Whistling in the Dark


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Arrogance can be cute in children but appears decidedly less so in adults. Presumption borne of inexperience is understandable. There are situations when humans are operating in the dark and forced to simply make stuff up in order to cope. These situations may be more common than we would care to admit.

The thirteen Thai boys who were trapped in the cave sat in the dark for over a week until suddenly, and from their perspective, unexpectedly an Englishman in a scuba outfit surfaced, shone a flashlight into their faces and asked “is everyone all right?” They assured him they were all OK. He said “Help is on the way” and went back where he came from.

Naturally the boys talked among themselves, and hatched a plan. The first boy they would send out would be the strongest of the group. He would be best able to quickly ride his bicycle from the cave entrance to his parent’s house and assure them they were OK. Little did these boys know that as each arrived to safety he would be conveyed by a personal helicopter to a hospital, assigned a personal physician, and that hundreds of millions of people in different parts of the world were watching the progress of their rescue with baited breath. They had no prior experience or current information to make them think their plan for the strongest boy to pedal home was not a sound one.

Another example of trying to make plans with limited data.

In the mid-1960’s, anthropologists discovered that people living on remote Pacific Islands had built replicas of radar towers, airplanes and army barracks out of bamboo. They were hoping these would once again attract “cargo.” The oldest members of their community remembered that over twenty years earlier, their peaceful island had suddenly swarmed with United States Army soldiers who built landing strips, barracks and then airplanes arrived with cargo. The islanders’ lives were changed in an instant. The army and all that equipment stayed for a while, then when the war ended they quickly packed up and hurriedly left. A few things were inadvertently left behind, and these things became sacred objects, deciphered only by priests. The chief of their tribe would don a pair of headphones that had been rescued from the burn pile in order to hear spirit voices tell when Cargo would return. He chanted “Roger Wilco” into a bamboo replica of a microphone. Young people begged their elders to recant once again the stories of that glorious time, when their island was awash in cargo, when chewing gum and snickers bars flowed like water.

We like to think we’re more sophisticated than either of these groups for we know what’s up. We’ve identified the causative factors at work in our lives, that we’re in control of our algorithms and hence our destiny. But there’s a good chance that we’re just little boys whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. If we enjoy good fortune, we like to take credit for it. If not, we complain bitterly and try to blame the persons or forces we imagine have robbed us of our happy birthright.

dancoffeypostdotcom

12764456_10154018288953993_5512391176604870963_oArrogance can be cute in children but appears decidedly less so in adults. Presumption born of inexperience is understandable. There are situations when humans are operating in the dark and forced to simply make stuff up in order to cope. These situations may be more common than we would care to admit.

The thirteen Thai boys who were trapped in the cave sat in the dark for over a week until suddenly, and from their perspective, unexpectedly an Englishman in a scuba outfit surfaced, shone a flashlight into their faces and asked “is everyone all right?” They assured him they were all OK. He said “Help is on the way” and went back where he came from.

Naturally the boys talked among themselves, and hatched a plan. The first boy they would send out would be the strongest of the group. He would be best able to quickly ride his…

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Getting Better As Well As Older


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OK, so last month I celebrated my sixty-eight birthday. I admit, I never thought I’d last this long. I figured by now I’d be drooling in a nursing home or dead. Instead I’m swimming regularly and tooling around on a big motorcycle.

I feel younger and more vital than I did thirty years ago. Go figure. But I still have to do something with myself, and in order to feel like I’m not just a drain on society, sucking air, I have to get better at something. I have to apply myself.

When I was a kid, we lived in St. Louis, the home of Monsanto. Along with Dow Chemical they are reviled for their work in toxic chemistry. In New York, General Electric was once a major employer, but now they occupy a shell of their former glory. Their slogan was “Progress is our most important product.”

Kodak was once a powerhouse and today they barely exist.

Now thanks to their ham-fisted marketing of Roundup Ready GMO seeds, Monsanto has fallen into such bad repute that the brand name no longer exists. They’ve been swallowed by Bayer, a German company best known for aspirin.

No one can accuse me of having progress as my most important product.

So I’m doing two things: I’m learning baroque piano pieces and I’m learning Thai. That’s not much compared to working for a living, but it’s something. I”m not sitting in a recliner watching television. Even though the blogs and books I write are seen by only a few people and generate no income, I write anyway.

What’s the alternative? If I were to completely retire from the world I’ve known, I guess I could become a Buddhist monk. There are hundreds of temples all around me, and the biggest ones accept foreigners into meditation retreats. That might not be fun, but it would be different.

I’ve given up a lot already. I’ve stopped recreational shopping, I no longer apply for jobs I don’t want, and I’m comfortable hanging out at home for far longer periods than I was for most of my adult life. Heck, I can sometimes concentrate on an activity for a full hour!

No bells ring to mark the beginning or end of my activities, I take no cigarette breaks, at the end of the day I have no visible gain or result to account for my time. I piddle. That’s it. I’m a piddler.

 

retirecheaply

OK, so last month I celebrated my sixty-eight birthday. I admit, I never thought I’d last this long. I figured by now I’d be drooling a nursing home or dead. Instead I’m swimming regularly and tooling around on a big motorcycle.

I feel younger and more vital than I did thirty years ago. Go figure. But I still have to do something with myself, and in order to feel like I’m not just a drain on society, sucking air, I have to get better at something. I have to apply myself.

When I was a kid, we lived in St. Louis, the home of Monsanto. Along with Dow Chemical they are reviled for their work in toxic chemistry. In New York, General Electric was once a major employer, but now they occupy a shell of their former glory. Their slogan was “Progress is our most important product.”

Kodak was once…

View original post 255 more words

Nowhere to Go and Nothing to Do


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We didn’t hear or see any explosions. Our first clue was when the Internet went down. A few minutes later we noticed no cell phone service. There was no reason to panic, it might have been a storm. When we checked the TV, some stations were still on the air. They were playing movies and game shows. But no news.

They say that people ninety miles from the big cities could hear the booms. People in Rockford, Illinois could hear the bombs explode in Chicago. They were deep. prolonged booms, but not terribly loud at that distance. Those who had been looking in that direction saw flashes, but not everybody was looking that way. Most people were indoors.

It turns out that it wasn’t a big attack, like the one we had all learned to expect from Russia. Only four cities were targeted. LA, New York, Chicago and Washington. Only a few bombs per city. No one knew who was behind it, or whether President Trump was still alive. Many people hoped he wasn’t.

It took a week before regular radio and television broadcasting resumed. Light entertainment predominated. News was a somber affair. White men wearing jacket and tie intoned facts and figures like funeral directors. There was still no report on the status of the President, nor most members of government. By now, cellphone service had resumed in many places, but not all. The Internet was still down.

At night, bands of orange light flickered overhead like the northern lights. There was a smell like burning wires. It became very hot for about a week, then smoke filled the sky and the temperature plummeted. Even though it was mid-summer, we had to wear jackets during the day. The plants that had survived the hot spell, soon withered and died in the cold gloom. Farmers threw in the towel.

We who lived in rural America paid the price for having let our towns decline. Now there was no getting away to the city. Gas prices went up by a factor of twenty, and there were road blocks on most major highways, so there was no where to go and nothing to do in town.

Those towns big enough to have a Wal Mart didn’t suffer much for the first month, but after that the shelves had been picked clean. Since everything Wal-Mart sells was made in China anyway, and because the prices of those items had doubled during the trade war, people were already used to getting by with less. Now they were going to have to get even more resourceful.

The hunger came on more quickly than anyone realized. After only six weeks there were food shortages. After eight weeks, people were starting to die. At first it was the young, old, and infirm who succumbed, but after three months, mornings found bodies stacked during the night on almost every street corner.

Nobody was ever certain who had attacked us, and why. The theory most people accepted was that it had started with a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, and then somehow had spread to Israel, Iran, North Korea, and finally to us. Since no missiles had been fired at us, it was thought that the bombs had already been in place, on the ground, waiting to be detonated at a later date. But as to who put them there or pressed the trigger, no one knew for certain.

After a year, things started to get better. It turns out that almost no on in Washington survived. Leaders from others states were brought in. There was a lot of talk of retaliation, but nothing was ever done because we didn’t know who to invade or bomb. You can’t just bomb everyone. We’ve tried that in the past, and it doesn’t work. Or maybe it gets you where we are today.

Lock-Down


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You’ll have to stay put until something can be established. As long as no one is certain what’s going on, or can reasonably describe what happened, we’re going into lock-down mode. All exits will be sealed until further notice.

People don’t just turn into liquid and flow down the street. Babies don’t spontaneously combust. Sure, unusual things can happen, but then the burden of proof is greater. No one is going to believe you were taken up to Heaven, met Jesus, and then came back down to Earth to tell us all about it. At least they won’t believe it unless you can start showing some miraculous proof.

Miraculous proof is all that we require. Oh, and promotion. Nothing matters without proper promotion. In a better world the important and true would rise to the top, but not here. On this miserable rock bathed in a veil of tears, if it hasn’t gone viral, it simply hasn’t gone anywhere.

What you witnessed may or may not have happened. You might be deluded. Many deluded people aren’t aware of their condition. Look at our President. Just because you fervently believe in something doesn’t mean it exists. Artistic types make stuff up all the time. Some are quite convincing, but everything they invent is conjured up out of thin air.

These are not necessarily bad people who invent things that don’t actually exist. They might be benevolent, caring, imaginative, and supportive of creativity in others. They might also be pathological liars. We who are inclined of give the benefit of doubt are potential victims of this latter group.

And so for the time being we must seal or borders. We must suspect that everyone has a malevolent purpose. Their intentions are to do us harm. “What would Jesus do?” you ask. He would do what we are doing. He would hunker down.

“But” you protest “the Jesus I met in Heaven after I had been swept up to kneel at his feet would embrace even the most snarky of us.” Maybe. But we are not Jesus.

We are simply your neighbors who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. We did not cause this calamity, but we are trying to minimize the negative outcomes. Maybe there won’t be any. Indeed, we could be making a mountain out of a molehill. But someone did testify that he saw another person liquefy and that other person has not been seen since. There is a noticeable smell in the air, like burnt toast, except it smells a bit like burnt rubber and burnt toast. There is also a dog that won’t stop barking, but no one has been able to find the dog. So we are confused and anxious. We will batten down the hatches until the storm has passed.

DOWN THE DRAIN


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What happens, happens. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we’re in control, but we’re not. Not even close. Things will work out the way they’re going to. We could assume, the way they’re supposed to, but that implies there’s somebody else in charge who knows what’s best.

Recent evidence suggests that’s probably not the case.

The catastrophic and sudden collapse of our government took everyone by surprise, even those who hastened its demise. Trump never expected to win, and when he did, it shocked everyone, even Trump. Well, that shock was nothing compared to the sudden realization that we had lost every bit of democracy and benevolent rule we once enjoyed. Thugs were now fully in charge, and they seemed to enjoy their thuggery.

It was like watching Clockwork Orange, only it was real, and instead of England, it was America. Now there were no longer simple hints of anti-intellectualism, but a full-blown assault on intelligence and reasoning. Truth was an outdated concept. There was only belief and submission to the state. What Mussolini had hinted at, Trump had accomplished.

People had to pretend to be stupid in order to escape being targeted. Suddenly we became a nation of good old boys, Stepford Wives, grinning hayseeds. Rumors of lynchings spread, but none were reported by Fox News. The official face of America, at least the one you could see on TV, looked like the Mormons were in charge. You simply couldn’t be too white.

Homosexuals, intellectuals, people of color, and immigrants all kept their heads down. Better to blend in than to attract attention. Maybe this was just a phase we were going through. Maybe this would soon blow over. Somebody pointed out that’s how the rich Jews felt when they didn’t abandon their homes in Poland, Belgium and France. When they didn’t get out while the going was good.

The startling fact was that no one was making this happen. This wasn’t a conspiracy, a plot by the Deep State, this was simply mob rule. The Madness of Crowds. When 330,000,000 people decide to swerve, it’s a change with momentum behind it. Maybe unstoppable momentum.

The fact that the friendly neighborhood policeman had been replaced by a hormone-hopped hulk dressed in camouflage and body armor hadn’t really caused alarm until now. Now there were unmarked buses with blacked out windows moving about, taking somebody somewhere. Rumors spread that the FEMA camps were filling.

Popular entertainment and broadcast journalism simply ignored the phenomena. Movies starring superheros continued to be made and distributed. Sometimes that’s all you could find at your local cinema. Nobody complained, at least not out loud. Studios and cinema owners were happy because audiences kept coming. Not just teenagers, even adults thronged to view empty spectacle.

The last symphony orchestras and dance companies folded quickly and quietly. Universities shut down programs that didn’t attract grant funding. Since most jobs had already been sent abroad, there wasn’t much for most young people to do. Almost half of the people under thirty were in drug treatment or prison.

And this was just the beginning.

It got worse.

It wasn’t just America that was in crisis. Europe was roiling with social unrest. Huge numbers of immigrants were no longer even the least bit welcome in their host countries, and yet they had nowhere to go. You can’t very well send someone back to Kenya or Nigeria who spent his life savings traveling across Niger and Libya to board a rubber raft to take his chances crossing the Mediterranean to get to Sicily and then up to France where he hoped to hop across the English channel and take his seat on a cardboard box next to the homeless in London. You can’t simply send them home. There are too many of them, and besides, they’d just return.

All of a sudden, any progress mankind seemed to have made or have been making disappeared. We were heading down, straight down, swirling down some sort of cosmic drain, and the process seemed to be accelerating. Some people offered solutions, but nothing stuck. Some people claimed to know who was at fault, but a strange lethargy took over, and no meaningful actions were taken.

Then the plague started. It moved with lightening speed, killing half the population of China in a week. India and Africa were next. No one was certain how many had died, because the scope and scale were unheard of. The first peaceful use of nuclear weapons was to incinerate huge mounds of bodies. Burial was unthinkable. Disposal at sea unacceptable.

With so many dead, the support structures of these countries collapsed as well, leading to waves of subsequent deaths to to famine and cholera. All borders were closed. Air travel ceased.

For some reason, only the United States and Western Europe seemed to have been spared, but then their turn came. Fatality rates of eighty percent. Much higher than Ebola.

By now the rich and powerful had long ago disappeared into hidden bunkers. Since they were hiding they weren’t communicating with anyone, so no one was sure they had survived.

Someone who still managed to reach an audience compared the collapse of civilization to a motor that had been allowed to fall into disrepair. At first it wobbled, groaned, screeched, and finally ground to a halt. No amount of kicking or prodding got it running again.

The collapse of the power grid, food distribution, water treatment, and transportation continued. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

Capitalism still functioned to provide for people who could pay for goods and services, even though the prices were sky high and selection severely limited.

By now, the only restaurants were owned a a conglomerate of Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Bayer, Pepsico, and Nestle. Their favorite locations were the food courts of shopping malls, where they could have ten or fifteen various outlets with different names and themes, but all basically serving the same food under different labels.

Most of it was pizza or bread of some kind holding a meat of dubious origin. The drinks were artificially sweetened and mildly radioactive. Each featured several large-screen televisions which also served as surveillance cameras.

Finally, Donald Trump surfaced. He or someone resembling him appeared on the only television channel still working, Fox and Friends. He blamed Obama and Hillary Clinton for what had happened, and claimed that if people had only trusted and respected him, we would by now have been enjoying the great future he had planned for us.

Then the picture went dark and food court patrons who had been watching continued to stare at the dark screen for a very long time because they had no where else to go.

These Foolish Things


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Martin Luther wrote this to a friend in 1530: “Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.”

 

As a boy on New Year’s Eve 1912, nine year-old Louis Armstrong snuck into his mother’s bedroom and borrowed a pistol from the pocket of one of her customers. His mother was a prostitute, his father had abandoned the family, and they lived in a rooming house in the Red Light district. Armstrong fired the gun at midnight to celebrate the New Year, but lucky for all of us a policeman happened to be standing nearby and arrested young Louis. A judge sent him to the Colored Waif’s Home. On the way there the driver said “Don’t look so sad, son. This is a good place. We have a band. What instrument would you like to play?” Armstrong’s eyes brightened. “The drums!” he said. “Well, we’ve already got plenty of drummers, but we need someone to play the bugle when we raise and lower the flag. You think that might interest you?”

 

Within a few years Louis Armstrong was playing trumpet in New Orleans brothels He was in the right place at the right time for it was there and then that Jazz pretty much took shape. He is certainly the person most responsible for its popularity across the globe. Bing Crosby, who was the most popular singer of the day said that he thought Armstrong was the best singer alive.

 

Billie Holiday sang like Armstrong played the trumpet. Jimi Hendrix said he wanted to play the guitar the way Little Richard used his voice.

 

In 1955 in New Orleans, Little Richard pretty much single-handedly invented Rock and Roll in much the same kind of way Armstrong had forty years earlier. His first big hit was a sanitized version of a dirty song he had been singing for years to entertain the kind of people he hung out with, prostitutes, drug dealers, and petty criminals.

 

Until he sang at a high school talent show, nobody at Hume High noticed Elvis. Before his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the Hillbilly Cat had been driving a truck. Elvis told interviewers that his singing idol was Dean Martin. Dino had obviously modeled much of his style on the crooning of Bing.

 

The real mystery is where did Bing come from?

 

Bing was not born in a brothel in New Orleans, but to an Irish working class family in Spokane, Washington. He was well-educated and briefly attended law school before deciding to drop out and become a musician. He played the drums pretty well, but his crooning and his intelligent use of the newly developed microphone was what set his apart from his peers.

 

Within a few months of arriving in Los Angeles he was the talk of the town. He easily transitioned from microphone to motion picture camera, and led the way for Sinatra and Presley to do the same. Even though modern day listeners think of him as a square, Bing thought of himself as a proto-hipster.

 

In retrospect, all these developments seem unlikely. Culture and new ideas leap in unpredictable spasms.Until Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, Bing Crosby’s Christmas album was the highest selling album in history. Quincy Jones produced Thriller and it turns out he and Ray Charles had been roommates in Seattle, after the blind pianist arrived after getting as far away from Florida as he could by Greyhound Bus.

 

Decca records rejected the Beatles, deciding they had little to offer. George Martin proved otherwise. Aretha Franklin really took off artistically when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records understood and appreciated the real depth of her talent. Otis Redding was working as a chauffeur when he wrote and recorded “Respect.”  Two years later Aretha had the mega hit, but Otis did it proud, as well. Marvin Gaye was a session drummer at Motown in Detroit when one day he filled in for an absent singer.

 

There’s a line in the Bible, “God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”  Even if you don’t believe in God or the Bible, you’ve got to admit that the delightful surprises Fate unleashes as it twists and writhes its way through Space and Time give us cause for hope. Nobody has any idea of what’s really going on. We might as well expect to be pleasantly surprised.

 

GEEZER TRAVEL


HOW TO ROAM THE PLANET LIKE A TEENAGER WHEN YOU’RE A GEEZER ABROAD

I started wandering whenever possible right after I found out there was no law prohibiting it. I got my first passport when I was eighteen, and visited my first foreign country, Russia. The year was 1968. I celebrated by birthday in Leningrad, and our tour group went to the theater to watch a production of Swan Lake. The sun didn’t set that night, it just hid itself behind some buildings at eleven and rose again two hours later.

I was hooked on travel. Money spent on travel beat money spent buying things. Cars, houses, boats…you can keep ’em. They require maintenance, steadily depreciate, and are forms of bondage disguised as assets. People even borrow money to buy them! Go figure.

I started going to Mexico first. You could drive there. From Missouri it took twenty-four hours, but that didn’t seem like too much for my roommates and I from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song, we drove to Juarez and stayed at the Hotel Diamante for two dollars a night, split three ways. A beer cost eight cents. Mystery meat tacos grilled on the street cost the same. I was further hooked.

I made twenty more trips to Mexico until I found you could fly pretty cheaply to other places if you planned ahead. So I went to Ireland, England and France, back when the cost of doing so wasn’t prohibitive. A hotel room in the left bank of Paris was a cheap as a Motel Six in Columbia, Missouri, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

I never gave much thought to making money for most of my life because practical matters left me cold. I graduated from a prestigious graduate school with a degree in Playwriting. There seemed no obvious path to monetizing this diploma, so I moved to San Francisco with five friends and we acted in a comedy troupe. Again, the dollars just flew by but not into our pockets.

Life happened. When I had three kids with another on the way I moved back to the Midwest to see if I could score a teaching job. A few temporary appointments came my way, but nothing that spelled tenure. My kids grew older and so did I.

When I was about sixty I saw the handwriting on the wall, and it said “take action or be doomed to a life as a charity case.” So I widened by travel scope. I went to Argentina about fifteen times, Nicaragua twelve, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. All excellent places, but then I discovered Thailand, where I now live.

I’ve been lucky, and I know it. Some people have been luckier and some not so much. I have a cousin who is a billionaire. He recently endowed a building at his alma mater’s business college. When he spoke to the students at the grand opening, he advised them to not bother to learn a foreign language, as it was his experience that the international language of business is English.

His sister told me this. It gave me pause. I imagine he was speaking the absolute truth from his experience. When he travels on business, someone meets him at the airport holding a sign with his name on it. He is taken to the convention center/hotel where the staff all speaks English. No matter where he goes, in his world everybody who’s anybody speaks English.

My experience has been the exact opposite of my cousin’s. Nobody I meet in my travels speaks English, because I only go to places off the beaten path in emerging economies that haven’t quite emerged yet.

My cousin is my age, and I hope to compare experiences with him before we both make that last journey to the great beyond.

One benefit I have enjoyed was learning Russian, Spanish and Thai. I suppose if that had been my main goal I could have achieved it far more directly and economically than enduring bus rides where my fellow passengers held life poultry, the bus room being reserved for luggage and hog-tied pigs.
WHY THAILAND?

It’s cheap, it’s interesting, and they have Thai massage. The people are sweet. I like the food better than the rice and beans with a smattering of chicken or pork they eat in most of Latin America.

Heck, you gotta settle down someplace. Not choosing is also a choice, and an expensive one. So I chose Chiang Mai, Thailand, and so far I have no regrets. When I get really old I might choose a mountain village somewhere, but hopefully in a place where I don’t have to learn yet another language.