STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND


sin and salvation white folks

Living so far away from where I was born and raised,  I find it liberating that nothing here reminds me of my past.  This is all new.  I am not haunted by old associations. Nobody reminds me of somebody I don’t like.

Recently,  on Facebook I posted a picture of the Lawrence Welk TV show and commented that this brought back a lot of bad memories of those Vietnam war years.  Love it Or Leave It. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart on Johnny Carson trashing war resisters. Self-satisfied St. Louis squares who thought their comfort meant they were doing something right.

Someone retorted that she remembered those years as a happy, peaceful time.  Who knows, maybe she still lives in Omaha or Sioux Falls and her idea of an adventure is going on a cruise.  Maybe her favorite TV show was Love Boat. Actually, I just checked her profile and she looks like a vibrant, interesting person. So much for sweeping generalizations.

At least for this grouch, nostalgia is never comforting. The distant past gives me the willies. Makes it hard to breathe. How about them Hawkeyes?  Mizzourah! Please!

I’m never homesick.  When I think of Iowa, I think of fat people watching college sports of television. OK, I know sometimes they get out of the BarcaLounger and waddle down the aisles of the local Wal-Mart. That’s a simple-minded image, but it does a good job of keeping homesickness at bay.

I don’t think I’ll live long enough for Thailand to become overly familiar. So even though everything here doesn’t knock me out all the time, it doesn’t really matter.

WHY SHOULD I GO IF I CAN JUST VIEW THE PICTURES ON THE NET?


siem rep

machu-picchu-wider-view

Ever since I moved to Indochina, I’ve been conflicted about visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It’s the largest ruin in the region, the Machu Picchu of Southeast Asia.  And of course, being Cambodia’s touristic cash cow, it’s full of beggars, pick pockets, con men and women and one could easily let this ruin the experience.

I can easily see what’s there by simply searching on Google images.  These pictures were taken by people with expensive cameras.  Why risk mine by taking it there?

I’ll probably go for the same reason I went to Machu Picchu.  Because eventually if I ever leave this area, I’d kick myself if I didn’t.

A LIFE OF LEISURE


ThailandFarang2 ThailandFarang26

LUSH LIFE

The longer I avoid employment, the more absurd the notion seems.  I’m not talking about embracing indolence, but rejecting working for others. If time is a gift, and in increasing short supply, why would I want to want to squander even a second of it for the illusion of security? Surely there are a myriad of opportunities for self-employment that could fill any legitimate economic need I might have.

Retirement is not always easy on some folks. Forty or fifty years off showing up for school or work conditions a body for that sort of thing, and without it many find themselves lost. How many movies can you watch a day?

When discipline finally comes from within, you learn the real meaning of freedom.  When it doesn’t, you learn the true depths of bondage.  Too much free time can kill you, or at least humiliate you while you go about dying from causes you can’t control.

Here’s an audio version of this little essay

IF YOU THINK THINGS ARE MESSED UP WHERE YOU ARE….


YEMEN

Things are so bad in Yemen now that some are seeking refuge in Somalia. You know things are bad when you show up as a refugee in that poster-child of failed states, Somalia.

The Saudis are bombing Yemen and the U.S. is reserving comment. We’ve been warning U.S. Citizens to avoid the place for years, and those who are there to leave, but now there are quite a few U.S. citizens who are complaining that they’ve been abandoned my their country.

Just a side note: The Saudis have long outlawed Valentines day, saying it violates Muslim ethics, and Kenya, which neighbors Somalia, is the biggest supplier of roses in the world. So Kenya makes a lot of money shipping contraband roses to Saudi Arabia for Valentines Day, and the Saudis are now bombing their neighbor, Yemen. It’s the Valentines Day massacre in reverse.

I’ve never been to Yemen, but I drove around Oman a lot, and the two countries seem to share the same scary, rugged desert. The only thing we have close in our country lie in some parts of Nevada and Utah.

yemen bridge

The Middle East and the Horn of Africa are separated only by a slip of water, the Gulf of Aden.

yemen map

REPORT FROM THAILAND


songkran-water-festival-1

We went to the movies last week at the nearby shopping mall.  I have never seen anyone Thai or foreign at the movies here who is even remotely my age.  Hardly anyone over the age of 25 can be found in one of these places.  The lobbies of the movie theaters thump with the music of nearby video game arcades.

There were ten theaters.  Eight of them were showing Fast and Furious 7, and the other two children’s cartoons.  She said she liked action movies and wanted to see Fast and Furious, a genre to which I had yet to become accustomed, but as I had even less desire to see the Sponge Bob movie dubbed in Thai, I consented.  The moment we sat down, she promptly fell asleep and I watched the movie alone.

Probably like it’s six previous incarnations, FF7 was an A-Team episode elongated.  Those I used to watch with my four-year-old son Caleb on our little black and white TV, but here I was thirty-one years later, watching a much louder version on a big screen, with my sleeping Thai girlfriend at my side.  This is the kind of movie where plot complications are solved by pressing a red flashing button marked “TURBO.” There were many gratuitous and sentimental pronouncements about the importance of family interspersed with explosions and gunfire.  I imagine this mindless American export is doing big business all over the world, whereas I’m just another old guy living on social security, so who am I to judge a world that increasingly has no meaning for me?

Today is the beginning of Songkran, the Thai new year.  Here they love holidays, and the government declares new ones all the time in order to buy votes.  This is the hottest time of the year, and the tradition is to stand on the side of the street and dump ice water on anyone who dares to venture by, especially those on bicycle or scooter.  It’s sort of cute for the first few minutes, but then you realize this lasts for five more days, and nobody ever seems to tire of it.  For the next five days, this will continue unabated. Again, it has little to do with me, for I’m just another senior citizen on a bicycle, ducking buckets of ice water thrown in my face by grinning youngsters.  I would have to strain to take any of this personally.

SO YOU’VE MOVED TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. NOW WHAT?


the-outlook-is-bleak-for-unemployed-boomers

 

ThailandFarang2

 

It used to take more get up and go to move across the planet, but ever since jet travel it’s been pretty painless.  Now there’s no major discincentive to discourage the indolent from finding their way to places where they can simply hang out the way teenagers hang out at the mall. Old guys don’t stare at their phones as often as teenagers do, but like their younger counterparts, the expression on their faces is usually a mask of boredom.

If you didn’t have any ambition where you came from, you’re not going to suddenly catch on fire in a new place. The challenge of learning a new language, of developing a hobby or mastering a musical instrument doesn’t appeal to everyone.  In fact, most people are content to watch paint dry as long as they’re not actively in distress.  If you classify girl-watching as a profession, then you’ll find a myriad of tropical countries where that could become a full-time job. The fact is, most of us get what we’re looking for.  If all you want is the absence of something you don’t want, then you’ll end up the proud owner of nothing much.

I know guys here who fill their days by watching sports from the United States on satellite TV. They have to set an alarm to see their favorite games, because they often air at four in the morning. I could see doing that every once in a while, but as a major time-filler it lacks depth.

I write, but as anyone who has followed the ups and downs of the publishing industry lately, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to publish or pay for my writing. Content is free, nowadays. If someone at a cocktail party asks me what I do, I can always say I’m a writer, but that lacks the cachet it once had. If my unfortunate cocktail party companion further inquired have I had anything published, I could nod gravely, without adding that it was thirty years ago. Yes, I once showed promise. So what am I working on now? Hmm, a memoir. The Life and Times of Yours Truly. Soon to be a major motion picture, starring Montgomery Clift as James Dean, and me as Hedda Hopper.

If anyone asks me what I’m doing in Southeast Asia, I can pretend to be a spy, or a professional do-gooder of some kind. I work for an NGO. You’ve never heard of it. We help rescue retirees with dementia from an uncertain fate. But no one asks. There are no cocktail parties. Just fat old men leering at Asian women.

pattaya-thailand

And then there’s me, typing away on my laptop, thinking I’m special.

 

 

 

 

JUST FOR TODAY


PINKY LEE

I was watching television that day in 1955 when Pinky Lee had his heart attack.  Our Admiral set was in the “sun room” and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of it.  Pinky Lee was one of my favorite shows, and I liked his crazy, energetic dancing and rapid patter.  He was dancing around singing

“Yoo hoo, it’s me,My name is Pinky Lee.

I skip and run with lots of fun

For every he and she.

It’s plain to see

That you can tell it’s me

With my checkered hat

And my checkered coat,

The funny giggle in my throat

And my silly dance

Like a billy goat…”

when suddenly he staggered, looked directly into the camera and said “Please, somebody help me!” and then keeled over. The cameras dutifully followed his descent, then held on his writhing, prostrate form to see if it was a gag. It was not. Then they panned to the audience, a bunch of kids and their moms, who were cheering and laughing because someone off-camera was urging them to do so.  Then they cut to a commercial.

I had my heart attack fifty-nine years later.  I was living in Chiang Mai. Thailand, and unlike Pinky, had not been dancing.  I had been checking my email when it felt like someone grabbed my esophagus and started squeezing.  The pain was sharp and growing.  I had read that in circumstances like this you should eat an aspirin, so I found one and gobbled it down. The pain did not subside.  Feeling like I was probably making too big a deal out of small thing, I nevertheless grabbed my wallet and passport and walking downstairs to the front desk, calmly asked the guesthouse owner to drive me to the Emergency Room. He did, and this probably saved my life.

Four days in Intensive Care and three stent operations later, I was sent home to recuperate.  During this time, the Thai military staged a coup, and all TV channels left the air, to be replaced by one showing the top military brass sitting at a table, looking uneasy on camera while one man speaking in Thai reassured the public that everything was under control. He later nominated himself prime minister and is still in charge.  Anyone who disagrees with him in invited to come in for an attitude adjustment.  Some of those people are still having their attitudes adjusted.

Since I don’t speak Thai very well and on that show there was no singing or dancing, and I felt too weak to watch TV anyway, I spent most of the next week lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying to process this sudden and unexpected turn of events.  I did manage to be grateful for air-conditioning as it was the hottest time of year, but as I had just arrived in town and had few friends or visitors, I had plenty of time to wonder how badly I wanted to live anyway. Theoretically I did, but since I wasn’t sure what was in store for me, I wasn’t quite sold on the value of longevity.

Now it is ten months later and even though I haven’t set the world on fire, I feel reasonably content.  I lost a lot of my savings paying my hospital bill, but I’m lucky it happened here, where medical costs are a tenth of what they are in the States.  In a couple of months I’ll be 65 and will be covered by Medicare, so I can fly across the world if I choose to visit a hospital again.  From what I’ve seen of them, I think I will pass on that opportunity unless I can see an obvious benefit.

Today, I swim and bicycle regularly and have lost about 25 pounds. My cholesterol level and blood pressure are easily managed by inexpensive medicines.  I take a baby aspirin a day to prevent a future heart attack.

If I stop and think about it, I’ve never had it so good. There is cause for hope and nothing to be afraid of, except death itself, which is inevitable.

This inevitability of death thing is so enormous that nobody talks about most of the time because there’s really nothing to say. The ship is sinking.  No doubt about it.  We’re all going to end up in the drink eventually, and the only variable is when.  How we fall into the water doesn’t matter so much. Yes, the ship is doomed and the Captain may already have left in a lifeboat, disguised as a woman. No matter, we all have just today.

here’s a link to an audio version of this essay