Digging the Present Moment


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The trick is to learn to value this moment and not waste a second comparing it to another, completely hypothetical, “better” moment.  All this lusting after peak experiences is the source of much chronic sorrow. It’s like a low-grade fever. You’re not actually sick or in pain, but you don’t feel that hot, either.

 

We don’t need to wait for permission, certification, the box from Amazon to arrive, someone to value us, the day we win a contest, for an unexpected bonus to jog us from our torpor. This is it! It already arrived. It’s here right now. Come and get it!

 

 

 

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Then and Now


Image     THE MIDWEST THEN, THAILAND NOW

 

Chiang Mai reminds me of the Midwestern college towns I lived in back in the late sixties and seventies. Back then, I was a student living in a student ghetto.  Here I am a foreigner, a retired expat, living in a tourist ghetto with my peers.

 

Just as before, my days are filled with selfishness and seeking after pleasure.  My only responsibilities are to myself.  Back then I debated cutting class or bothering to go. Should I change my major?  Today I wonder where will eat.  Which of the many massage parlors will I grace with my presence today?   In the spring of 1970, student riots spread across our country, mostly in reaction to the Viet Nam War.  For some, it was merely an excuse to flaunt authority and get a first taste of tear gas. The president of the University of Missouri announced that groups of three or more people were not permitted on campus, and that a curfew would be enforced by campus police.

 

Two days ago, in the spring of 2014, the Thai military staged a coup d’etat, arrested all the political leaders of all parties, deployed soldiers to enforce a strict curfew, and declared groups of five or more to be subject to arrest. All television broadcasting ceased, save for the army channel, which featured a graphic reading “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council,” with patriotic music in the background.  This display was punctuated at unexpected intervals by a short clip of a Thai army general reading a pronouncement along the lines of “The constitution has been suspended,” or “all internet communication is being closely monitored.”

 

Back in our Midwestern college town we celebrated the fact that we could now forego attending class with the best excuse of all, there was no class.  Final exams were cancelled.  Some universities gave everyone a grade and course credit anyway, others declared the whole spring semester as washout.   Here in Thailand, the number of tourists dwindled steadily over the months of unrest, and has now hit a new low.  When I arrived at the airport in Bangkok two weeks ago, it was strangely empty.  Usually I have to wait up to an hour to get through immigration, but in this case, there was no one ahead of me in line. This is turning into the lowest low season ever, and businesses that cater to tourism are hurting mightily.

 

Except for the four dead in Ohio and a few academic buildings burned down, the student unrest of 1970 left little permanent damage. At least in this country, many of the changes ended up being beneficial. Confidence in government and authority took a nosedive, but that might not have been such a bad thing. Aside from a few hillbilly college presidents blaming outside agitators for the student riots, most Americans learned something beneficial from the experience.   I don’t know what’s going to happen here in Thailand. Will anybody learn anything new, or is this just a replay of the 18 other coups that have happened in recent memory?

 

In 1970 I carried a draft card and was required to display it on demand by any officer of the law.  On a spring break trip to Juarez, Mexico, we were stopped by the highway patrol of every state between Missouri and Texas and obliged to show our draft cards. Sometimes we were frisked and our car searched by police looking for marijuana. At that time, at least in Texas, a possible penalty for possession was death. Fortunately, we didn’t have any.   A few years later, I was happy to learn that Nixon was forced to resign mid-term, and the year I graduated from Iowa, the North Vietnamese finally won the war they had been fighting first with the French and then with America.

 

My graduate assistantship had been to program entertainment for the student coffeehouse on campus, but when I approved a Viet Nam Victory rally sponsored by a legitimate student group,  the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, my employers at the Student Union bowed to public outrage and fired me.   Here, nothing has happened to make me feel like I am really part of the problem or the solution. Foreigners here are simply walking wallets. These political troubles concern only Thais. The man who runs my guesthouse is apologetic and slightly embarrassed that the television and Internet no longer function, but there’s nothing either of us can do about it. It’s a fact of nature, like the intense heat we’re now enduring, or the monsoon rains that are sure to come any day now.

My First Coup


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My First Coup d’etat

 

The military declared martial law a couple of days ago, but nobody thought too seriously of that.  Happens all the time here in Thaiiland. Sure, there was a modest show of force with a few tanks and trucks full of soldiers appearing at prominent intersections, but the soldiers seemed content to merely watch girls walk by. No shouting, no arrests. I found myself laughing at the concern expressed in the international press and from friends e-mails asking if everything was OK. This is a Buddhist country, and people place great importance on maintaining their cool.

 

On the other hand, Thais bring the same passion to politics that they bring to sporting events.

 

Thais love uniforms. Boy Scout uniforms, nurses uniforms, school uniforms, even uniforms at the University level.  They enjoy being a member of a big group where everyone dresses alike. But such conformity allows for other passions that simmer beneath the surface and which seem unfavorable for dispassionate discourse and compromise, the processes that make democracy work. So there’s doesn’t work very well, but they all seem to enjoy the many rally’s they get to go to, with endless speeches and colored banner waving.

 

Last night, while I was watching TV, a BBC show explaining the ramifications of martial law in Thailand, the screen suddenly went dark.  I flipped to other channels, and they were all dark, as well. Then a banner appeared on some channels, a statement written in Thai and then in English, The National Peace and Order Maintaining Council.  Military music played, which here sounds like operettas from the 1930’s. Every once a while the graphic would be replaced by a medium long-shot of an officer reading something. Then back to the graphic and the patriotic tunes.

 

Turns out there has been a coup d’etat.  The military is now in control of everything.  TV and radio, Internet. Freedom of speech and the Constitution suspended. There is a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. No groups of larger than 5 persons can meet. The leaders of various political parties have been arrested.

 

Wow, I’m suddenly living in a Graham Greene novel. I wanted to see what it was like on the streets and stock up on food and drink in case I would find myself trapped in my room for a while. A lot of people were milling about, all giddy with excitement.  People were buying things impulsively, crazy things, liked donuts.  I bought a 2 liter of Coke and some yogurt.  What does one buy for a coup d’etat?

 

 

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I have a book of essays for sale on Amazon Kindle


It’s called Pickers on the Loveboat.  I would be delighted to see one purchased.  $5

http://www.amazon.com/Pickers-Love-Boat-Dan-Coffey-ebook/dp/B00J0ZXOFO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1400809011&sr=1-1&keywords=pickers+on+the+love+boat

I would also be willing to refund the book’s cost to you via pay pal if you promise to write a review of the book. It’s hard to sell a book that hasn’t been reviewed.  Let me know.

The Scam That Keeps on Scamming


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Portion of US factory workers who have a college degree:  ¼

Portion of University teaching positions that are led by graduate students or adjunct faculty : ¾

Percentage of college professors teaching online classes who do not believe that students should receive credit for them:  72

 

These three facts tell of a world of trouble with the U.S. higher education, yet nobody dare pull the plug on it, because how else are we going to induce compliance with and bolster confidence in the absurd and completely artificial construct that sells internationally transferrable credit hours and certifications? What if the people who owe the over trillion dollars in student loans suddenly decide they were tricked and have no intention of repaying?

 

Higher education is our gatekeeper to jobs that let you sit in an air-conditioned office and play with your computer. If we let just anybody compete for cushy jobs without first enduring this systemized hazing, why would anyone first endure years of superfluous schooling?

 

To keep the barbarians at the gate, we must all believe in the importance of education. In Iowa, it’s practically the state religion. We might not have much in the way of scenery, but darn it, we have good schools. Or we think we do.

 

If I had to do it all over again, I would have skipped college and gone on to some sort of self-employment, learning valuable skills along the way. Having always harbored an aversion to hard work of any kind, I’m not sure what that might have entailed, but since it’s all moot at this point, I’ll encourage the reader to imagine me with grease on my hands, lying on my back underneath a leaking truck engine. Anyone who actually knows me might have a hard time picturing such a scene. Because, like most of us, I hoped that the university would be my ticket to Easy Street.

 

Fortunately, I didn’t incur debt as I learned to drink coffee mornings in the student union, and beer at night, while developing  an appreciation for the Firesign Theater. So my lost years weren’t really lost, just a sort of prolonged adolescence. Instead of drinking too much beer at night in a blue collar tavern after a hard day in the shop, I drank too much beer in grungy student apartment after a long day of goofing off. I thought reading Kurt Vonnegut was my job, not something one did for leisure and relaxation, after work.

 

But even though I didn’t emerge from six years of higher education any poorer, I did become a certified softie. After graduation, when I travelled in Mexico, people assumed I was a priest. They could tell these hands had never gripped a machete or a hammer.

 

Now that I’m older, I’m often mistaken for a psychiatrist. Again, no one has ever assumed I knew how to fix a car or an air-conditioner, for I wear my artificial sense of entitlement easily.

 

Unlike their South American counterparts, the real upper class in this country has learned to amass most of the wealth by simply playing by the rules. The bank bailout after the 2008 mortgage collapse resulted in this largest heist in recorded history, the greatest transfer of wealth ever recorded. And none of that money is ever going to flow back down to the middle class, at least in our lifetimes.

 

So what advice would I offer my eighteen-year old self if I could go back in time and meet me? Learn a skill that rich people need, and then hang around with rich people until you get some of their money. And remember, most learning is not accomplished in an institutional setting. Anything else is an uphill battle, with the slope getting steadily steeper over time.

 

Why do you think there are so many more plastic surgeons than pediatricians or geriatric specialists? Would you rather be an investment advisor or a Wal-Mart greeter? I don’t know how many Wal-Mart greeters have college diplomas, but I imagine over time the number will equal the percentages of investment advisors on whose office walls hang framed diplomas. 

IS PERSEVERANCE OVERRATED?


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Either you exist or you don’t; either you’re alive or dead.  People who are alive tend to repeat the same behaviors over and over again. If eventually such behaviors result in success, we applaud their“perseverance.”

But isn’t the reward of this label, like the Oscar’s Lifetime Achievement Award, really just a tautology? Even the worst shot will eventually hit the target. Do we really need a special marksmanship award for this? Isn’t all success at long last the result of perseverance, or simply not giving up? Maybe we’d all be better off if certain people had given up sooner and then went on to do something to which they were better suited.

Far more deserving of nurture are those who enjoyed early success and none afterward. Think of the rock stars who became celebrities in their early twenties and were never heard from again. What are they up to right now? Are they sitting in a rooming house lobby or an AA meeting and droning on about the time in the early seventies when they drank or did drugs with this or that celebrity, and slept with this that man’s wife?

These are the men and women who need to be brought back to the limelight before it’s too late. What’s Gloria Gaynor doing right now? Her anthem “I Will Survive” literally changed the lives of tens of thousands of women, and a few homosexual men, as well.

No, I don’t want to even search for her on the Internet. For all I know, she died of an overdose in 2001, or was beaten to death by an angry anti-disco mob in Islamabad last year, but instead of letting the facts invade my solace, I would like to believe that she’s a happy grandmother in good health, living near her family, volunteering to teach music at a nearby orphanage.

OK, so Gloria doesn’t need our help, but what about Gilbert O’Sullivan?  Leo Sayer? The lead singer of Heart, you know the pretty one with the weight problem.  Are they discouraged, resentful, in need of just a fraction of the praise they once so freely received?  Have they found meaning and delight in an entirely unrelated line of work? Usually, former TV actors either go into real estate or become oil painters. Sometimes they do both.

When Mexican TV cowboys Pancho and Cisco saw the handwriting on the fifties television wall, they stepped out of their colorful gaucho clothes and went into real estate, doing quite well. It was hard not to do well in Los Angeles real estate in the decade after the war.

Often, maintaining your original course isn’t a sign of virtue, on the contrary it’s sometimes the result of having no apparent better option. I’ve been steadily if slowly learning to play the piano for more than fifty years. I’m still not very good at it. Is that virtue or vice? Success or failure? Do I deserve admiration or pity, an award or pubic castigation?

Yet someone could easily say that I’ve shown perseverance, and that’s a virtue, right? Obviously we could stretch this argument to its breaking point. John Wayne Gacy displayed remarkable perseverance in killing boys and burying them under his house. Against great odds, he remained undetected for years. Likewise, Hitler and Stalin stayed in power for decades, foiling plots against their lives and at least in Hitler’s case, the near total destruction of his country. Still, he was able to slip away to South America, where he lived to a ripe old age. If anybody  could stick with a problem, it was ‘Dolf.

I suppose perseverance is a subset of constancy, the ability to stay on task or on course no matter what happens. There are some people who get married and stay married for the rest of their lives, immune to temptation or the desire to make a better deal down the line. Others are always second-guessing their initial choice, imagining that they sold themselves short and will do better the next time.

Perseverance seems dramatic and courageous, while constancy sounds like a Victorian virtue for women who are housebound. In a world of wardrobe malfunctions and viral Youtube fame, constancy sounds very tame indeed. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it made a comeback, and if our new heroes will show determination and constancy, against all odds?

Imagine a love song about a woman who can be depended on, rather than about someone who is hot.

“Ooh baby, you’re totally predictable, and I dig it!”

IN ON THE JOKE


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SO BAD IT’S GOOD

An ironic stance gives its subjects feelings of intellectual and even moral superiority. It can feel good to delight in the misfortune of others. In a way, it’s an expression of gratitude that we were spared that humiliation. So when we share and mull lists of the worst album covers ever, or listen to The Shags, or cluck our tongues at Elvis imitators, we are silently whispering “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Most bad art is recognized as such. Much of it in intended for children or the underclass. Most of the fans of professional wrestling are not well-educated. Did anybody over the age of 10 ever think the Monkees were comparable to the Beatles?

Surely art made for children was always a bit obvious the strokes overly broad, the colors too bright, the point belabored in case little Timmy couldn’t catch the meaning.

Pop music, intended for young teens features cloying, repetitive melodies. Likewise, bubble gum is packaged in bright containers and comes in excessively fruity flavors.

But what of bad art that doesn’t know it’s bad? Some people who ought to know better simply can’t get enough of it.

Our fascination with kitsch isn’t just about demarcating a line between bad and better, or infantile and sophisticated, but is an expression of a genuine puzzlement as to why anybody deemed this worth sharing in the first place.

Some artists are merely frauds and poseurs who hope to attain the status of artiste, but then there are loads of perfectly sincere people who simply have no talent at all and this lack of talent and discernment blind them to that fact.

Most of them have no ironic distance on what they are doing. Their tongue is not in their cheek. They are sincerely bad at what they are trying to do, but they do it anyway.

Camp art became popular in the 1960’s about the same time the hippies emerged. It was deliberately created by people who should have known better, as a way of thumbing their noses at the Establishment, and to provide an in-joke in order to amplify the cohesion of their in-group.

Naïve art has always been with us, and is valued for its authenticity and lack of pretension. But now, thanks to the Internet, everyone is searching for the next epic fail, the newest work that is so bad it’s great.

No longer the domain of the over-educated and snobbish, camp is no longer restricted to a certain class. Everybody, even the participants, know that Reality TV shows are meant to be appreciated ironically.

Whole-heartedness and authenticity might be in decline, as Youtube succeeds in minting millions of new painfully self-conscious producers who use irony as a cloak to hide behind.

Elvis and Bing had no ironic distance on what they were doing. They did their best to entertain. And for that they were rewarded with more than a few minutes of fleeting fame. From about 1935 to 1955, every minute of every day Bing Crosby’s voice could be heard somewhere on this planet. Today, there are more than eighty thousand full-time Elvis impersonators working in over a hundred different countries, and every year since his death in 1977, Elvis Presley enterprises makes more money than the year before.

A few actors have worn irony well. Early in his career, Vincent Price was first serious, then by the sixties he became camp. He seemed in on the joke, while the interior decorating pretensions of Liberace or the noveau riche are often seen funny and sad at the same time. We like to look down and laugh at trailer trash.

Some of the hundred hours of videos posted every minute on Youtube go viral, making some people famous overnight. Think Gangnam Style. What is it like to be famous for massive incompetence? How does it feel to laughed at, not with, yet still enjoy celebrity?

What’s it like to be the only one not in on the joke?

When I was a boy, I read Superman comics, and remember clearly the moment I realized I was sophisticated enough to get the whole concept of Bizarro World. In that crude approximation of our reality, values were inverted. Bad was good. “Bizarro Lois, this food tastes terrible!” “Thank you, Bizarro Clark.”

When we share and laugh at bad art, we are asserting our sophistication. Ed Wood movies are incomprehensibly bad. That’s why Tim Burton made the eponymous movie. This century has its own Ed Wood, a guy named Tommy Wiseau, and his deservingly mocked feature The Room. I remember cringing through quite a few Henry Jaglom movies, a seventies/eighties ersatz Woody Allen who seemed to lack a sense of humor.

Seems like today the entire nation of North Korea qualifies as not being in on the joke. You can nudge and wink at Kim Jong Un all you want, but when you’re done he’ll still stand you in front of a firing squad.