Maybe I’m getting homesick, but after four countries in one year…


In the last fourteen months, I’ve moved to Thailand, Myanmar, Dubai and Paraguay. One thing all these “emerging democracies” have in common is that important and expensive services are all delivered by the state. And there is no tradition or enduring concept of individual rights apart from those granted by the state. There is precious little private enterprise and competition for the customer. When you apply for Internet service in one of these countries, you find yourself standing in line at a state agency, where the employees know they have job security whether you enjoy their ministrations or not.  So whether it’s Paraguay or Dubai, the employees of this thinly-disguised state agency (thanks to a snazzy business name and logo  pretending to be private enterprise) take their time, joking, making small talk, playing with their phones, ignoring the customers, suggesting they stand in the wrong line, then laughing at the error and sending them to stand in another and laughing some more. I’m sure this is what it was like in the former Soviet Union. And, if all else fails, the rulers of your little socialist backwater can always blame the United States or NAFTA, or like North Korea, blame the United States for everything bad that has or could ever happen to your people.

Lousy customer service comes in different flavors, of course, and this version is merely the communist/socialist way of avoiding the accountability inherent in real capitalism. But the feeling of free enterprise´s lack is unmistakable. It’s the way it used to feel going to the post office in the States, before the Internet, FedEx and UPS roused themm  from their stupor and made thehungry for business. It’s the way it still feels to get your driver’s license renewed. Whenever a monopoly exists, the vibe is the same. They’ve got a job and you’ve got a problem.

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Already Lost the Race, Might As Well Smell the Flowers


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

When we let our instincts exceed their normal reach, we cause suffering for ourselves and those around us. Everybody knows that. Just knowing it doesn’t seem to do much about regulating the effects of instincts in collision. If knowledge were the key, we wouldn’t need courts, police or prisons.

Why do celebrities who kill their girlfriends think they can get away with it by simply lying? I guess they look at the historical record and conclude that the odds are in their favor. It worked for OJ and it will probably work for Pistorius as well. Here in Thailand, the son a former Thai Miss Universe recently got off with time served for deliberately driving his car into and killing people in a bus stop, after he had argued with a bus driver. His doctor had advised the court that he is bipolar, and therefore not responsible for his actions when he gets really, really angry. His family had paid blood money to the families of the victims, and everyone seemed to think that justice had been served by letting him walk after spending less than a month in confinement. He was, after all, the son of a recognized celebrity.

Every other person I know back in the states has the bi-polar diagnosis.  It’s the new rage, supplanting the old “depression” diagnosis that now seems so eighties. Having never wanted to kill anyone, even a girlfriend who displeased me, I am at a loss to explain why these men seem to lack remorse, or even the spine to admit when they’ve been wrong, but I do know that in most parts of the world there are varying standards of culpability depending on social status and access to expert legal opinion.  If I ever get in legal trouble, and the chances are slim I will now that I rarely do anything even mildly illegal, I will spend all I can on a lawyer. And I will take the advice that I read from an expert who offered his advice freely in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and never say anything to the police unless forced to. Never make a casual remark to an officer who is interrogating you. He is not your friend. He can and will use anything you say against you if he feels like it. You gain nothing by trying to be his buddy. Despite his insinuations to the contrary, he will not go easier on you if you assume the buddy role. Call a lawyer and then relax until he arrives. Follow his advice. He’ll be worth every penny you have to pay him.

Sometimes I think prison might not be that bad for someone who longs for an excuse to finally relax and concentrate.  All this running around seeking diversion has some serious downside. Maybe being locked in a cell for most of the day would prove a fine tonic for mental concentration. I wonder if they’d let me have my keyboard?

I have been learning Handel minuets for keyboard. These are simple yet hauntingly beautiful pieces that don’t get as much play as the pieces Bach wrote for the little Bachs.  Elementary, yes, but each one-page piece takes me a week to master, and then an additional week to memorize. There are many children age six and seven on Youtube who already perform these works more fluidly than I can ever hope to. But that’s OK, it’s not a contest. In fact, one of the ways I try to encourage myself to keep practicing is to murmur “You’re already lost the contest.” As I turn sixty-three, I realize there is no hope I will become a child prodigy.

For much of my life, I have been waiting for that day when I would finally be able to relax and appreciate what I already have. Unfortunately, if the past is any predictor of the future, it doesn’t look like that day is going to arrive soon. I may find myself disgruntled and in a hurry on the last day of my life. Several items on my imaginary to-do list may not receive their imaginary check-offs. Instead, I may find myself hurtling down that dark tunnel, toward the increasingly bright light muttering “darn, I had that two-for one coupon at Hardees and I never got to use it”

Hard to Be Here Now No Matter Where You Are


BEWARE OF ENTERTAINMENT

The expectation or demand that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so.  Just yesterday, I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay people in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of  cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.

When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual.  Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.

Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.  You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.

Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss.  We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many of our young people hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.

When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.”  The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one.  Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.

Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage.  Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.

But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted.  Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!

I enjoy a good movie as much as the next guy, but I only go to the cinema maybe once a month. My cell phone is the cheapest one available, and the cost of operating here in Thailand is absurdly cheap, about three dollars a month.  I make or receive about one call per day. Compared to most people, I spend more time in content creation, and because I don’t speak Thai and am much older than the target audience, there’s nothing for me to watch on Thai TV.

I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up.  As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.