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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.

 

 

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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.

Time to Get Serious


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All  this laughing  through tears isn’t going to get our grandchildren a better world in which to live. Some serious bad stuff is going down and somebody somewhere is going to have to take a stand to stop it.

The first step involves naming. It’s not just Fox News or CNN, it’s corporate lying. It’s not just quirky candidates, it’s pathological narcissism and limitless greed. Rather that a little deal, it’s a big mess, and the costs to clean it up will prove staggering.

Serious people used to be valued, at least in certain positions. Now everybody has to be entertaining first and then maybe capable of taking action when conditions are right, but you can’t blame them too harshly because doing the right thing can sometimes be a tough call. In general, there’s a general feeling of impotence and hopelessness that has trickled down from top to bottom. Facts don’t matter as much as beliefs. Judge me on my intentions, not my actions. Cut me some slack!

It’s amazing what some people were able to accomplish back before foolishness and whimsy became a way of life for most public figures. Now everybody’s a comedian and nothing good seems to be coming down the pike. I’d like to believe that we haven’t all turned into characters from a Seth Rogan comedy, but maybe I’m fooling myself.Maybe we really are all self-absorbed dimwits and will get exactly what we deserve.

 

Eight Days in Vietnam


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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.

What A Day


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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


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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.