A General Lack of Expertise


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Now that anyone with the time and interest can command an audience on social media or via blogs, we are faced with an interesting phenomena. Many people who command large audiences don’t know what they’re talking about. I may well be one of them.

 

When I offer opinions on politics, or engage in ridiculing people I’ve never met, dissing nations I’ve never visited, and continue to spread rumors that I’ve only recently heard or read, I’m probably not making the world a better place. I’m just another noisemaker, a cricket sawing his legs together on a balmy night. But unlike the cricket, I may actually be doing harm by echoing (Facebook calls it “sharing”) the opinions of others.

 

Some things are true and others aren’t. There may be important differences that are too subtle to be made explicit in a catchy headline or alarming photo. Often, the gap between true and false is small enough so it doesn’t matter a whole lot, but at other times it might make all the difference in the world. It might result in nuclear war.

 

So maybe sharing my hastily acquired and sloppily reasoned opinions isn’t really a civic duty at all.

 

What do I really know about Putin or Trump? Israel and Palestine? Iran and Iraq? I met a guy from Syria once. He had me over to his house for tea. Does that make me an expert on Syria?

 

If  this shocking lack of expertise were confined to me, the problem could be quickly dealt with. Delete my Facebook and YouTube accounts. Erase this blog. But it’s not just about me, and in fact, I’m not even a major player. I’m just an retired guy with too much time on his hands and too many prejudices to be able to claim an open mind.

 

There is no gatekeeper anymore. Broadcasting has been supplanted by the Internet, and there’s no process for telling fact from fiction. Walter Cronkite was a newsman. I’m not. He had a staff of fact-checkers. I don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

A CHEERFUL THOUGHT


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In 1859 a solar storm, a geomagnetic event, sent a gale of charged particles through the vacuum of outer space and towards Earth. This storm was so powerful that it knocked out the only form of telecommunication that existed at the time, the telegraph. Such powerful storms occur on average once every five hundred years. If such a storm were to happen today, it would knock out the Internet, GPS, and most forms of broadcasting.

 

The last time this happened, the world was a simpler place. People ate food that grew nearby. Financial markets were not highly leveraged. Nobody expected to be able to deal with the kind of complexity we rely upon today.

 

If GPS goes, so will air and ship travel. Tropical fruits could no longer be part of a North American or European diet. Where would we get coffee or chocolate? Tourism will vanish for a while.

 

So will international banking and most trade. If the Internet goes, people will keep trying to log on to find out what’s going on. The organizations and systems the Internet replaced would have to be resurrected. That would take some time. During this period of crisis, it would not be unusual for other, bigger crisis to emerge. A Perfect Storm of problems, which could combine to amplify the sum effect and result in real catastrophe. 

 

When famine occurs, it doesn’t take as long as you might assume to lose a lot of people. It’s a matter of weeks until the tipping point is reached. And then bodies start piling up, usually on street corners, left there during the night. We don’t have much experience of this in the West, but in the East they’ve had plenty.

 

One would have to be foolish to think that such an event will never occur. Of course it’s not a case of “if” but “when.” So what are we doing to prepare for this day?

 

In a simpler era, amateur radio operators offered some form of mass communications during emergencies, but if this happens, I think we’re going to be looking at mayhem. Most of us no longer own a radio, much less a short wave radio. I used to be able to send and receive morse code, but that was a long time ago, and today my telegraph key lies moldering in some Midwestern antique store.

 

I do, however, still remember the morse code for SOS.

 

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!

 

Waiting for the Right Time


 

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It’s too hot to go outside.  This is not a rare occurrence, for it’s been this way for a couple of months now. And the drought has made everything so ugly that there’s no reason to sight see. I’m stuck indoors in our one air-conditioned room, staring at my laptop. Usually this means that I’m browsing Facebook or YouTube in a hypnotized fashion, but now I’ve snapped out of it. I want to do something constructive.

 

Back as a graduate student in Iowa, when I wrote plays at the rate of one a week, I was at my most productive when the weather was at its worst. With few options, I was trapped in my room in front of my trusty Underwood. There was no internet back then. I didn’t even have a telephone. Had no credit card, ATM’s hadn’t been invented yet…how did I survive?

 

It’s easy to become bound to the circumstances of living and forget my main objectives. I start making excuses and blaming things outside myself for what I’m doing or failing to accomplish. Not this time. Not anymore.

I’m running out of time. Got to do what I’ve got to do now. There may not be many tomorrows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reverie


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For the last couple of years, I have been waking up in the middle of the night.  I used to blame my bladder, but lately that poor inflexible bag isn’t even the culprit. I simply don’t sleep like a kitten anymore. Now I nap fitfully like an old lion, one eye half-open while my snaggle-toothed mouth flaps with my breathing.

 

During these times of nocturnal wakefulness I flip open my laptop. In the place I’m currently living, my landlord turns off the wi-fi from around midnight to dawn, so I’m not able to indulge in my Facebook addiction, the one where I scroll endlessly up the Meme River, looking for something that might interest me long enough to double click. I have come to believe that my landlord is doing me a service by depriving me of the Internet for this interval.

 

Most of the flotsam and jetsam I encounter are political posts,which bore and depress me. I don’t care much about the elections back home. I don’t even care about the lack of elections here in Thailand, which has enjoyed the relative stability of a military dictatorship for the last two years. I like coming across pictures with clever captions, and think that I’m especially good at coming up with them. By simply right-clicking, I can steal any picture I find on the net, then write a clever caption, but without pasting the words over the image, an act I consider inelegant and boorish.

 

Since my chromebook is barely a computer at all without wifi, I am forced to use it only as a typewriter. That can be a good thing. I am suddenly allowed to concentrate on one thing, instead of being teased and tempted by the torrents of online nonsense. Now, alone with the contents of my own head, I am free to pursue a series of thoughts that develop a common theme. I can write an essay!

 

These midnight moments are what has been called “reverie.” The word implies contemplation. It often happens at night, when the rest of the household is asleep.

 

Maybe someday soon it will be illegal to entertain your own thoughts without instantly sharing and mixing them with the thoughts of others. The conspiracy theorist in me can imagine such a future.