Only 30 Minutes From Home


It gets stunning. The Samoeng Road is basically a continuation of a highway that runs East-West about a mile south of me. In twenty minutes I’m in the mountains, in thirty I’m up high where the air is cooler, fresher, and the views are stunning. This is the end of the wet season, so everything is as green as it’s gonna get.

If anybody in the area wants me to show you where this is and you have a scooter, let’s ride!


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Eight Days in Vietnam


I just came back from eight days in Vietnam. Like all vacations, I spent more money than I thought I would, even though prices were comparable to those in Thailand, where I live.

What amazed me is how happy a lot of the people seemed to be. The Vietnamese spent an entire generation fighting for the freedom to choose their own form of government, a battle which they eventually won, and now they are justifiably proud of themselves. But they’re also very poor. A lot of people seem unemployed.

The people who approached us on the street to try to sell us something or other weren’t fooling around. In Thailand, nobody seems especially driven or hungry. Here they do.

Vietnamese men and women of my age remember the war years, but most of the people you see on the street are much, much younger. They probably don’t think of the war as anymore than a story told in school or by their grandparents. The dead were buried long ago. True, certain parts of the countryside are still pockmarked with bomb craters and in some remote places landmines and unexploded ordnance are a problem, but essentially the Vietnamese people have moved on. When we arrived at the airport in Saigon we ate at Burger King.

People still ride around on bicycles and wear those canonical hats. Old women wear what look like pajamas in clashing colored patterns. They carry heavy loads on bamboo pole with two baskets or buckets at either end.

At the war museum in Saigon, I saw a video in which they had assembled a group of four pilots, two Vietnamese and two Americans. The interviewer asked the Vietnamese pilots if they had been at a disadvantage. “Yes,” they agreed, “the Americans had much better equipment and there were many more of them. But we were fighting for our country.”

“We were fighting for our country, too.” said one of the American pilots. He looked sad and tired and not terribly happy to be there.

In my present circumstance, it was all I could do not to guffaw out loud. Here I had just come from the museum’s Agent Orange room, where they had plenty of photographs of horribly deformed Vietnamese children on display. They had captured U.S tanks, helicopters, artillery, bombs and planes on display in the museum’s courtyard. Right after I paid my admission charge, a man who had lost his forearms and one eye introduced himself and sold me a book about the little girl who had been photographed running naked down the road, crying after napalm had burned all her clothes off and scarred her for life.

But the guy probably really believed he was defending America, in some way that I find hard to understand from this vantage point. The air force pilot’s comment reminded me of the time I saw the documentary film “Hearts and Minds,” which came to our theater in my Missouri college town. The week before I had been to that same theater to see “Fantasia,” the Disney cartoon that had just been re-released. We were all stoned and agreed that Walt must have been high when he made that film. Our student deferments had allowed us not to fly to Southeast Asia and kill or be killed.

But this week, to watch the documentary about what was going on as far away as one could get from Missouri and still be on the planet, we were stone cold sober. The movie was about as depressing as any you could hope to see. They showed G.I.’s cavorting happily with Saigon prostitutes. We saw Vietnamese families scrambling to hide in tunnels to protect themselves from air raids. In a scene I’ll never forget, a Vietnamese man was showing the camera where his family had been the moment the bomb hit their house. Only he had survived. His wife had been there, his oldest daughter there, and his youngest daughter here, where the kitchen used to be, washing the dishes. Oh look, here’s a scrap of her dress. This was my daughter’s dress! Why don’t you show this to Nixon and tell him about my daughter? Choked by grief, he stared dumbly at the fabric.

Then they cut to a funeral of a Vietnamese soldier where the man’s wife tried to climb on top of his funeral pyre and immolate herself.

They then cut to General William Westmoreland, who laconically informed viewers with a twinkle in his eye “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” A gasp went up from the audience. It was as if somebody had kicked all of us in the gut at the same time.

The problem with evil, is that it often simply resembles stupidity. But there is a difference between a lack of information or intelligence and policies and the actions that kill millions of people. Three million died in Vietnam. Millions died in Korea after we napalmed whole cities and blew up dams, guaranteeing starvation. These things just didn’t happen by accident, or from bad information. They came about through deliberate effort, through the plans and actions of real people.

When the little girl was napalmed and then photographed running down the road, the Press was quick to point out that we hadn’t napalmed her, but the South Vietnamese army had. With napalm and planes we had given them. Now when Saudi Arabia uses white phosphorous on Yemeni civilians, or Israel on the residents of Gaza, we gave it to them. Does that lesson our culpability? Wasn’t me, it was that guy over there.




In 1859 a solar storm, a geomagnetic event, sent a gale of charged particles through the vacuum of outer space and towards Earth. This storm was so powerful that it knocked out the only form of telecommunication that existed at the time, the telegraph. Such powerful storms occur on average once every five hundred years. If such a storm were to happen today, it would knock out the Internet, GPS, and most forms of broadcasting.


The last time this happened, the world was a simpler place. People ate food that grew nearby. Financial markets were not highly leveraged. Nobody expected to be able to deal with the kind of complexity we rely upon today.


If GPS goes, so will air and ship travel. Tropical fruits could no longer be part of a North American or European diet. Where would we get coffee or chocolate? Tourism will vanish for a while.


So will international banking and most trade. If the Internet goes, people will keep trying to log on to find out what’s going on. The organizations and systems the Internet replaced would have to be resurrected. That would take some time. During this period of crisis, it would not be unusual for other, bigger crisis to emerge. A Perfect Storm of problems, which could combine to amplify the sum effect and result in real catastrophe. 


When famine occurs, it doesn’t take as long as you might assume to lose a lot of people. It’s a matter of weeks until the tipping point is reached. And then bodies start piling up, usually on street corners, left there during the night. We don’t have much experience of this in the West, but in the East they’ve had plenty.


One would have to be foolish to think that such an event will never occur. Of course it’s not a case of “if” but “when.” So what are we doing to prepare for this day?


In a simpler era, amateur radio operators offered some form of mass communications during emergencies, but if this happens, I think we’re going to be looking at mayhem. Most of us no longer own a radio, much less a short wave radio. I used to be able to send and receive morse code, but that was a long time ago, and today my telegraph key lies moldering in some Midwestern antique store.


I do, however, still remember the morse code for SOS.


What A Day



What a day this has turned out to be!  We had to go to Hua Hin, about an hour up the coast, to take a plane back to Chiang Mai. Our plan was to take a mini-van, because they leave every hour and are air-conditioned.


Last night and again this morning, bombs went off in Hua Hin, killing one person and injuring several. The mini-bus people said Hua Hin was shut down, and they were not allowed to send busses there. We walked to the train station and they sold us tickets for a 3 pm train, but had no information whether it would arrive or not. The airline had heard nothing about the bombings, and as far as they were concerned, everything was running on schedule.


By now I had run out of money and had to find an ATM for my bank. Leaving Wipa at the restaurant, I walked for a half an hour until I found at ATM. On the way, I passed a little Thai man who motioned for me to come to him. He was standing inside a garage, in the shadows. I had seen him before when we walked from the hotel, and had asked Wipa what he wanted. He had been motioning to me then, as well, making circular motions with his hands over his stomach.


It turns out that he was telling me that I have a pot belly, and that he had the cure for it, an herbal compound that he would sell me for one dollar a bag. I had just that amount of money on me so I gave it to him and he gave me a little plastic bag of black things, about the size and color of currants. He said they were “strawberry,” and that I should take one in the morning and one at night.


After visiting the ATM I walked back to the restaurant and told Wipa about the man and the herbs. She shared the story with all the women at the restaurant and they all started laughing. They were aware of this man, they said he was crazy and that I would be crazy to eat these herbs. As there is a hill full of maybe ten thousand monkeys nearby, maybe it was monkey shit. I still wanted to try the herbal pills, if that’s what they were, but the lady in charge of the restaurant threw the bag in the garbage without first consulting me. There were two five-year old boys nearby and Wipa pointed to them saying “even children know not to eat things given to them by a crazy man!” The children laughed loudly, even though I’m not sure they knew what they were laughing about.


The train arrived, we got to Hua Hin in a short hour, and since I had never been there before, thought to avoid the taxi drivers at the train station who wanted two hundred baht to take us to the airport, and see some of the city. Turns out I was mistaken yet again, for due to the bombing, the downtown was deserted. Police were stopping cars along the major road, looking for explosives. It Fortunately, I was able to pay a motorcycle taxi twenty baht to find us a tuk tuk, who charged us two hundred baht, a fee I discovered was universal when applied to the airport, whether you journeyed ten meters or ten kilometers to get there.


As I write this, we are waiting in the departure lounge of an airport that sees one flight per day to one place, Chiang Mai, which happens to be where we live. The TV is playing a bunch of monks chanting, which at first I thought was doo-wop music from America. Never a dull moment here in Thailand.

Do What You Want, Have Fun



The things that are worth caring about and striving for don’t have to do with fads or whatever happens to be the current topic of conversation. Those constructs are largely illusory anyway. Most of the buzz on the street is no more than traffic noise.


George Orwell defined journalism as “writing something that somebody doesn’t want to see printed. All the rest is public relations.” Most of the messages we see are advertising, calls to shop. If we don’t want to fill our time with shopping, we’ll have to find something else with which to occupy ourselves. As you can see, I’ve gone to great lengths not to end that last sentence with a conjunction.


I enjoy writing both because I think I’m pretty good at it, and because I think I have something to say. Many people find writing a tedious activity and have little to say. I’m always happy when these people don’t write. After years of reading English Composition essays at the college level, I think there is no more tortuous activity that reading a commenting on the writing of someone who didn’t want to write in the first place.


One of the biggest disservices schooling provides is to demand that people learn to do things for which they have even less aptitude than interest. Even if they do manage to struggle through some required course work, they will never have any fun doing so, nor will anyone else enjoy the outcome. It will be purgatory on Earth, hoping for a payoff in the Great Beyond. This is folly, a transparent hoax, a confidence game to justify the existence of schools.


People should do things they enjoy, and in doing so they might please both themselves and others. Why this simple concept has eluded us for the last couple of centuries is a real mystery. The notion of mandatory public schooling probably comes from Northern European capitalism and the desire to train a compliant workforce.





Sometimes I wonder if my attraction to Facebook and my habitual Internet news sites is voyeurism. Why else would I be so attracted to the superficial aspects of other people’s lives? Why else would I care so much about photography, and spend so much money and time to take pictures of people I don’t know or care about?


It’s not healthy. Not good for me or anybody else. It’s normal for early adolescents to be easily hoodwinked by an over-concern for appearance, but it’s tragic to see it in adults. At sixty-six I think I finally merit that classification, even though I often seem to have the mental makeup of a fourteen-year-old.


What is the difference between me sneering at Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention and an old lady peering through her curtains and judging her neighbors? Do I really care if the Clinton Foundation is corrupt? What does any of it have to do with me, anyway?


Now the news has become a 24 hour entertainment venue. I can watch it and think that by being an informed citizen I’m doing something productive, but I know that’s not really the case. If my use of the Internet and social media were to encourage and support others who were actually trying to do something productive, it would be a non-pathological use of these media, but all this gawking and rubbernecking in front of my laptop is getting me down. Guess I have to find a life that’s not about consuming and sharing images.


In this part of Chiang Mai, for some reason the power goes out often. Sometimes I can imagine an explanation for why it has failed, and other times, I simply shrug and look at the overhead wiring, a rat’s nest of weathered cables. Now that the rainy season is finally here it has cooled off a bit, so a temporary lack of air conditioning is no longer life-threatening, but it’s annoying to suddenly be deprived of the Internet. My computer freaks out. You’d think it was a Chromebook instead of a real laptop, but nowadays there’s little difference. Windows 10 is alarmed that it can’t verify my log-in, even though I never asked to have to log-in to begin with.


In fact, I never asked for Windows 10 to begin with. They sort of bullied me into it by warning me that the systems I had paid for and use in the past were no longer available. I used to think Google was the good guy, but now I think all these browsers and email providers are insufferable, trying to upload every image I capture or word I write, in case I might want to “share” it later with my “friends” who are obviously voyeurs like me. What they really want to do is become my storage provider, and eventually charge me for that service. I hate them.


Yes, I spend far too much of my time online, yes I do suffer from withdrawal pains if I am offline for more than half a day, yes, I care far too much about the reactions of my “friends” to my innumerable posts which are often simply cries for attention. Help, I’m on the other side of the world, living as an economic refugee in a country where no one speaks English. Sometimes when I’m out on my motor scooter I come across an elephant walking down the road. How’s that for noteworthy and unusual? Better take a picture and share it with someone who might think it unusual and even better, might envy me for having such an interesting life.


It’s all so horribly junior-high. Am I popular with my classmates? Mix that adolescent anxiety with the bucket-list concept for those heading to the last round up. As death approaches, I have a duty to myself and others to consume peak experiences that can be photographed, videoed and succinctly described in a caption that would not bore or confuse. If I fail to tick off the boxes on my bucket list, then I will end my days as a confirmed loser.


How do we escape this superficiality? By having a set of core beliefs that resist the ebb and flow of fads, the manipulations of advertising, the trends promoted by magazines (the whores of advertising), and the rigorous and soul-deadening edicts of the Establishment, whoever they might be at the moment.


When I was in high school during the Vietnam war, I would watch John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, making fun of hippies and war protesters. I knew these men were not on my side. If push came to shove, they would be on top and I would be on the bottom. I vowed then and there to have nothing to do with them, the armed forces, ROTC, the Republican Party, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and any of his minions, the names of whom: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kissinger…still make me queasy to this day