and I didn’t enjoy my job. The perfect recipe for cultivating an addiction, and I became very good at fooling myself into thinking this was “entrepreneurship!” Yes, I was the Donald Trump of funky boxes full of other people’s crap, stored in the garage until I had time to go through them all, photograph the best of the haul, and then haul the boxes back to the auction! Did I have a truck? No. Were my items neatly shelved and organized? Of course not!

Out of sight, out of mind. Then, when the garage door refused to close, I knew I had to change my ways.

Now, when I go to a big box store, or a Goodwill, and see the hollow eyes of middle-aged people wandering the aisles with full shopping carts, I feel a mixture of revulsion and sympathy. There but for the grace of God go I.

Living abroad as I do, I get comments from people who say “I wish I could do what you’re doing, but I have too much stuff that I can’t get rid of.” The next most frequent comment is “I’m on medications that I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get over there.” They’ve also bought into the phony medical insurance “benefit,” where you think your medical insurance is providing a level of cost reduction or security. Here in Thailand, medical costs are a fraction of what they are in the States, often less than the deductibles most insured people pay for services and drugs.

 

 

 

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It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.

At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.

 

 

GEEZER TRAVEL


HOW TO ROAM THE PLANET LIKE A TEENAGER WHEN YOU’RE A GEEZER ABROAD

I started wandering whenever possible right after I found out there was no law prohibiting it. I got my first passport when I was eighteen, and visited my first foreign country, Russia. The year was 1968. I celebrated by birthday in Leningrad, and our tour group went to the theater to watch a production of Swan Lake. The sun didn’t set that night, it just hid itself behind some buildings at eleven and rose again two hours later.

I was hooked on travel. Money spent on travel beat money spent buying things. Cars, houses, boats…you can keep ’em. They require maintenance, steadily depreciate, and are forms of bondage disguised as assets. People even borrow money to buy them! Go figure.

I started going to Mexico first. You could drive there. From Missouri it took twenty-four hours, but that didn’t seem like too much for my roommates and I from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song, we drove to Juarez and stayed at the Hotel Diamante for two dollars a night, split three ways. A beer cost eight cents. Mystery meat tacos grilled on the street cost the same. I was further hooked.

I made twenty more trips to Mexico until I found you could fly pretty cheaply to other places if you planned ahead. So I went to Ireland, England and France, back when the cost of doing so wasn’t prohibitive. A hotel room in the left bank of Paris was a cheap as a Motel Six in Columbia, Missouri, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

I never gave much thought to making money for most of my life because practical matters left me cold. I graduated from a prestigious graduate school with a degree in Playwriting. There seemed no obvious path to monetizing this diploma, so I moved to San Francisco with five friends and we acted in a comedy troupe. Again, the dollars just flew by but not into our pockets.

Life happened. When I had three kids with another on the way I moved back to the Midwest to see if I could score a teaching job. A few temporary appointments came my way, but nothing that spelled tenure. My kids grew older and so did I.

When I was about sixty I saw the handwriting on the wall, and it said “take action or be doomed to a life as a charity case.” So I widened by travel scope. I went to Argentina about fifteen times, Nicaragua twelve, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. All excellent places, but then I discovered Thailand, where I now live.

I’ve been lucky, and I know it. Some people have been luckier and some not so much. I have a cousin who is a billionaire. He recently endowed a building at his alma mater’s business college. When he spoke to the students at the grand opening, he advised them to not bother to learn a foreign language, as it was his experience that the international language of business is English.

His sister told me this. It gave me pause. I imagine he was speaking the absolute truth from his experience. When he travels on business, someone meets him at the airport holding a sign with his name on it. He is taken to the convention center/hotel where the staff all speaks English. No matter where he goes, in his world everybody who’s anybody speaks English.

My experience has been the exact opposite of my cousin’s. Nobody I meet in my travels speaks English, because I only go to places off the beaten path in emerging economies that haven’t quite emerged yet.

My cousin is my age, and I hope to compare experiences with him before we both make that last journey to the great beyond.

One benefit I have enjoyed was learning Russian, Spanish and Thai. I suppose if that had been my main goal I could have achieved it far more directly and economically than enduring bus rides where my fellow passengers held life poultry, the bus room being reserved for luggage and hog-tied pigs.
WHY THAILAND?

It’s cheap, it’s interesting, and they have Thai massage. The people are sweet. I like the food better than the rice and beans with a smattering of chicken or pork they eat in most of Latin America.

Heck, you gotta settle down someplace. Not choosing is also a choice, and an expensive one. So I chose Chiang Mai, Thailand, and so far I have no regrets. When I get really old I might choose a mountain village somewhere, but hopefully in a place where I don’t have to learn yet another language.

PUTTING TOO MUCH WEIGHT ON THE NEWS


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NEWS AS A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

For most of us, reading the day’s news is one of the first things we do after awakening. We grab a cup of coffee and go online. Many of us also glean what’s happening from social media. In this way we attempt to construct a narrative that allows us to feel responsible and informed. We’re trying to act like adults.

We’re also trying to protect ourselves from being blind-sided by some new tragedy. Social pressure leads us to want to be among the group of those who have been informed about the latest developments. Otherwise we would seem like those poor souls who are out of the loop. The process begins in Junior High. You don’t want to be caught dead not knowing about the latest trends in fashion and music.

The “legitimate” news sites all cover the same ten or fifteen stories of that day. They are considered legitimate because somebody gets paid to research and write the articles. They attempt to provide “balance,” whatever that is. On the other hand, Social Media is a hall of mirrors, a closed system which seems open to its users but is really the best example of confirmation bias in action anyone has ever devised. Instead of being a forum for discourse, it’s a pep rally. Hooray for our side. Your “friends” read your posts and you read theirs. You share and like memes which are created by others. In this way you act like boys trading baseball cards at the playground. It’s a form of self-expression based on identifying with something bigger than you.

In Playwriting, they suggest that if a fact is presented in the first act, it must matter by the final act. We have all seen plenty of movies and TV shows, and we’re hip to foreshadowing. We know how to infer causality. We can even imagine reverse engineering plots in order to make a neat story with a tidy ending. What we can’t comfortably deal with is unscripted reality. So we imagine meaning where there is none.

We become irritated by news that doesn’t suggest a plot or a probable outcome. If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad, or get an emotional release from the climax, what’s the point in consuming this entertainment called “news?”

There are computer programs that help struggling authors write by suggesting the elements of creative writing. Plot twists, character traits, motivations, climaxes, resolutions. They are like those programs that help you do your taxes by asking your questions about your financial affairs.

We use these programs and forums in order to make sense of today’s world and because we’re lazy. Thinking and writing are hard.

At least lately, there is a palpable sense among most of my social media “friends” that the world is on the brink of collapse. Hurricanes, Global Warming, nuclear threats, an insane President, earthquakes, Planet X, solar storms, predictions about an imminent stock market collapse. People share a generalized fear that the world is out of kilter and wobbling uncontrollably.

I, however, think that this is normal for the conditions we’ve created. 24/7 news access and the ability to comment on it via social media have made Nervous Nellies of us all. When I was young, my family watched Huntley and Brinkley in the evening, after supper. The dishes washed and put away, the children in their pajamas, we would cluster in front of the TV and watch sober, middle-aged white men tell us what was happening, often in somber tones. Walter Cronkite was grandpa, providing assurance that all was under control, and that tomorrow would be no crazier than today had been. But now, those avuncular guys are gone. Now, we’re on our own.

Oh sure we have some assistance in selecting which memes we will like or share. We have Fox and Friends or NPR depending on our political bent, but the main stories of the day have been agreed upon by all the legitimate news sources, and it’s only up to us to judge their importance and their concordance with our beliefs. Is today the day I believe I should quite my job, cash out and run away? My general sense is that things are out of control and getting worse every day. Can I hang on much longer?

I think the reason we have the arrogance to construct these narratives is because we feel we have been abandoned by the experts we used to trust to do this work for us. Nobody trusts politicians anymore. Anybody who wants to can start a YouTube channel for free and use his smart phone as a camera. Nobody wants to be Chicken Little, believing every rumor and running about clucking in terror. So we reluctantly construct a narrative that seems to embrace or at least explain the main news developments of today.

But we are often dogged by doubt. I forget, is ISIS real or a construct of Israel and the Saudis? Which events were false flags? Is President Trump a successful businessman or a mentally-ill loser? Should I be buying Bitcoins? Is it time to upgrade to a better phone?

No matter which decisions we make and which we postpone making, we will never feel safe or assured that we have not completely gotten it all wrong, because we’re relying on a self-constructed narrative with occasional input from a peanut gallery of social media “friends” who also have no clue. Whether you’re a teenage girl agonizing over which shampoo to buy or a retired geezer wondering whether to start ticking off the items of his bucket list, we’ll still be fraught with anxiety because that’s what this whole news/social media thing was designed to do in the first place.

Phong Nha Park


I’m referring to Phong Nha Park which is 30 miles from Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I rode around the park for four hours, and it didn’t cost me even one cent in fees, because I never stopped to pay for an “attraction.” The road and the scenery was attractive enough. These place that charge admission are mostly caves, and at the age of 67, I’m not interested in touring any more caves. Nor did I want to go to a kiddie water park. There are few places to eat in this enormous park, and when I saw a restaurant at the water park I pulled over, where I was promptly charged fifty cents U.S. by a sad man who seemed apologetic about his job. Fortunately, I had recently found some Vietnamese bills by the side of the road. These added up to fifty cents. They don’t use coins in Vietnam, and their money was at first confusing to this foreigner. 100,000 dong roughly equals five dollars.

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But the restaurant I inquired at evidenced the most outlandish price gouging I’d ever seen. Chicken and rice, 300,000 dong. That’s five times what it would cost in a normal restaurant. There were few patrons even at lunch hour, and I can see why. All I had to do was drive a few more minutes and I found a family restaurant by the side of the road where the proprietress called out to me. Mom, Dad, and all the kids in were in attendance. I had a delicious meal for two dollars, and that included a coke. The kids found me quite interesting and stared at me while I ate. Then they forgot about me. I took their picture.

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The park was even more impressive than all the hype I’d read about it online. The caves are supposed to be amazing too, but I’m more into the Tarzan/Lost World thing. If Vietnam wants to get into the movie business, they should promote this place for Jurassic Park V. But if they want to curry favor with foreigners, they should watch the price gouging thing. There were no other Americans to be seen. French, Germans, British, but no Americans. Maybe the Europeans expect to spend more on vacation.

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The next day I decided to walk around until I had to take a cab to the airport. It was pretty warm and sunny, and got more so as the morning morphed into afternoon. I got over-tired, because when I’m home in Chiang Mai I’m either on a motor scooter or a bicycle. I forgot how hard walking is.

After an hour I realized I was lost yet again, but because I’m sometimes good at reckoning my position, I took an audacious shortcut through a neighborhood that looked a lot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. When it was foggy in the Haight and Sunset, it could be sunny in the Mission and Potrero Hill. And this was not in the least bit yuppified, which is how I remember a lot of San Francisco from forty years ago.

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DSC06272At the airport they had trouble finding my visa for Thailand. They assigned a polite man to come talk to me and ask me questions. How long had I been living in Thailand? Did I work there? I thought it odd that the Vietnamese would show such concern for Thai Immigration. Then he asked me to find my current visa. After half a minute I did and showed it to him. “Ah, so there it is.” Looking back on it, I think he just wanted to practice his English.

I was impressed by the courtesy and dignity of every man I met there. Dong Hoi is pleasant enough, not crowded or crazy, and with a fresh breeze from the ocean. That counts for a lot. A lot of Southeast Asia suffers from air pollution.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam also reminds me a lot of Encarnacion, Paraguay, where I lived for six months. Unlike Dong Hoi, it hadn’t been bombed to rubble by the Americans forty-five years ago. It had simple languished under a stupefying dictatorship. But both places will probably become touristic hotbeds in the future.

Day One in Dong Hoi


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Ate breakfast, talked to the hotel owners who spoke very good English, then took them up on their offer of a bicycle and rode to the beach. Beaches are pretty much the same the world over, so that was a bore. It’s a cloudy day. Walked into the water up to my knees and felt the temperature. It was pretty much as I expected. Think a reservoir in mid-summer. Got lost, went the wrong way for about an hour, went down a tiny lane and met some ten year old boys. They all loudly said hello. One asked my name. I told him. Then they followed me yelling “Why the fuck?” as loudly as they could. Must be a line from a popular Hollywood action film. I looked back and they were smiling. One said “good-bye.”

Went to a coffee shop to rest and ask directions. There are a way too many coffee shops, just like it Thailand. Maybe one for every ten residents. This shop had roosters tethered to perches, and they crowed loudly. Now that I was in the city, I changed out of my swimming suit and back into my Thai fisherman pants. Even though this is a beach city, I don’t think anyone wants to see a 67 year old man riding a bicycle in his underwear.

Came across what must the old part of the city. Since the entire city was obliterated back in 1971 by U.S. bombs, I was surprised to find a building that seemed older than that. As I took a picture of it, some men were walking by and they expressed disapproval vocally. I speak no Vietnamese, but they showed me through gestures that this house had been destroyed by bombs from the air. I pretended I didn’t understand them, smiled, waved and rode away.

It probably wasn’t a very big town back in 1971, but still we erased everything but three buildings and a palm tree. And this little ruin that didn’t get mentioned.

Dong Hoi is a nice place. It has some of the charm of Hanoi, the French colonial capital of the north, though in a minimal way. Like Thailand, most everything here was built in the last twenty years, and with black mold helping the somewhat French architecture, it looks older. Most of the people are very friendly and it’s even more affordable than Thailand, if such a thing were possible. Here are some pictures from the roof of my hotel. To think they built all this in just the last twenty or thirty years.

 

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An Unearned Gift


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I’m flying direct from Chiang Mai to Dong Hoi, Vietnam. This is remarkable. I had imagined this trip and even written it into a book I was writing, only I thought I would have to travel overland to Ubon Ratchatanni, then mosey through Laos and the Vietnam highlands, finally arriving at the China sea coast of North Vietnam. The roads on the map looked less than promising. The trip might have easily taken five days. Now, for the same price as flying to Ubon, I’m flying all the way to the coast, to Dong Hoi, a city I’ve never heard of. Sure seems to me like Fate and maybe even Fortune are working in my favor.

I’ve been to Vietnam three times already, but this time I wanted to see the relatively unpopulated parts of the country, for Hanoi and Saigon are mega-cities. If you’ve ever visited an Asian mega city, you might understand why I don’t want to return. Asians have accustomed themselves to chaotic traffic and what we in the west would call “dangerous overcrowding.” But I wanted to see this part of Vietnam’s north, where our bombing missions were most aggressive. Apparently there is unexploded ordinance all over the place. This was the area where Curtis LeMay vowed to “bomb them back into the stone age.” We did that so successfully in North Korea that even in the golden years of his retirement he hankered for a repeat performance.

When the pilots of bombing missions asked what was the target, they were told “anything that moves.” We also dumped plenty of napalm and agent orange on anything we deemed “The Ho Chine Min Trail” which was an area of amorphous proportions. It was a trail as long as Vietnam, a considerable distance, and then it snaked through the forested mountains of Laos. Poor Laos suffered more bombing than even Vietnam. We dropped what amounted to a B-52 plane load of bombs on that country every eight minutes for ten years. For most of that time they didn’t have a military to decimate. Again, the targets  were “anything that moved.” Water buffalo, farmers, children carrying water.

Dong Hoi was bombed so heavily in 1971 that only three buildings and a palm tree remained. Today it’s a city of 160,000 residents, a tiny hamlet by Indochinese standards is best known as the jumping off point to a marvelous national park with a system of caves that attracts spelunkers from all over the world.

As I write this we’re flying over thickly forested land. Below I saw a big river which may or may not have been the Mekong. There are no cities in sight. We’ve been flying for about fifty minutes, which means we might have already crossed into Laos. Both Laos and Vietnam are very thin at this point, and we’ll land within thirty minutes.

Without a map of GPS, it makes me wonder about the courage of all the people who came this way before me. How did they think it might be reasonable to set off without any guarantees and still assume they could wind up at their imagined destination? How did Magellan circumnavigate the globe? What audacity! He simply set sail and reckoned he’d figure it out along the way.

I take for granted that things will work out on this trip. I assume my ATM card will work in Dong Hoi, that my cellphone will tell me the name of the hotel I booked on Agoda.com, that the cab driver will not overcharge me as he takes me fro the airport to this hotel, on the beach, where rooms rent for twelve dollars a night!

But I have no backup. I am, however, supported by a vast web of effort and expertise by others that I assume will work in my favor. I am well aware that this very evening of black men from Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia will climb aboard rafts in the hope of being taken to Europe, where no one will welcome their arrival. They don’t have ATM cards. There’s a good chance some of them will drown or be abandoned by the people who took their life savings to provide passage.

The person enjoying entitlement is usually unaware of its existence. Pretty girls are used to the attention of men. Doors open for them, seemingly automatically. White men with passports and visas aren’t as afraid of traveling as are impoverished boat people when they cast their fate to the winds.

Grace is another name for an unearned gift. I’m writing this on a machine that cost me $400 two years ago. Today a similar machine can be bought for half the price. To do the research and development to create such a machine from scratch would cost an incalculable sum. We are all riding on the shoulders of others.

By the way, I forgot to write down on a piece of paper the hotel which I had booked on Agoda, and forgot that my phone would not work here in a different country. So I let the cab driver take me another hotel, which turns out to be around the corner from the hotel I had already booked. I mis-remembered the details of that Agoda transaction, and it turns out that I paid in advance. So tonight I’m paying for two places at once.  Oh well.

We impulsive vagabonds can’t do everything perfectly all the time, can we?