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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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MOVING DAY


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We’re moving today and tomorrow.  Today we pack up the few things we have in our pied a terre in Santitham, place them under the seat of my two motor scooters and scoot off to the new house, about five miles southeast of here. It’s in a neighborhood called “Snail Pond” which is historically prone to flooding. I’m not so much afraid of floods as I am of mosquitoes, now that Zika virus has been reported in Chiang Mai.

 

But it rained hard last night and is dripping even as I type this. With little in the way of infrastructure, when it floods in Thailand, it really floods. Our convenient room in the big city cost us 4,200 baht per month, about $120 U.S. dollars. No worry about floods there, for it’s on a fifth floor of a building new and clean. The room was small, with a balcony and a great view, but otherwise it was sort of soul-less and even though the air-conditioning was top notch, it was not place I wanted to hang out. Our rented house half an hour north in Mae Rim was a meager structure as well, but situated near the mountains. I could be riding in endless greenery in a matter of minutes. It cost 4,000 baht a month, which is about $110 dollars. Our new house promises to be quite luxurious and large, and will cost almost exactly what we were spending for the other two places. So it’s a lateral move cost-wise but probably a step up in long-term comfort. I’m hoping I will become less restless living there, and spend more productive time reading and writing in my office. Yes, I’ll have an office of my very own. 

 

I can’t believe I’m moving again. Every move I’ve made in the last ten years has surprised me, for I thought the move before was to be my last. I certainly drag much less with me now than I did ten years ago, when I fancied myself an antiques dealer with an auction shopping compulsion. On this new move I will have to buy a refrigerator, TV, electric stove, a few used tables and chairs, and I’m convinced these will be the last appliances and pieces of furniture I will ever need to buy. One of these moves I’m going to prove myself right about that.

 

It will be good to live in only one place. Every time I’ve tried to have a city house and a country house, it has brought me little in the way of peace of mind. Where did I leave those reading glasses? Here, hotel rooms are very affordable.

 

I no longer have any items in storage back in America. Most of what I now own could fit in the trunk and back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle, the same state of affairs I enjoyed back in 1975, when I moved everything I owned from Iowa City to Los Angeles. I was convinced it would only be a matter of a few weeks before I “made it.” My talent was such that I was certain to “be discovered.” I drank a lot back then, and smoked a lot of dope.

 

Now I no longer expect anything from my moves except having to learn a new neighborhood. Where is the closest coffee shop with wi-fi? At night in my new home, which way to the bathroom? Where are the light switches?

 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the Christian concept that we are all just pilgrims, passing through. The Buddhists here in Thailand are big on this concept, too. Everything is change. Here, they burn your body at the nearest temple. If you can afford it, they set off fireworks while they’re burning you, probably to scare you on your journey. “Don’t stick around, you’re dead, be off!” Boom!

 

The Road Ungraveled


I like being spontaneous, and acting without forethought. Plans bore me. So after a delightful afternoon drive through the mountains to Somoeng, a town an hour and a half from Mae Rim, I thought, “what the heck, let’s continue onward to Pai. There’s a back road that I hear is mostly passable, and we can probably be halfway there before dark.”

We hadn’t packed, not even a toothbrush, and I didn’t have a map with me, but since everything had gone so well already. Bidding “so long” to our traveling companions who returned to Chiang Mai, we set off on the back road to Pai. We left about an hour and a half before sunset. I imagined a cute little guesthouse on the way, a good meal, hitting the hay early and driving the remaining two or three hours the next morning.

At first the road was excellent. Then it turned to cobbled cement blocks, but then became excellent again. I was already imagining describing the road in the blog I would write. “Mostly nothing to be afraid of. Don’t know why nobody goes this way.” We were up high enough for pine trees. Crimson light lit them and the peaks of the eastern range. How beautiful! But night was falling, and we were in a hurry and in no mood for scenery. Then darkness fell, the stars came out, and it got cold. Very cold. Since I hadn’t known I was leaving on this trip, I hadn’t packed any warm clothes. My pants were the sheerest cotton, my shoes, flip flops.

At about the time the last glow faded behind the ridge of mountains to the west, the road turned to dirt. Not just dirt, but deeply rutted dirt, with gullies big enough to swallow the motor scooter. All I could see illuminated by my headlight were these never-ending furrows that reminded me of those images sent from the Martian probes. There was no traffic to speak of, either behind us or oncoming. Every once in a while we would pass a hovel with some people sitting around a fire in front of it, but then those stopped appearing as well. The stars were so beautiful, the night was so clear, and we were so…cold.

The only extra clothing I had in the box beneath the seat was an orange plastic raincoat. I stopped and put it on. The pants I was wearing were also orange, Thai fisherman pants, made for hot weather, so I must have looked like a fluorescent orange traffic cone as we motored along. We were now making scant progress, maybe an average speed of 8 miles per hour. We saw a sign saying the next city was in forty miles. Surely the good road would come back. Surely a town would come in sight.

Truth is, I was getting scared. The colder I got, the stiffer I got, and my arms and legs were uncovered. At each new gully I had to stop to plan an approach, for I could not afford to slide and fall. So then, of course, I did.

The dust proved as cold as the air. Wipa was unhurt, I scratched my knee, the motor scooter was still running, so I switched it off. It got very quiet. The stars above grew insanely bright, mocking us. Then after a minute or so we saw headlights, as a truck lumbered around the corner in front of us. Fortunately, the driver saw us and stopped.

He was a young man, and pulled the scooter off me, then had to help me stand, as I was too stiff to easily do so on my own. He asked Wipa if I was a monk. I guess in his headlights, my orange outfit looked like monks robes. She said I wasn’t. Then he asked me if I were drunk. No, I replied I’m just old. And tired.

He left, wishing us “good luck,” which is what people here say a lot. After they opened up a new underpass in the road from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai even the highway department used its new electronic sign to wish drivers good luck in the new year. To my Western ears, having a government agency in charge of public safety wish you “good luck” seems odd, but here they put a lot of stock in karma, which is why there is no drivers education to speak of, and Thailand enjoys one of the highest rates of traffic mortality in the world. They put great stock in luck.

I wish I could say that there was a cute little guesthouse just a mile or so down the road, but no, about an hour later we came to a settlement of about twenty houses, and I stopped at the biggest one. I presented my case. If you don’t help me we will die. Turns out he was the town mayor, and he arranged for us to rent a room used for migrant workers a few yards away. It was unheated, and the blankets thin, but we slept that night knowing we weren’t going to die. In the morning I heard a pig grunting under the floor, and baby chicks peeping as they ran about. I laughed as I threw open the shutters.

The next morning everything had a luminous quality. We were still alive! The motor scooter wasn’t even damaged! Just dusty! There was a coffee shop in town. Like George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I saw everyone as beautiful, charming, clever. Thanking them too profusely, we drove off in the morning light to continue another three hours to Pai. By the time we arrived I was warm enough so my teeth were no longer chattering.

road less graveled

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here is a link to a sound recording of the author reading this piece.

BOMBS AWAY!


hiding from bombs

I live in Thailand, a country with bombings going on, especially along the border with Malaysia. I suppose living in a country with bombings doesn’t make me unique, because bombings are going on in lots of places in the world, even America, though not routinely. Nobody knows who planted the bomb at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok a month ago. We do know who’s dropping the bombs on Syria, and who did the same to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was us. We still don’t really know who brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, but as time passes it becomes more and more apparent that it wasn’t our allies the Saudis under the direction of Osama bin Laden.

We’re looking at a long-term and maybe never-ending worldwide War On Terror, and maybe half the world’s population is affected by this war on a daily basis. That’s no small thing. There have been wars before, but they seemed more defined, with beginnings and ends, but this war is so amorphous and chronic that most people don’t seem to notice we’re even at war. Has it always been this way?

When I was a child I grew up terrorized by the Soviet Nuclear Threat. Such a threat had pre-dated by arrival on the planet, for I was born in 1950 and the Korean War was a direct result of our fears about the Soviets and their recently acquired H-bomb. General MacArthur was all for using nuclear weapons in Korea. Later, in Viet Nam we seriously considered their use in Laos on the Ho Chi Minh trail, but realized it would be largely ineffective because the terrain was no thinly populated. All we would have managed to do is contaminate a large portion of the country in order to kill a few thousand people.

But when I was a child and couldn’t get to sleep at night, I imagined scenarios of Red Chinese soldiers interrogating me about my belief in Jesus. Would I have the nerve to confess my allegiance to Christ under torture? Our neighbors had a fallout shelter in their backyard. Why didn’t we?

The most heavily bombed place on the planet is poor Laos. We conducted a bombing raid on that small, undeveloped country every eight minutes for eight years. They had the misfortune of being next door to Viet Nam, a country we also bombed, though not as extensively. We also dumped agent orange on large parts of that country, and there are still thousands of people suffering the after-effects of being doused with dioxin.

Here’s an interactive graph of our bombing of Laos.

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